Anxiety is a very common mental health disorder which can cause frequent nervousness, immense fear, apprehension, or disproportionate worry or stress. Although anxiety is classed as a disorder, many of us face anxiety on a different scale at some stage of our lives.
Although many of us face anxiety in our lives, we haven’t contemplated that it may in fact be our thought processes (referred to as thinking traps) that are contributing to fueling our anxiety.
According to research on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy by Dr. Aaron Beck, Dr. Albert Ellis and Dr. David Burns, our thoughts directly influence the way we feel and the energy that we put out into the universe. To bring it back, cognitive behavioural therapy is the therapy that aims to help people understand their thoughts and think more positively (cognitive) in order to change how you subsequently feel and act (behaviour).
If we can identify thoughts that we may be having that are actually self-limiting and negatively impact how we feel, we can tackle any such thoughts that have a tendency to exacerbate our anxiety.
These thoughts are often referred to as “cognitive distortions”. Here are 5 common ones to look out for.
1 Jumping to conclusions
This cognitive distortion is one that we are all likely guilty of. We try to fill in the gaps of things that we don’t know and try to mind read by just believing that we know what others are thinking.
Assuming that you know what someone else is thinking is detrimental. How many of us think a friend is being distant and assume they’re just annoyed at us without actually trying to understand the situation and/or just reaching out and asking?
Doing this can trigger feelings of sadness and resentment as you can fall into a cycle of endlessly worrying about what other people think which negatively impacts your sense of self worth.
2 Worst-case scenario thinking
This is referred to as catastrophizing in all situations and only perceiving negative outcomes for a situation.
Many cognitive theories suggest that we directly impact an outcome we expect, so by continually anticipating negative outcomes, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This also directly relates to the next point of overgeneralising.
Seeing a constant, negative pattern as a result of one event or isolated incident. It’s a very “nothing works for me” mentality.
Say you wake up and your car won’t start, you will think “well of course this happens to me. Nothing goes right!” rather than recognising that this is just one isolated incident that’s not in your control. Another example is getting broken up with and thinking that nobody will ever love you because of this.
Constantly overgeneralising things into a pattern causes you to feel hopeless and like a victim of your circumstances. It’s important to try to treat events in isolation and recognise that it is just what it is, and try to re-frame the thoughts in such cases.
4 Personalising everything
This is thinking that other people’s negative behaviours are because of you, toward you or fuelled by a reaction to you.
A common example of this is if your husband is particularly quiet on a day, and you may pause to think it’s because of something that you have said or done.
Thinking in this way can cause you to second guess most of your behaviours, which is extremely limiting.
5 Black and White Thinking
Early studies on cognitive distortions have shown that people who see things in black or white categories tend to have more anxious tendencies.
The basis for this is that if you see things as either good or bad, there’s often no room for a middle ground or grey area which broadens your perspective and allows you to rationalise things. Less anxious people are more receptive to the idea that good people may do bad things for certain reasons, but more generally won’t be so harsh to say things like “I missed gym on Monday, so I’ll give up for the full week.”
This black and white thinking leads to extremities in behaviour and as a result, is an anxiety stimulant. If you find yourself thinking in this way, then it’s helpful to reframe the questions to see if you’re being inflexible and if there’s a compromise or middle ground to reach.
The basic concept behind cognitive behavioural therapy is to try to identify the thought associated with the feeling, and determine whether it may be one of these limiting thoughts that heightens your anxiety and try to come up with an alternative thought process instead. Hopefully, this helps you identify those thoughts, so that you can actively try to reframe any thinking traps which you fall into.