One of the best things I’ve ever done for my mental health was identifying when my anxiety brain is doing the talking. You see, our anxiety is generally built upon thought patterns that run on autoplay and aren’t our true thoughts. Today, I want to help you identify the thinking habits that are just your anxiety brain.
Years ago, before I began coaching others on how to manage their anxiety, I thought that I was an anxious diva. The anxiety was part of my identity, just who I am.
Throughout my research, spiritual practice, and working with my own coaches, I made a big shift. I was able to separate myself from my anxiety. Instead of thinking or saying, “I am an anxious person,” there was a shift towards, “I experience anxiety.”
In doing so, I also recognized that the anxious thoughts in my head were simply brain patterns operating on auto-pilot. Which further helped me to separate my true thoughts from that of my anxious ones.
Now, I like to refer to those thoughts as the “anxious diva” in my brain. She’s not me.
One of the ways to start separating yourself from your anxious thoughts is through the ability to recognize and label those thoughts. That’s what we’re doing today – exploring the thought habits that are associated with anxiety.
These thought habits, or “thinking biases,” were shared in Helen Kennerley’s book, Overcoming Anxiety. They create a clear definition of what some of our anxious or stress-related thought patterns may look like.
By simply identifying your common brain pitfalls, you can start to take more control of your mental health.
Extreme thinking is any kind of thought pattern that “stretches a point.” It’s like taking a tiny piece of taffy and stretching it into a much bigger piece. Often, taking a tiny problem and turning it into a much bigger version.
We all have that crazy aunt who thinks that a heat wave is a sign that the earth is ending, right?
When we catastrophize, we anticipate disaster as the only outcome to any given scenario. We always assume the worst.
This used to happen to me every time I would get called up to the principals office as a kid or was invited to my manager’s office as an adult. I would always assume something was wrong or that I was in big trouble. Even though, more often than not, I was receiving an award or praise.
This style of thinking is usually linked to hypochondria, or an abnormal anxiety over one’s health. In this case, a simple spot on the skin may be catastrophized to possible skin cancer or shortness of breath may trigger someone into thinking they have a respiratory condition.
Do you know anyone who thinks like this? This way of thinking sees everything in absolutes, rather than more moderate perspective.
It’s easily recognized when we use words, such as ‘always’ or ‘never.’ Statements like these:
- “I never get picked for the promotion.”
- “This always happens to me.”
- “I always disappoint people.”
One of the things I worked on when taking charge of my anxious voice was to stop using these words. I learned to switch my vocabulary slowly and used evidence to remind myself of the contrary.
Even shifting the statement from, “I always date assholes” to “I usually date assholes” can make major shifts in the all-or-nothing mentality.
Any other perfectionists in the house? If you find yourself often thinking about all the things you “should” or “ought” or “must” do, you probably have some anxious tendencies within this catagory.
This puts a ton of pressure on you!
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to try your best, but holding yourself to high, unrealistic expectations only leads to disappointment and exhaustion. This works the same way when you have high expectations for other people too.
Is the glass half empty of half fool? This anxious style of thinking has us looking on the bleak side of things.
This one is similar to catastrophizing, but it’s usually less dramatic or obvious. Which means, it can often go unnoticed and we can find ourselves unaware of the tricky brain patterns.
We all have that friend who tells us a story about the giant spider in her room that was the size of her hand. When really, it was just a daddy long-leg that was about a third of that size. Of course, that’s an exaggeration.
However, we often to this to ourselves in less obvious ways. Let’s say your boss sends you a kind email reminding you that you’ve missed the deadline for a report. When your brain responds with a thought like, “Oh shoot! I really am terrible at my job,” you’ve exaggerated a simple mistake.
It’s a funny hashtag, but a lot of us actually feel these words when we say them. Got fired from your job? Got sick and had to miss something you were looking forward to? Covid came in and wreaked plans? #storyofmylife
Yikes! By overgeneralizing, we turn one incident into a much bigger thing.
For example, I have a client who has a hard time when dating because every time she faces rejection, there’s an immediate brain response of, “see? No one is interested in dating me!” Problem is, she’s actually an amazing woman and completely capable of a powerful relationship.
One of the bigger problems with overgeneralizing is that we trigger dramatic, anxiety thoughts that become self-fulfilling prophecies. The more my client would think, “No one wants to be with me,” the more she would instinctively push people away.
Ignoring the Positive
This is another one that’s easier to diagnose. How often do we filter out the good or reassuring facts in a given situations when we are determined to see it badly?
Easy example of this is the straight A student who focuses all her energy on the “failure of her B-” instead of celebrating all the other A’s. This is a big problem because when we fail to recognize our achievements and strengths, we don’t develop confidence. Ultimately, low confidence will also impact the ability to manage stress.
Relying on Intuition
Alright my hippie friends, pump the breaks before you get upset with this one. I’m a big fan of strengthening our intuition, but relying on the gut feeling can also steer us wrong.
