6 Kinds of Anxious Thoughts & How To Identify Each
One of the most frustrating parts of having an anxiety disorder is the constant bombardment of irrational thoughts to the brain. That being said, even people that don’t have anxiety are expressing feeling overwhelmed with worrisome thoughts due to the constant feed of information were getting from our phones, social media, the news, etc.
It is so important for us to be able to both identify the anxious thought and recognize it for what it really is, just a thought. Being aware of the different kinds of anxious thought patterns can be extremely helpful in identifying them! And once we identify them for what they are, we can dismiss them and give them less power over us. Anxious thoughts can be particularly dangerous because they can give you a false sense of perfect control or absolute chaos in a situation, when the actual issue usually lies somewhere in between those two categories.
Below you will find a list of the most common types of anxious thoughts:
Catastrophizing– Catastrophizing means that the thought holder is always assuming the worst. Catastrophizing is much different than being a negative person and always seeing the down side of things. In fact, most people that catastrophize or suffer from any other types of anxious thoughts, usually do so to themselves. For the most part, these are internal struggles. Catastrophizing is thinking of the most unlikely, almost even impossible, and often times unrelated outcome or consequence to something and assuming it is the only option that exists. Let me give you an example, one that I unfortunately used to dwell on too much. Let’s say that in this example I am a teacher, and the principal happened to do an impromptu observation of my class. After they left, my first and only thought was that I was getting fired. Never a realistic idea of them most likely having both positive and constructive feedback for my class. With catastrophizing, it is always the worst case scenario.
Selective thinking– Selective thinking is when the person having anxious thoughts refuses to believe factual evidence, even when their anxious thought or fear has been disproven. I’ll give you an example, as selective thinking was a complete doozy of a habit for me to break. When my anxiety disorder first starting impacting my daily life, it came about in an extreme form of hypochondria. I was convinced (I use this word intentionally, knowing its meaning. Although to everyone else my thoughts were absurd, I was completely convinced without any sort of doubt that my fears were true, no matter how unlikely they were) that something was wrong with me. I spent countless dollars on doctor’s visits, scans, tests, and everything else you could imagine because although the evidence was telling me everything was fine, my anxiety was always trying to convince me that everyone else had missed something.
Mind reading – Mind Reading is fairly straightforward and something I think we can all relate to, even if just on occasion for some of us. However, it can cause devastating effects to the anxious thinker. Mind reading is when we assume to know what another person is thinking or feeling, without asking them. Often times, these assumptions are negative and judgemental and cause the anxious thinker to put themselves down or potentially spiral into a new path of anxious thoughts. Let’s say your sitting at a coffee shop and run into an old friend. They say hi, nice to see you, and as they are walking out the door you are thinking of the millions of terrible things they are thinking about you. Sound familiar? Now, I can’t promise that they aren’t thinking negative things about you, but it is much more likely they are thinking about the millions of other things going on in their life.
Magical thinking aka if / then statements – Oh magical thinking how I loathe thee, but unfortunately am most familiar with you out of all the types of anxious thinking. Magical thinking, often commonly associated with compulsions in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, is when we provide ourselves with false control over a situation by creating if / then statements. For those of you that aren’t fans, I promise I won’t start talking programming. An if / then statement in psychology is essentially a false form of bargaining with yourself. If I do this one thing, then this other thing will happen. For example, if I pick up this piece of trash, then nothing bad will happen to me for the rest of the day. Or if I don’t go to the party I was invited to, something bad is definitely going to happen to me or someone I know. Magical thinking is extremely unproductive and provides the person with a false sense of control over their own life, which can be dangerous in the long run.
All or nothing – With all or nothing, it is or isn’t – there are no other possibilities in between. Similar to catastrophizing, all or nothing scenarios are extremely common amongst people that suffer from anxiety and tend to be the root cause of a lot of anxious thinking. One thing that extremely anxious minds tend to do is see in black in white, instead of the incredible colored spectrum that we can actually experience in life. There seems to be a misconception that in every situation only A or B can exist, and that there are no other options. For example, my head hurts – its either a headache or brain cancer, that’s it – instead of the countless of other possibilities like pressure from allergies, a sinus infection, dehydration, migraine, maybe a bump on the head we didn’t know we got? The point is, on a scale of extremely likely to extremely unlikely, our situations usually end up being somewhere in between with a mix of different factors.
What if’s – What if’s are the most common of irrational thoughts for people with anxiety and quite frankly, for people in general. What if’s are when a person irrationally imagines the consequences of something bad and sometimes even believes it actually happened when it didn’t. It’s sort of the counterpart of selective thinking. What if thoughts are relentless and if you’re not careful, you can get stuck in a spiral of these bad boys. Not just for anxiety either, for regular decision making in everyday life. It’s always good to weigh the pros and cons of each situation, but we’re not fortune tellers and we can’t pretend to be. What if’s also tend to to be on the far fetched side of worries, instead of the actual troubles we could potentially face. They can range from what if they don’t like me, or what if I fail, to what if my house spontaneously combusts while I’m on vacation. This one is really difficult but we eventually have to realize that we don’t have control over every situation, however, we can “what if” in the opposite direction. What if they do like you, what if you don’t fail, and what if your house doesn’t spontaneously combust while you’re on vacation (far more likely that it ever actually happening). The trick is to remind yourself that there are a million what if’s in the world, but if we sit around dwelling on all of them, we’ll never move forward.
Now that we know the most common kinds of anxious thoughts, we have to remember when we have them that they aren’t welcome. Identify the thought, call it out for what it is (a thought and nothing more) and then move on. Dwelling on the thought will only feed into it and cause more anxiety.
If you can, spend the next few days recognizing when an anxious thought pops into your head. Once you call it out, you can remind yourself that it doesn’t serve you and that your anxious thoughts don’t run the show, you do.
Stay tuned for Anxious Thoughts Part II: How to Combat Anxious Thinking