There is a lot to be anxious about these days. Even those of us who are not normally anxious may be more anxious than usual because of all the uncertainty surrounding very important aspects of our lives, like our health, finances, societal institutions, and the future of the planet. We may even be uncertain what to believe with all the gaslighting and misinformation that is out there. You may not be able to stop being anxious, but you can stop your anxiety from taking you down a dark tunnel, wasting your energy, and causing you to make unwise choices. In this article, I describe six negative mindsets and how to get back on track.
1. Being vigilant. If you suffer from anxiety, you focus a lot of attention on anticipating how things could go wrong or how your safety, financial security, or relationships may be threatened or unstable. You live in the land of "What ifs."
The problem is that the more you focus on something threatening, the more you reinforce brain pathways linked to worry and anxiety, making them stronger. Also, you are more likely to notice negative things that are not important to pay attention to, like a spider crawling on a rock outdoors, or a scowl on the face of somebody you don't know and aren't interacting with. When your attention is on these things, you may not be able to be present and mindful. You may also seek out negative information on the internet and social media and spend too much of your day watching negative news reports.
What to do: Make a conscious effort to pay attention to positive, non-threatening things you encounter, like your dog's wagging tail, the beautiful ocean print on your wall, or your child's shriek of delight when she sees a ladybug. Focusing on your senses can calm you down. Try to stay in the present more by redirecting attention when you notice your brain is worrying about the future.
2. Interpreting ambiguous situations as threatening. People with anxiety have biased attention so that you are more likely to see a great deal of threat in situations where there is a slight possibility of something bad happening. If you are waiting for medical test results, you will convince yourself that you have whatever dreaded disease they are testing for, even if there is only a 5 percent likelihood of a positive result. If you get a letter from the bank, you will be convinced before you open it that you have been a victim of identity theft or that your mortgage application has been turned down.
What to do: Make a conscious effort to consider different possible meanings of a situation, not just the most negative one. Take a step back and broaden your view. Anxiety tends to narrow your focus to just the threatening parts. Or make a decision to reserve judgment until you get more information. Then distract, distract, distract.
3. Overestimating the probability of something bad happening. If you have anxiety, you may see even a slight chance of something bad happening as a considerable threat. This may lead you to spend a lot of extra time, money, and energy planning for things that most probably won't happen. You may force yourself to drink green juice every day so you don't get vitamin deficiency when you actually eat a balanced diet. You may be too scared to stay home alone when your partner is away because somebody may break in, even though nobody has broken into a house in your upscale neighborhood since the '70s and you have an alarm system.
What to do: Let facts and statistics influence your choices rather than anxiety. Think about what is most likely to happen based on how often negative things have or haven't happened in the past.
4. Catastrophizing. Catastrophizing means just what it sounds like—thinking something is a catastrophe when in actuality it is something you have sufficient resources to deal with without excessive damage. You may panic when the stock market goes down, even though you won't need the money for 30 years. You may think every ache and pain is a sign of a serious illness or you may think that if you don't get a promotion you are going to get fired. Catastrophizing makes upsetting things worse and creates states of worry and panic that keep you up at night.
What to do: Ask yourself whether you could survive if the negative event did happen. Think about the personal qualities and resources you have to cope. Think about the people in your life who care about you and could help you get through it. Think about past situations where you have been resilient.
5. Not paying attention to safety signals. Safety signals are signs that a situation is less dangerous than it could be, that you are protected, or that a danger is over. For example, if you were criticized for speaking up as a child, you may fail to notice that your partner actually listens to you without judgment. If you are scared of getting into a car accident, you may not notice that your partner is actually a skilled and alert driver. You may, without evidence, distrust a partner who has never lied to you and acts with integrity in day to day life. You may fear swimming in the ocean because you almost drowned when you were 9, even though you are an adult now and the ocean is calm.
There are parts of your brain that are designed to detect signals of safety or danger but these may not be working properly if you have an anxiety disorder.
What to do: Consciously pay attention to those aspects of a situation that help you feel safer. Think about your own ability to keep yourself safe. Think about whether a past trauma or stressful past experience is influencing your response to the current situation. Think about what is different now that makes it safer (e.g., you are an adult and can make healthy choices and set boundaries).
6. Avoiding. When you feel anxious, you may get an uncomfortable feeling in your chest, throat, or stomach and your thoughts might be highly distressing and unpleasant. As a result, you may begin to avoid things that make you anxious. You may take a pill when you have only a small amount of discomfort because you fear being in pain. You may avoid dating because you are scared of being rejected. You may not speak up in meetings because you fear people will think you are stupid.
The problem with avoidance is that it is reinforced in the moment. When you make the decision not to try, you start to feel relief and your body calms down. But avoidance makes anxiety worse in the long run because you never learn that the feared result won't happen. Your discomfort won't turn into severe pain. You can withstand rejection and move onto the next person. Or your colleagues may react very positively to your ideas. But if you don't take a risk, you will never learn that what you think is dangerous is actually manageable.
What to do; Make a plan to confront the things you fear. If you like, you can start with something easier, like speaking up to your partner, and work your way up to something harder, like confronting the nasty neighbor. The best way out of an anxiety-provoking situation is through! When you confront what you fear, your fear will go down and your confidence and skills will improve. Over time, you will begin to see the situation as less dangerous and learn that you can tolerate feeling anxiety in the service of your goals.
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