Overcome Your Anxiety: A 4-Part Series (Part 2: Your Mind on Anxiety)
By: Kate Daigle
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” -William James
Anxiety and stress – They’re universal concepts and yet it’s possible that each individual can experience them both in different ways. Our messages about reacting to stress and anxiety can come from what’s modeled by family, friends, news/media, etc and despite what’s modeled, there’s one thing that’s for certain - a natural response kicks in and we either fight, flee or freeze. The lasting effects can take shape in emotional, mental, physical and spiritual disturbances leaving a feeling of diminished control. Stress and anxiety can be either acute or chronic and can be felt both on an individual level and a collective level. In a previous post (link post) it was mentioned how stress and anxiety take place in the body but what about how it takes place in the mind?
Anxiety in the mind
For anyone who has ever struggled with the concepts of anxiety and stress responses you know that the journey the mind goes on can feel like a distorted reality that can lead you down the rabbit hole of doom and gloom. You might find yourself getting caught in a web of thoughts that leave you feeling more anxious than you originally were…it’s a vicious cycle. Take the loss of a job, for example. “I can’t lose my job.” “If I lose my job I can’t pay the bills.” “If I can’t pay the bills I’ll lose my house.” “If I lose my house I will have failed.” “If I fail then all of my hard work will have been for nothing.” Sound familiar? If the loss of a job doesn’t resonate with you then you could probably fill in the blanks and end up down the same rabbit hole. It’s the natural stress response to anxiety. What’s occurring is an engagement in common patterns of distorted thinking. Here are some of the common distorted thought processes that occur when feeling stressed or anxious:
Catastrophizing – This is the process of magnifying issues that might generally be seen as small or trivial. You might find yourself expecting the worst. For example, “I didn’t speak up in the team meeting so everyone will think of me as incapable and shy.”
“Should” statements – This thought process comes from imposed expectations that might not be met. For example, “I should’ve finished the project earlier so I wouldn’t have to worry about it later.”
Jumping to conclusions – This includes fortune telling and mind reading to seek answers when there might not be evidence to support your conclusions. For example, “I know I’m not going to be able to finish the project I started.”
All or nothing – This is an EXTREMELY common one. This is the process of thinking in black and white. As a result of stress or anxiety you might find yourself thinking in extremes as a natural survival instinct. For example, “I’m either a complete failure or a complete success. There’s no in between.”
Disqualifying the positives – This way of thinking highlights times where things didn’t go as planned and discounts times when you’ve been successful. For example, “I only did well out of pure luck.”
Overgeneralizing - This is the viewpoint of pessimism. The thought is that negative patterns will repeat indefinitely. For example, “I’m not a good cook. I can’t do anything well!”
The reality of distorted thought patterns is that we all engage in them. While the process is normal, stress and anxiety can make things worse by exacerbating some of these views and thoughts…making them feel more real and unshakable.
So, how do we keep ourselves from going down the rabbit hole and heightening stress and anxiety? Try these 5 tips for combatting anxiety in the mind.
1) Become aware of times when you engage in these kinds of thinking. Think of awareness as the starting point.
2) Link your thoughts with your emotional experience so that you have a better understanding of which emotional states increase certain thought patterns and vice versa.
3) Identify instances when you can disprove your thoughts.
4) Remember that our opinions are not thoughts. Where you might have one perspective there is always an alternative viewpoint. Challenge yourself to find the alternative.
5) Finally, be patient! These patterns of thinking can be deeply rooted in our history. They take time to reshape.