Have you ever freaked out? Made a mountain out of a mole hill? Or thought you were so right about something, only to find out later you were way off base? If so, you’re making what counselors call cognitive distortions--- or thinking errors. Most of us make thinking errors, but for people who struggle with generalized anxiety, panic, or specific phobias, these thinking errors carry a clear message of doom and gloom. They also lead to negative “what- if” thinking.
What’s the answer? It begins with noticing. Because anxiety disorders are fueled by thoughts of fear, avoidance and negative self-talk, you’ll need to learn the thinking errors and pay attention to the ones you have the greatest propensity toward. You’ll also need to catch yourself when you’re falling into what-if thinking. Remember, you have been thinking this way for years and your thinking has probably gone unchallenged. Noticing will help you slow down and give space for exploring your beliefs and evaluating their validity. Once you become proficient at noticing, you can make steps to change. You can challenge yourself to make positive counterstatements that will refute your negative self-talk. In other words, you can learn to think this….not that.
Here is a basic list of thinking errors common to those with anxiety issues. I suggest you pay close attention to each one.
This is making a mountain out of a mole-hill thinking; believing that a negative or less than perfect outcome would be an end of the world catastrophe. When I struggled with panic years ago, I believed I couldn’t handle it, I’d be overwhelmed and I’d never recover. While these negative attributions sound ridiculous, they are not ridiculous to the person suffering---they are very real.
Catastrophizing under estimates your ability to cope. Ask yourself this: “If the worst thing happened, is it absolutely true I couldn’t handle it?” More often than not, human beings are very resilient. Entertaining the idea that you could cope opens up possibilities and empowers you to change.
This means you falsely assume that because you’ve had one panic attack in a particular situation or place, you’re doomed to always experience panic in similar situations. For example, you believe that because you panic in closed spaces, you always will. In fact, just the thought of being in a tight place can cause anxiety. I tore my rotator cuff and had to have an MRI. The very thought of picturing myself shut in that tiny tube gave me anxiety. But I had a choice; face the fear and eat the rat, or stay stuck.
Black and White Thinking
I’ll never get better, I can’t handle this, I’ll always be sick. This only intensifies the panic. There’s a whole lot of middle ground in between I can’t--- and I always can. We have to replace the negative self talk with the truth. For example: a counterstatement to my saying and believing I can’t handle a panic attack would be---you know what---- I CAN handle this, I’ve handled it before. It’s unpleasant, but I’m not going to die from it. No one has ever died from panic. I will get better; people aren’t institutionalized because they have panic disorder. I may not feel 100% tomorrow, but as I learn the correct skills to manage it, I WILL get better.
People with anxiety tend to make judgments totally on the basis of their feelings. Therefore they often believe things like this:
- Something is wrong with me
- I’m weird
- Should be able to overcome this anxiety
- I’m weak
- I’ll be embarrassed and ashamed
They conclude that because the feel weak, it means they ARE weak, when nothing could be farther from the truth. It takes real courage and faith to face your fears and overcome them. It’s much easier to bury your head in the sand and pretend you’re ok. So notice your self- talk. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Is what I’m telling myself helpful?
- Am I making my feelings into facts?
- Is it making me upset?
- Is it helping me get what I want?
- Is it helping me reach my goals
- Is it fueling the anxiety?
- What evidence do I have to support this belief?
- Is it always true about me---are there any exceptions?
Then you have to CHOSE to set your mind.
Should, Must, Have to Statements
These statements keep you locked into narrow rigid ways of living while perpetuating anxiety and tension. They also prohibit self-discovery. See if any of these statements fit for you:
- I have to avoid getting anxious
- I should be able to handle this
- I must never be afraid
- I must always be competent
- I should never get sick
Jumping to Conclusions/Mind Reading
I performed poorly so I assume others think I’m a failure. I had a panic attack and I believe others think I’m a total loser. I’m afraid of dogs and I feel like people are laughing about me behind my back. When we jump to conclusions and try to read other people’s minds, we are failing to do several important things---- resist, refute and reframe. Resist the urge to jump to conclusions. Refute the feelings and beliefs by asking yourself the following Socratic questions:
- What evidence do I have to support this belief?
- Is it always true?
- What alternative explanation could there be?
- What’s the worst that could happen if this were true?
Now reframe your thoughts with a positive counterstatement. Here’s an example:
Belief: “What if I pass out when I have a panic attack, I’ll die of embarrassment?”
Socratic questioning: “What evidence do I have that panic attacks cause people to faint?” (They actually rev up the central nervous system, not relax it!) Could someone actually empathize with me if I were to panic?
Positive Counterstatement: “If I pass out it’s not the end of the world. I may feel embarrassed, but my co-worker struggled with anxiety so he’ll understand. I won’t die because panic attacks aren’t dangerous.
You may be thinking—great, I’m just supposed to tell myself all this stuff even though I don’t believe it. No. In the beginning you may not be able to change your cognitive distortions totally. The key here is to learn to at least modify them. For example, instead of telling yourself you’ll never panic; or you’ll always panic (black and white thinking). Try modifying. There’s a lot of middle ground in between always and never. Tell yourself, maybe I won’t always panic---and I can’t say I’ll never panic, but maybe I’ll panic only sometimes. That brings things into more middle ground. Look for exceptions. Think of times you didn’t panic and use that to ground your beliefs.
If you’re a Christian, the Bible is full of verses on anxiety, fear, and how to set your mind. I’ve included a few here. If your anxiety or panic has become debilitating or you find yourself not functioning well, see a therapist.
“If I shall say, “My foot has slipped,” Thy loving-kindness, O Lord, will hold me up. When my anxious thoughts multiply within me, Thy consolations delight my soul.” Psalm 94:18-19
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the defense of my life; Whom shall I dread?” Psalm 27:1-2
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you: I have called you by name: you are Mine! “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you. For I am the Lord your God.” Isaiah 43:1-2.
“The Lord is near.” Philippians 4:5b
“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is anything excellent or praiseworthy, let your mind dwell on these things. Philippians 4:8.
“I lay down and slept; I awoke, for the Lord sustains me.” Psalm 3:5
“Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, and surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10.