Tackling Your Anxiety: One Thought at a Time

by | Aug 20, 2020

Have you ever visited a carnival and walked by a fun house mirror and watched as your reflection changes and becomes a taller, thinner, shorter, or wider, version of yourself? These mirrors use variations in light to distort the image that is reflected.

When we are anxious or stressed, sometimes our brain can act like that fun house mirror and distort reality in a way that convinces us to believe something that isn’t really true. These cognitive distortions or negative thinking traps can cause us lots of problems. For one, they can increase or exacerbate symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. You know, create a glass half full kind thinking. They can influence our behavior. Thoughts are powerful things which can cause us to react in ways that may have a negative impact on our relationships. Negative thinking traps can also lead us to avoid things we need to and/or want to do in life.

So, what do these cognitive distortions look like anyway? Here are some common examples:

  • “I can’t” habit: You automatically assume that you are not capable of meeting a challenge and give up before you even try.
    • Example: “I can’t figure out this math problem. It is too hard.”
  • Catastrophizing habit: You expect disaster and have those pesky “what if” thoughts whenever you are faced with uncertainty. You may feel unnecessarily panicky and anxious and think the worst is going to happen. This can often lead to a downward spiral of negative thinking.
    • Example: “What if I fail the test? Then a won’t get an A in the class. What if I don’t get an A in the class? Then I won’t get into the college I want…”
  • All-or-nothing habit: You see life in extremes. Things are either perfect or a total failure. Something either goes right or it is all wrong.
    • Example: “I can’t believe I got a 95% on that test. I am a total failure.”
  • Zooming-in-on-the-negative habit: You magnify negative or embarrassing experiences and filter out positive or even neutral experiences. You blow negative events way out of proportion and disqualify any positive.
    • Example: “I can’t believe he left all of the dishes in the sink. He never thinks about how to help out around here.”
  • “I should, you should” habit: You hold yourself and others to unrealistic and rigid expectations. When these expectations are not met you feel disappointed and frustrated.
    • Example: “I should have known he was going to cheat on me. Why didn’t I just pay more attention to the signs?”
  • Jumping to conclusions: You interpret things negatively without any facts.
    • Mind-reading: You assume someone else is thinking something critical or negative about you without evidence.
      • Example: “Did you see the way they looked at me? They must think I am a total loser. They will never want to be my friend.”
    • Fortune-telling: You assume the worst of a future.
      • Example: I could never host Thanksgiving for my whole family. It would be a total disaster.
  • Emotional reasoning: You assume that your emotions reflect the way things really are.
    • Example: “I feel so fat. I don’t care what anyone tells me.”
  • Selective memory and attention: You pay attention to information that confirms your beliefs and ignore or “forget” other information that may contradict your beliefs.
    • Example: “I know the plane is going to crash. Have you seen all the plane crashes on the news? I just know it will happen.”

Chances are, you recognize a few of these negative thinking traps. In fact, I would say that most people can get caught up in these traps one time or another. The trouble happens when we get stuck and when it happens often. The good news is, you can do something to change these negative thinking habits. With patience, practice, and a conscious effort, you can begin to think more positively and notice a decrease in anxiety and depression in your life.

  • Identify your most common thinking habits. The first step for most things is noticing. Take a moment to read over these thinking habits and begin to take notice when and how often they happen.
  • Keep a journal or a log. To help you keep track of your most common thinking traps, keep a thinking log or journal. The What’s Up App is great for this. Keeping a log will help you begin to identify events or situations that trigger your negative thinking habits. You may notice a trend.
  • Begin to change your thinking: There are many strategies that can help you begin to address your negative thinking. Here are just a few to get you started.
    • Challenge it: Reframe the thought or all together contradict it with something positive.
      • Negative thought: “I know I won’t make the team.”
      • Challenging thought: “I can try my best.” “I know I practiced really hard”
  • Fact check:
    • What evidence do I have for this fear/belief?
    • Am I 100% sure it will happen?
    • Could there be any other explanations?
  • Ask yourself:
    • What is the worst that could happen? Could I handle it?
    • What has happened before? What did I do?
    • Have I been able to cope with similar situations in the past?
  • Repeat it: With repetition comes boredom. This is the theory behind exposure therapy. The more you do something, the less novel and anxiety provoking it becomes. You can do the same with scary thoughts. You can even create a worry tape. This is a tape of all your worries (about 1 minute long) that you play for 3-5 minutes at least once a day for a week.
  • Delay it: Do you stop and find yourself stopping what you are doing to attend to your worries they minute they pop into your mind? What could happen if you didn’t respond right away and instead delayed worrying until a time convenient for you? You can do this by setting aside a worry time. When a worry pops up, acknowledge it and tell yourself you will attend to it at 4:30pm (for example). Likely 4:30 will come around and you won’t even remember what you were worried about. And, if you do, don’t worry – the strategy still worked! You have taken a step toward controlling your thoughts. You didn’t let it bother you all day and were able to put it away until a better time.

Remember, habits don’t form overnight therefore they don’t go away overnight. Remind yourself often how having a  more positive mindset can improve your life and practice, practice, practice. Eventually the old, negative ways of thinking will evolve into more positive ways of thinking about life and yourself. In fact, it’s scientific fact. It is called neuroplasticity!