- Generating worrisome thoughts is the brain's way of protecting us from potential threats. But it can also predispose us to excessive anxiety.
- Changing 'all or nothing' or 'worst is yet to come' thought patterns can reduce anxiety levels.
- Breaking problems down into smaller, bite-sized pieces can make them more manageable.
Anxiety is a universal human experience.
From an evolutionary standpoint, the function of the brain is not to make us happy. Its function is to protect us by keeping us on the lookout for potential threats. Our brain is masterful in creating hypothetical “what if” scenarios of what could possibly go wrong.
Achievers are familiar with this master storyteller. They are prone to thought patterns that increase anxiety as they experience tremendous pressure to meet self-imposed expectations. However, many patterns are based on false assumptions.
6 Thought Patterns that Increase Anxiety
1. “It’s my fault!” Your inner critic can berate you for failing to meet expectations. You blame yourself for undesirable outcomes even if they are not your fault.
For example, you may blame yourself for failing to earn a promotion when, in reality, many highly qualified candidates applied for the same opportunity. In such a competitive setting, the decision to promote a different applicant may have been based on external factors beyond your control, such as luck or outside connections.
It can be difficult when your efforts do not lead to the desired outcome. Let’s not make it harder by adding unwarranted self-criticism to the mix.
2. “I am anxious about everything.” Life is stressful. It throws curveballs at the most inopportune time. When you regain some semblance of order, life decides to throw a couple more challenges for good measure.
You stack your problems on top of each other instead of looking and addressing each one individually. Anxiety spikes as you become overwhelmed by their collective weight. Problems blur into one another, which makes it exponentially harder to solve them.
There have been countless situations when patients told me they are anxious about “everything.” In such a scenario, I ask them to list their worries from most to least anxiety-provoking. We then go over each worry one by one. Breaking down problems into bite-sized pieces makes them easier to handle.
3. “I feel trapped.” It can be hard to make decisions when we view them as irreversible. It can feel overwhelming to assume that all decisions are final and there is no going back.
However, many decisions are reversible. If you are not happy with a job, you can always start looking for the next one. If you are not happy with where you live, you can always explore your next move. The same holds true for relationships.
Decisions often come with great responsibility and potential consequences. Take your time to collect all the necessary information to make a sound decision. Reversing course can come at a great cost to you and others.
However, you can reverse course. This realization takes away the pressure of making the perfect decision every time you arrive at a fork in the road.
4. “It’s all or nothing!” Thinking in extremes is common because it simplifies decision-making. It is easier to pick between black or white compared to different shades of grey along a continuum.
Neglecting to consider the entire spectrum of possibilities can predispose you to excessive anxiety. When your only options are 0 or 100, you give yourself no margin for error. If you don’t score a perfect 100, then you have failed. Consider the implications of this thought pattern if you are taking an exam, sitting in a job interview, or establishing an exercise regimen.
There are settings in which “all or nothing” thinking is warranted. Examples include a surgeon performing a procedure, a physician prescribing medication, or a pilot flying an airplane. Mistakes in such settings can lead to catastrophic outcomes.
However, many of our daily endeavors do not carry the same level of responsibility. You can make a mistake on a job interview or an exam and still have a successful outcome. The same holds true for your fitness goals if you occasionally slack on your exercise routine or have a cookie now and then.
We are imperfect beings and a constant work in progress. Give yourself the grace to make and learn from your mistakes.
5. “The worst is yet to come.” The most common anxiety-provoking thought pattern that I have observed is worst-case scenario thinking. In this pattern, we ignore more likely scenarios and zoom in on the worst possible outcome, even if it has a low probability of occurrence. This thought pattern is the equivalent of focusing on a crooked tree branch and ignoring the surrounding forest.
Many of our worries are only imaginary constructs that live in our brain. We treat them as imminent and unavoidable, even though many never come to fruition. Take a moment to reflect on the odds that your fear will become a reality.
In addition, focus on taking reasonable precautions to protect yourself against the worst possible outcome. This can help you focus on what is within your sphere of control.
6. “I am not enough!” We make the mistake of tying our self-worth to our level of success. We endlessly run on a hamster wheel chasing the next achievement to fuel our self-worth. Anxiety spikes as our self-worth oscillates with every perceived success or failure.
The truth is that your self-worth is not based on your level of success. It is not determined by your degrees, education level, physical abilities, looks, or how much you earn. Self-worth is an undeniable and essential part of your humanity. You are worthy because you are human.
This is not an invitation to complacency. There is nothing wrong with pursuing a degree, a job promotion, or a raise at work. Such endeavors can result in personal growth and allow you to make a positive contribution to the life of others. However, do not make the mistake of basing your self-worth on your level of success.
In summary, when you experience anxiety, take a moment to reflect on your patterns of thinking. They may be based on erroneous assumptions that are fueling your anxiety.