Especially because, for many of us anxious folk, anxiety/fear and “gut instinct” can easily get mixed up.
Jumping to Conclusions
I’ll admit, I’m not as good at remembering to call my family as I’d like to be. Often, I’ll call one of my parents or sibling and if they don’t answer, I’ll get a text later saying, “everything okay?”
Assuming that something wasn’t okay was my loved one’s way of jumping to conclusions. When really, I just wanted to Facetime and show them my new cat…
Jumping to conclusions happens when we don’t use any facts or evidence before we make up our mind on something, usually because of a “gut feeling.” It becomes a problem when we allow ourselves to get worked up or stressed about it before receiving further information.
Again, you know how much I love to feel the feelings and want to honor my emotions. However, I used to let this lead me down that dark and twisty “I-feel-it-so-it-must-be-true” trap. Anyone else?
I’ve learned something important over the last few years of my growth journey and identifying my anxiety – feeling something (even if the feeling is quite strong) doesn’t make it so!
This still trips me up! Just last month, I had this extreme feeling that my friend was upset with me. I was convinced that someone was wrong between us even though I couldn’t think of a single thing I did wrong. I just knew.
Except, she wasn’t made at me. She was just busy when a new fling she had met and hadn’t come up for air to text me in a couple days. #thanksanxiety
The Inner Critic
Are you already a little uncomfortable by this headline? Oh yes, the inner critic or self-reproach is usually just your anxious brain talking. It’s not based on reality.
Self-Blame and Criticism
Everything’s my fault!
While I’m a big advocate for ownership, there’s a big difference between taking ownership for your mistakes and creating falsehoods around how you’re to blame.
I actually did this yesterday. I was whipping down the counter, bumped a tray of utensils, and one fell out onto a wine glass. Which shattered. I embarrassingly admitted to my partner that my clumsy self had broken a wine glass, but then immediately shifted my statement to, “silly me, it was just an accident.”
When you blame and criticize yourself for everything, it’s difficult if not impossible to build confidence. We need confidence to combat with the anxious diva rambling in our mind scape.
This one doesn’t really need explaining. It’s so easy for us to have a harsh and mean inner voice that calls names.
We think saying something like, “stop being a lazy fat ass” will get us to go to the gym. However, research shows that using encouraging and kind words are actually much more motivating.
Taking Things Personally
Oh goodness, this one still gets me from time to time and I hear it with many of my clients.
Do you ever notice your partner in a bad mood and think, “what did I do to upset him?” Or notice a co-worker behind on work and think, “maybe I haven’t done enough to help them.” Or hear about a friend’s divorce and think, “how did I not notice my friend was struggling in her marriage?”
By making everyone about you, you take on the responsibility of everyone’s well being around you. It’s not fair and it will only deplete your energy.
This is when our brain likes to spiral on what-if’s, getting us nowhere fast.
What if Sara doesn’t like chocolate cake and I should’ve made vanilla? Oh, what if she thinks I’m a bad friend for not noticing? What if someone else is already bringing dessert? Should I have asked around?
What if my boss doesn’t like the emoji I just sent in my email? What if he thinks it’s unprofessional? Or omg, thinks I’m flirting? Is accidentally flirting with an emoji grounds for harassment?
Okay, it’s a bit ridiculous how easy it was to come up with some fake scenarios there. My brain is very familiar with the worry-spiral.
Thing is, this is a style of thinking that can actually be useful sometimes. The reason us anxious folk can be better at planning is because we anticipate all the possible outcomes.
However, it becomes a hindrance when we can no longer enjoy something as simple as buying a nice gift for a friend because we spiral about all the possible things that can go poorly. (Again, speaking from experience here.)
The difference between worry and anxiety? Worry is often describing a thought-pattern, generally falling within thoughts of “what-if.” It’s often our worrying that causes us to feel anxious. The anxiety is our emotion and the physical expression on the body – stress hormones, tension, short breath, etc.
For many of us, worry is the common precursor to anxiety, but the other thought patterns discussed are equally important.
Awareness of Anxious Thought Patterns
One of the things I challenge my clients to do is keep inventory of some of their thoughts throughout the day. For a week, try writing down the thoughts that make you feel a bit upset or anxious. You can do this in a notebook or on your phone.
When you have a bit more time to explore the thoughts, try to categorize your way of thinking. You may notice certain thoughts as all-or-nothing mentality or self-criticism. Simply labeling them can help you to remember that they’re not based in truth, they’re just old patterns of thinking.
You can take it even further by writing down new statements that are no longer in line when the anxious thinking habits. Practice kindness and self forgiveness as you do this.
Remember, you’re human!
As a human, you naturally have patterns of thinking that you may not like. That’s okay. Awareness will help you to start shifting them.
I’d love to here how this goes in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.