Swap Out These Anxious Thoughts for Better Ones

These cognitive shifts can relieve unnecessary pressure, stress, and anxiety.

Posted Sep 12, 2019

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People who are anxious typically have ways of approaching tasks, challenges and relationships that help them manage their anxiety. However some of these can backfire, and it's important to be self-aware and cognitively flexible enough that you can change up your mindset when another mindset is more optimal.  Try these thinking swap outs in situations when you're feeling stress, pressure, uncertainty or anxiety.

1. Aiming higher than averting a disaster can actually take the pressure off.

Anxious people often approach situations with the primary motivation of averting disasters. In this mindset, your self-talk might be along the lines of "Don't screw this up." 

You can really short change yourself if you always take this approach. Instead, try thinking "This is an opportunity, not a threat" or "This is an opportunity for me to show my skills and knowledge" rather than "My primary goal is to avoid coming across badly or screwing up."

2. Show your strengths rather than hiding your weaknesses.

This is a similar principle to the previous one. If you're always thinking about your weaknesses and how to mitigate or cover them up, you might forget about all the strengths you can bring to situations and relationships. Try thinking "What strengths do I want to show in this situation?"

It's ok to think "I want to avoid conveying....(e.g., arrogance, anxiety, boringness)" and come up with some brief concepts and plans about how to do that, but don't make avoiding negative impressions the only thing you think about.

3. Be curious about how a situation will unfold rather than trying to control every aspect.

A strength of anxious people is that they're often willing to work very hard to prepare for every possible thing that could go wrong. In many situations, there are so many possible scenarios you can never prepare for them all. Sometimes all your preparation might leave you understanding that you're likely to face some surprises and unexpected issues, but you won't specifically know what those are. Getting to this realization can actually feel reassuring though! Once you can get to a place of acceptance of some uncertainty and you have some belief in your capacity to make good decisions on the fly, you can train yourself to do all the prep you can and then allow the situation to unfold. 

4. Correct false beliefs about the benefits or necessity of overthinking.

Anxious people often believe that anticipating scenarios is necessary to make good decisions, but that belief might not be 100% true. Sometimes knowing what to potentially expect doesn't help you make a better decision than if you need to react to a situation you didn't anticipate. This fits with the general idea that worry and rumination are limited in how much they help people solve problems and improve outcomes. Occasionally overthinking helps people make good decisions, but often it makes no difference or even clouds your decision making. It’s fine to use over-researching and overthinking as a psychological crutch to help you feel like you have more control over a situation than you do. In fact, this is what I do. But, I also recognize that rather than being a necessity,  it’s a crutch that helps me self-soothe. Because I recognize this, I don't get stressed out if there are other things in life I need to attend to and I can't over-research a topic.

I’ve written a lot about how people get attached to overthinking as a coping strategy because of the slot machine effect.  Any behavior that results in an intermittent and unpredictable payoff will tend to increase in frequency or intensity and is highly resistant to change. If a strategy occasionally works, you’ll keep doing it, even if most of the time it doesn’t or the net effect is negative. So, if you’re using overthinking to self-soothe, take a break at any point it no longer feels soothing.

When coping strategies (such as overthinking, avoidance or perfectionism) are blanketly labeled as helpful or unhelpful, so much nuance is lost. Everyone needs to learn to pay attention to what their personal results are from particular coping strategies, have a basic understanding of the cognitive-behavioral principles underlying what’s occurring, and tweak as needed.

5. Let other people do some of the emotional work in relationships.

Sometimes anxious people think “If I twist myself this way and that, I can keep (such and such person) happy” or “If I present myself as… I can make myself desirable to (that person)”. You don’t have to do all the emotional work in all your relationships with friends, family, colleagues, etc. Expect yourself to do 50% of it, not 100% of it. For instance, you’re not 100% responsible for resolving tension or frustration in a relationship with a coworker, you’re 50% responsible. 

People who are anxious are often prone to taking excessive responsibility.  Sometimes you need to let other people bring whatever talents and strengths they have to resolve situations and help relationships run smoothly. Often this might involve doing a task the way someone else wants to do it and letting them lead, which can be a challenge if you manage your anxiety by being hyper-responsible and in control.

Wrapping Up

Your natural go-to ways of cognitively managing your anxiety might not always be the best approach.  However, you can learn to be flexible in your thinking.  Slight pivots in how you view situations can make a big difference in how confident you feel and whether stress and challenges feel manageable.