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How to change anxious thoughts

Anxiety is the result of thinking in a particular way. Once you learn to change anxious thoughts (or at least to change the way you respond to anxious thoughts) you can greatly reduce the amount of anxiety you experience. 

This is powerful because while external circumstances are often largely beyond your control, but we are always able to improve the quality of our thinking.

Cognitive distortions

Those who run a pattern of anxiety almost always suffer from a particular set of what are called “cognitive distortions”. A cognitive distortion is simply an error in your thinking that makes a situation seem worse than it actually is. 

Hypnosis is a very effective tool for addressing and correcting cognitive distortions, because we are able to access the subconscious mind, which is the seat of your beliefs, automatic thoughts and habits.

In his highly influential book “Feeling Good”, psychiatrist Dr David Burns (one of the leading researchers in this field) identifies 10 of the most common cognitive distortions displayed by people running high levels of anxiety. I have outlined these below, and have added some suggestions for how you might begin to “flip” these distortions into something more constructive and realistic.

     

      1. All or Nothing thinking. 

    This is also known as global thinking or “black and white” thinking, where a person fails to see middle ground, or make meaningful distinctions. When we are very emotional, we tend to see things as ‘completely this or completely that’, without actually assessing things in a balanced way. This can result in feeling even worse, and getting stuck in a negative bias. 

    Here are some examples of all or nothing thinking: 

    “Things never work out for me.” 

    “I’m a complete failure.”

    “I always get left out at social events.”

    The presence of words like “never”, “always”, “total”, “complete” are signs that all or nothing thinking is present. 

    Flip it: To address all or nothing thinking, challenge yourself to see things from alternate points of view. How else could you interpret this situation? Look for the nuance, there is always a tonne of grey among the black and white! 

    See if you can reframe some of your generalisations about yourself and about life, to take in a more objective and balanced point of view. 

       

        1. Over-generalisations

      This is when you see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. 

      For example, “I always choke in big moments.” Or “All men cheat.” This might have happened once or twice, but this experience then gets generalised in your mind, so you believe it exists everywhere, even without proof.

      Flip it: Look for the exception to the generalisation. When has the opposite been true? Even a small example will fire a hole into the certainty of your conviction about yourself, someone else or a situation. Keep your negative experience specific to the actual event, rather than being tempted to generalise. 

         

          1. Mental filtering

        You pick out a single negative detail and focus on it exclusively.

        For example, you focus on the one mistake you made in a work presentation rather than the rest of it which went really well.

        Flip it: Look for the positive or good things in every situation. What went well? What can you be proud of? This will balance a propensity for focusing on the negative.

           

            1. Disqualifying positive experiences

          You reject positive experiences or feedback, explaining it away or finding a reason for it not to count. 

          For example, “I only won the race because the other runners weren’t very good” or “I got lucky”.

          Flip it: Resist the temptation to explain away your success. Take some credit for things that have gone your way. Make an effort to point these things out to yourself, even if you don’t really believe it yet, you will be offering your mind a more balanced interpretation of life.

             

              1. Jumping to conclusions

            You arbitrarily make assumptions about people or events that are not justified by the circumstances or facts of the situation. There are two types of this distortion: mind-reading, which assumes what other people are thinking, and fortune-telling, which assumes you know with certainty what is going to happen in the future. The assumption is always of a negative or pessimistic nature. 

            Flip it: Don’t be quick to judge people or situations. Leave some space for the unknown. The truth is that you can never fully know what another person is thinking or feeling, so don’t hold on your assumptions so tightly. Also leave space for the future to unfold on its own terms. The truth is that no one knows for sure what will happen from one moment to the next. Leave some space for something spontaneous to occur. 

               

                1. Magnification and minimisation

              You magnify negative events and minimise positive ones, leading to a skewed version of reality and negative self image.

              Flip it: Recognise that you are your likely to be own worst critic. Ask a trusted friend to give you a more balanced account of a situation if you need to, or even to give you an honest account of your positive qualities if you are struggling to see any.

                 

                  1. Emotional reasoning

                You use your emotions or feelings to interpret situations. This is flawed because our moods are unstable and always changing, so a feeling-based interpretation of reality won’t necessarily allow you to see things clearly and reasonably. 

                Flip it: Resist taking action or drawing conclusions while you are in a heightened emotional state. For example if you are extremely angry or upset about something, wait until you have had a chance to calm down before dealing with the situation. Also, recognise that emotions arise as a response to your thought patterns or triggers from past experiences, they do not necessarily represent an inherent truth about any situation.

                   

                    1. “Should” statements

                  These are statements you make about things you think you “should” or ought to do or be, or things you think others should or ought to do or be. Should statements set up rigid expectations (often arbitrarily and not based in reality) on yourself and others, which can lead to a sense of internal pressure or sense of failure and guilt for not living up to these expectations. You may also experience anger or resentment towards other people if they cannot live up to your self-imposed expectations.

                  Flip it: Notice where you are making these should statements, and investigate where your expectations came from. Are they a product of your upbringing? Who taught you to see life in this particular way? How has this rigidity affected you and your happiness?

                     

                      1. Labelling and mislabelling

                    These tendencies are similar to overgeneralisation, albeit a more extreme form, as judgments of value are assigned to ourselves or to others based on one instance or experience. For example, assuming someone is nasty or selfish based on an isolated incident.

                    Flip it: Challenge yourself to have more compassion and understanding for why people do the things they do, or why circumstances can turn out in a particular way. No one is perfect, and having a broader perspective can prevent you from being overly judgemental. When we keep an open mind, we are more able to feel empathy and let go of holding grudges etc. 

                       

                        1. Personalisation 

                      You take the blame for things that go wrong, even when it’s out of your control, for example if your partner is in a bad mood you assume it’s because of you. Or you think you are being personally targeted by something that if fact has nothing specific to do with you (though you may be affected by it), for example, taking it personally that you got fired, even though your whole department was let go for strategic reasons that have nothing to do with your performance.

                      Flip it: Realistically assess your role in the situation. Are you trying to control things that are out of your control? Are you taking responsibility for things which are not your responsibility? Are you taking something personally which actually affects many people? Realising not everything is about you is very liberating! 

                      Though it takes awareness, time and patience, cognitive patterns can be changed. When the above distortions are loosened, you will find anxiety and depressive stated ease up, as your mind becomes more relaxed. 

                      Overall, it is important to recognise that your worldview is arbitrary. Other people see things differently. Your worldview is a product of your experiences growing up, your cultural conditioning, the beliefs your parents, your education and other influences instilled in you. As you grow older most people reach a stage where they begin to challenge their worldview. They may come to realise that there are other possible interpretations and ways to perceive. 

                      Feel free to contact me for more information on how to change anxious thoughts. 

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