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Identifying and Overcoming Common Thoughts That Fuel Anxiety

By: Kristina Murr

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Anxiety is often caused by (or triggers) negative, cyclical thinking. When you’re feeling anxious, you might not know how to stop these thought loops. One way of coping with anxiety is to replace negative thoughts with more balanced, rational ones. By taking a step back and challenging your thinking, you’re better able to control your emotions. Here are several common thought traps that fuel anxiety and how to combat them.

1. Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing is a thought trap where you assume the worst-case scenario in any given situation. When you catastrophize, you turn minor issues into big deals. You may also have intrusive thoughts about disastrous things happening to you and your loved ones, even when they’re in all likelihood completely safe. For example, if your wife is a few minutes late coming home from work, you might assume she’s been in a terrible car accident, which sends you into an anxious spiral.

The key is to rationalize the situation and reason with your thoughts. Work on showing yourself that these scenarios are highly improbable. Try challenging these catastrophizing thoughts by asking yourself:

  • What evidence do I have that this worst-case scenario will happen?
  • Have I been in similar situations before, and how did they turn out?
  • What are some more likely outcomes?

2. Black-and-white thinking

Also called all-or-nothing thinking, this thought trap involves viewing situations in extremes, with no middle ground. Everything is either good or bad, a failure or a success. For example, after a constructive meeting at work, you might hear a boss’s criticism and feel like you’re terrible at your job and can’t do anything right.

Instead, try looking at the shades of gray in every situation. Rarely is anything ever completely polarized. Ask yourself:

  • Can I think of times when I performed well, even though I made mistakes?
  • Is there a middle ground here?
  • How can I have a more balanced perspective?

3. Mind reading

Mind reading is assuming you know what others are thinking, especially when you believe they’re thinking negatively about you. This can also mean predicting how others will react to your behavior. Mind reading fuels insecurities, self-consciousness, self-doubt, and avoidance of social situations. Your relationships with others can also become strained, since these assumptions often lead to conflicts.

Try to combat the trap of mind reading by looking for evidence:

  • How can you be certain this person thinks badly of you?
  • Have they ever explicitly indicated their thoughts about me?
  • What are other explanations for their behavior?

4. Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization involves making broad, sweeping conclusions based on a single event or limited evidence. Typically, you’ll find yourself using the words “always” and “never” (much like black-and-white thinking). For example, you might react to any criticism by your partner with the thought that you’re never taken seriously and you can’t do anything right in their eyes.

Instead of overgeneralizing, remind yourself that this is just one instance and isn’t always evidence of a pattern. Ask yourself:

  • How can I avoid viewing this as a trend?
  • What are some other instances when I’ve done well?
  • What evidence do I have that this will happen every time?

5. Fortune Telling

This involves predicting that things will turn out badly and assuming your prediction is an established fact. An example of this is thinking that a speaking engagement or job interview may turn out poorly, even though you have no facts to support that thought. To combat this:

  • Challenge the prediction by asking for evidence supporting this negative outcome.
  • Think about past experiences where your predictions didn’t come true.
  • Play around with more balanced or neutral alternatives to your negative predictions.

6. Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization

Magnification or catastrophizing involves blowing things out of proportion or thinking in the worst-case scenario, while minimization diminishes the importance of positive things or exaggerates negatives. So for instance, if someone gives you criticism and you cling to or magnify the criticism while minimizing a compliment that someone has given you. To counter these:

  • Evaluate the actual significance of the event or situation.
  • Consider the potential outcomes realistically, without exaggerating.
  • Look for evidence that contradicts the catastrophic or minimized thinking.

8. Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning is assuming that your negative emotions reflect reality (“I feel it, therefore it must be true”). For instance, you “feel” like someone is mad at you, but you don’t bother to check with them to see if they are actually mad. To address emotional reasoning:

  • Differentiate between feelings and facts.
  • Challenge whether your emotions are an accurate reflection of the situation.
  • Use assertiveness to seek out facts such as asking someone if they are mad at you, rather than assuming that there are.

9. Should Statements

This negative thinking style involves using “should,” “must,” or “ought” statements to motivate yourself or others, leading to guilt and resentment. Therapists often refer to this as “shoulding yourself.” Using should statements can create guilt or shame. To overcome should statements:

  • Replace unrealistic demands with more realistic goals.
  • Try using the word “could” instead of “should.”
  • Try to stay open-minded and reduce the expectation that others “should” act or behave in a certain way.

10. Labeling and Mislabeling

Labeling and mislabeling refers to using extreme and emotionally loaded language to describe yourself or others based on specific behaviors. Examples of this are “I am an idiot” or “he is so clueless.” To combat labeling:

  • Describe behaviors without attaching negative labels. For example, instead of saying “he is so clueless,” you could say “his habit of not listening is frustrating.”
  • Recognize that behaviors do not define the entirety of a person or situation.
  • Practice empathy and consider alternative explanations for behaviors.

11. Personalization

This is a type of cognitive distortion where you blame yourself for events that are not entirely under your control. An example of this would be sensing that a coworker is mad and thinking that they must be mad because of something you did or said. To address personalization:

  • Assess your actual role in the situation objectively. Be assertive when needed to gain facts such as asking your coworker if they are in fact upset with you.
  • Consider other factors that could have contributed to the outcome.
  • Recognize when you’re unfairly attributing blame to yourself.

12. Jumping to Conclusions

Jumping to conclusions refers to making negative interpretations without sufficient evidence. An example would be thinking that things are going to turn out poorly in some way or thinking that someone has purposely done something to hurt you without facts to back that up. To avoid jumping to conclusions:

  • Gather more information before drawing conclusions.
  • Challenge assumptions and consider alternative explanations when you are assuming the worst.
  • Take a minute to pause and assess the sitation carefully if you think you might be jumping to conclusions.

Getting help

If your anxiety is affecting your day-to-day life, anxiety therapy can help. Anxiety, and more severe issues like panic attacks, often have a root cause that can’t always be treated on your own. A therapist can help you understand where your anxiety is coming from and teach you effective strategies for getting out of these negative thought loops. In therapy, you’ll learn healthy coping mechanisms and build your self-esteem.

To find out more about how to overcome thought traps and reduce anxiety using anxiety therapy, please reach out to us.


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