You feel sick.
Your mind has been racing for hours.
You can’t stop thinking about what might happen and how terrible things could be.
Your greatest foe has reared his ugly head once again—anxiety.
His main goal? Shutting you down. And unfortunately, he wins more often than not. Is it even possible to overcome him when he strikes?
Thankfully, it is.
The secret to overcoming anxiety lies in becoming the master of your own mind. If you learn how to spot and interrupt anxious thinking patterns, you can stop anxiety in its tracks before it does more damage.
Pattern #1: All or Nothing Thinking
All or nothing thinking tells us that a situation has to be EVERYTHING or NOTHING at all.
For example: One day, I was sitting across from my trusted counselor complaining about my husband. “He made a list of 10 chores to get done on Saturday, and he ONLY DID 7 OF THEM!” I cried.
She cocked her head.
“What?! In school, getting a 7 out of 10 is a D!” I said.
She giggled, then burst out laughing.
“Wait…is this about me?” I asked.
She raised her eyebrows. I realized I had fallen victim to all-or-nothing thinking. In school, 7 out of 10 is a “D,” but life isn’t school. We aren’t graded on everything we do. The fact that my husband completed 7 out of 10 tasks was actually a reason to celebrate!
The truth is: there is value in recognizing small steps and incremental progress.
High expectations often lead to all-or-nothing thinking. You want a straight-A report card, specific salary, certain bodyweight, spotless house. High expectations are great, but it’s crucial that you don’t hinge your happiness on achieving perfection. You’ll only end up anxious and depressed. Be grateful for what you have and what you’ve accomplished—even if you don’t hit your initial goal. Celebrate little by little, imperfect progress!
Pattern #2: Catastrophic Thinking
Catastrophic thinking makes us think of terrible outcomes—the phrase “making a mountain out of a molehill” sums up this pattern perfectly. When there’s a situation you’re unsure about and things could go wrong, catastrophic thinking causes your mind to assume the worst outcome will happen.
- You didn’t pay your phone bill on time last month, so your mind automatically says your credit will plummet and you’ll never be able to buy a house.
- You and your girlfriend/boyfriend had a huge fight last night, so your mind automatically says they will break up with you and your life will be over.
- Your boss calls you into their office to talk about a mistake you made, so your mind automatically says you’ll get fired.
Are these outcomes possible? Yes, technically. But the truth is, 99% of the time the worst outcome doesn’t happen. And in hindsight, you often feel like you worried for nothing. The stories you and I write in our heads about what might happen are almost always wrong.
Pattern #3: “What If” Thinking
“What If” thinking is like catastrophic thinking, but causes you to worry about possible outcomes way out in the future.
- Worrying about having to find a new job in a few years because someone said you’re in a dying industry.
- Worrying that you’ll never find a soul mate and will be alone for the rest of your life because you haven’t been on a date in a while.
- Worrying about failing a college course because the syllabus looks like it’s in a different language. 😉
What’s one thing each of these examples have in common? Nothing has happened yet to cause the outcome you’re worried about and nothing is guaranteed to happen. “What if” thinking will have you focusing on highly unlikely scenarios.
The second step to beating anxiety is interrupting these thinking patterns when you spot them. More to come in Part 2 soon!
~ Donna Durham, MMFT