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How Does the Anxious Mind Work?

Anxious Mind = Overestimate Danger + Underestimate Self-Confidence

Although anxiety disorders are often differentiated by the specific content of their fears and symptoms, they share similar thinking errors. Becoming aware of these errors is an important step in overcoming anxiety.

Worrying about the future. Worry is a common characteristic of persistent anxiety. Worry is a form of problem-solving, presumably helps a person plan and prepare for future (potentially) negative events. We feel anxiety when we anticipate that something bad will happen, and we plan to prevent potential harm to ourselves. The problem with worry is that it is always about future events, and no one can know the future so the desire for safety and certainty is useless. Moreover, the harder people try to not worry, the more they worry (known as the ironic effects of mental control). Thus, sometimes the most effortful way to control our mind is not necessarily the most effective one. Negative moods (including tiredness and pain) fuel worrying. For example, individuals suffering from OCD have shown to experience a negative mood prior to the onset of a checking bout. Experts suggest if you find yourself worrying in a negative mood, immediately try to do something to lift your mood.

Intolerance of uncertainty. Worriers are allergic to the word “uncertainty.” Worriers believe that they must continue to worry until uncertainty has been resolved. Some individuals will stop worrying about a particular problem not because they have accepted the prospect of the threat but because they have shifted from one worry to another.

Exaggeration of uncertainty. When we are anxious, we tend to overestimate both the likelihood and the intensity of threat and danger. Indeed, the rationality of a worry can be judged on the basis of the accuracy of an individual’s perception of threat. Anxious persons will exaggerate the likelihood and severity of dangers in everyday situations, such as overestimating the probability that heart palpitations reflect an underlying heart problem. The process of blowing things out of proportion leads the worrier to ask automatic questions of the “what if?” kind and by doing so the individual sees the worst case scenario. Therefor catching our distorted thinking is an important strategy for reducing anxiety. Mark Twain once said, “I am a very old man have suffered a great many misfortunes, most of which never happened.”

Jumping to conclusions. Given that anxious individuals experience uncertainty more stressfully, they are motivated to reduce uncertainty and eliminate the discomfort. For example, in solving problem, they tend to provide the first acceptable conclusion rather than solving the task correctly. There is also a search for relief, often by trying to obtain reassurance from others that everything will be all right. Highly anxious individuals are more likely to endorse superstitious beliefs (crossing their fingers, throwing salt over their shoulders and so on).

Choking under pressure. Too much attention and the excessive arousal worsen cognitive performance. That is, when levels of arousal are too low (boredom) and when levels of arousal are too high (anxiety or fear) performance is likely to suffer. Worrying about how you will perform on a test may actually contribute to a lower test score. Under situations of low arousal, the mind is unfocused. In contrast, under situations of high stimulation, the focus of attention is too narrow, and important information may be lost. The optimal situation is moderate arousal. Someone who is distracted and unfocused on a conversation is uninteresting. The anxious person also does badly exactly because he cannot think about anything besides managing his anxiety. Instead of listening to his partner and making small talk, he is too focused on “does she like me?” or “am I boring?”

Interpretation. Highly anxious individuals tend to interpret ambiguous events as negative or threatening. For example, socially anxious individuals will interpret an ambiguous comment, such as “that is an interesting shirt you have on,” emotionally negative. A person with low self-esteem is highly sensitive to being ignored by other people, and they constantly monitor for signs that people might not like them. Distorted internal belief systems that provide incorrect views of the world produce anxiety disorder. The major task of any therapy is to train anxious patients to think accurately and logically about the world.

Defensive behavior. Highly anxious people see problem as largely “out there,” with little coming from their own inner world. They use defensive strategy, such as projection to attach their own unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or intentions to others. This act of projection is a distraction that allows them to ignore the real culprit, the problem within. This realization is an opportunity to take responsibility and develop tolerance for the aversive feelings.

Avoiding behavior. Avoidance is another well-known form of coping with anxiety (e.g., playing it safe, procrastination, and distraction). For example, people with social anxiety problems can easily cope with anxiety by avoiding social situations at the expense of professional and personal life. But often worriers find that the more they try to escape anxiety and its triggers, the worse it gets and the smaller their world become.

Self-efficacy - beliefs in your own abilities to cope with challenge. When we feel anxious, we tend to see ourselves as weak and unable to cope. The greater one’s doubts concerning one’s level of competence the more one will worry about adverse outcome taking place. For example, a student who thinks she is quite competent would be less worried about failing an exam. When a confident attitude is adopted, the individual focuses on the positives in a situation, and may even assume a greater sense of personal control.

What is the take home lesson? Anxiety is a disorder of choice. Similar to alcohol, fear and anxiety impairs judgment. Thus, you should avoid making any decisions while under its influence until you are in a calm state of mind and can clearly deliberate on the ultimate goal.

More from Shahram Heshmat Ph.D.
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