Managing anxious thoughts

The thoughts we have are a big influence on how we end up feeling. It is not the situation that we are in that determines how we feel, but rather it is the thoughts, meanings, and interpretations that we set around that situation. 

Just as we are often not conscious of the way we walk or how we drive a car, we are often not aware of our thinking. Some of our thinking is so habitual that it becomes automatic, and because it is automatic we are not always conscious of it. But our brains are constantly thinking. We may not be aware of our thoughts because they happen so fast and we are not used to slowing them down. 

There are three kinds of automatic thoughts

  1. Neutral thoughts: “I think I will buy some milk today”
  2. Positive thoughts: “I am very good at writing poems”
  3. Negative thoughts: “Everyone will laugh me when I make my speech”

Negative automatic thoughts tend to reflect our worries and concerns; however, they can be about anything at all. Negative automatic thoughts are the ones that cause us emotional distress and it is these that can be changed to reduce our anxiety. 

When we are anxious, we tend to see the world as a threatening and dangerous place. This reaction makes sense, because imagining the worst can help us to prepare for real danger, enabling us to protect ourselves. 

For example:

You are home alone and asleep in your bed. You are woken up because you hear a weird banging sound coming from the kitchen. If you believe the noise is from a burglar, you will become very anxious and prepare yourself to run out of the house without being seen, or to fight them off, or to run to the phone and call emergency services. 

Although the response is helpful if there was actually an intruder in the house, it is not so helpful if your thought was wrong. For example, it might be the wind batting against the kitchen window. In this case, your thoughts were not facts because there was no real danger. 

The problem with thinking and acting as if there is danger when there is no real danger is that you feel unnecessarily anxious. Therefore, one effective strategy to manage your anxiety is to challenge your thinking and build on increasing realistic thinking skills. 

Thinking errors that lead to anxiety

Catastrophizing: blowing an event out of proportion to the point of becoming anxious about it (E.g. believing that if you fail a test, you will not graduate from university, never get a job, and become poor). 

Jumping to conclusions: Making a judgement without any supporting information to back up the claim. For example: believing that your work colleague doesn’t like you without any evidence”. 

Personalisation: When a person interprets an external event to be linked to them when there is no real link. For example: If a supermarket customer service person is rude to you and you believe that you must have done or said something to cause it, when they may be just having a bad day. 

Mental Filter: When a person only pays attention to certain information and ignores information that contradicts it. For example, paying attention to the only negative/constructive feedback given about a speech made in class when the rest of the comments were positive. 

Overgeneralization: Thinking that one situation dictates all the rest. For example: Believing that if one music concert event went badly then all of them will. 

Black and White thinking (also known as all or nothing thinking): Categorising things into one of two extremes. For example: believing that people are either excellent at university or terrible, while failing to see that there is a large grey-area in the middle. 

Labelling: Labelling yourself after one negative experience. For example: making one bad joke at a party where nobody laughs and labelling yourself  as “not a funny guy”. 

Emotional reasoning: Assuming that your negative and unpleasant emotions reflect reality. For example “I feel it, therefore it must be true”. 

Should Statements: Living by rules that you set for yourself can lead to feelings of guilt and shame. For example: Mary has a rule that she should not make a mistake when following recipes. If she makes a mistake, she’ll end up feeling ashamed and incompetent. Therefore, living by set rules and “I should” statements leads to rigidity and added stress. When you direct statements toward others, the outcome is anger, frustration, and resentment. 

Disqualifying the positives: The process of dismissing positive experiences by insisting they are not as worthy as negative experiences. In this way you can maintain a negative self belief despite all the contradictory evidence. For example: “That good mark was just a one off. It was pure luck”. 

Identifying your thought patterns

Read and re-read the above thinking errors to ensure that you become familiar with them. Look at them regularly to ensure that you become aware of them and how they present in different settings. Once you know the patterns, begin to check in with your own thought patterns. Try to highlight the thought errors that are not helpful or useful to you. Whenever you are feeling depressed or anxious, examine how you got there.

Pick out your top three thinking errors and review each day for their presence. Once you have done this regularly, then you can begin challenging your thinking.