by Mike McKeown
Last week, in Anxiety 101, I talked about the fact that there are various sorts of anxiety, but not all of it is bad. I touched on the idea that lower levels of anxiety can actually be helpful throughout the course of our day. There’s also a difference between normal worry and anxiety, which is destructive. If you haven’t read that article, here’s where you can find it.
When we move from our regular old average worry into that ‘bad’ level of anxiety, the biggest problem is that it controls us. It is literally as if the anxiety has kidnapped our thoughts and is holding them hostage.
When you have ‘normal’ levels of worry, you might think about something that could go wrong. Maybe you’ve offered to volunteer and help at an event at your child’s school. When you go to pick them up, you might have a few thoughts go through your mind about what could go wrong. Or maybe you realize that you don’t have all of the details. But when your kids get into the car, you’re able to put it aside and listen to their day. Later that evening you might send an email or text someone, but it hasn’t completely taken over your mind. This is a pretty normal level of worry or concern.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is emotionally and mentally crippling. When you are in the middle of that high anxiety state, this is when you start obsessing on the worrying images. When your kids get into the car, you don’t pay attention because all you can think about are the things that could go wrong. Those nagging little ‘what if’ scenarios in your mind will grow until they dominate everything about your day. It can cause us to snap at people, lose appetite, get a headache…the list of things can go on and on.
This is where we need to take control of our thoughts back. Anxiety can’t control us. We must control it.
You know, that may be an easy sentence to type, read, or even say, but putting it into practice is something completely different. So how can we take that control back?
The first step in changing our thoughts is to slow down our thinking. In today’s world, everything moves fast and furious. Cell phones have made it impossible to get some time ‘away’ from certain pressures and if we get behind, it can add to that anxiety.
When you are experiencing anxiety, you often don’t remember that you have the power to slow things down. Stop. Breathe. Count to ten. This is the first step to coming down off that anxiety roller coaster.
Next, we need to sort out whether the thoughts and concerns we’re having are real or are they misbeliefs?
Misbeliefs are negative, distorted statements that a person tells themselves.
Identifying misbeliefs is key to addressing anxiety issues. What you think and believe determines how you feel and consequently, what you do. You see, thoughts determine our behaviors. If we change our negative thoughts, we change how we feel and again, how we behave.
Misbeliefs are the direct cause of turmoil and dysfunctional behavior. They are the reason people continue in their destructive behavior even when they are aware that it is harmful to them.
There’s an entire segment of therapy based on misbeliefs. Below, you can see a few of the different types of false thoughts that people may have.
- Black or white thinking – This consists of looking at things as all-or-nothing. Most often, people are thinking: “Everything has to be perfect or I’m a failure.”
- Overgeneralizing – Expecting one negative experience to be true in all areas of life. If someone has failed at some job at work, they might carry this over to their parenting, or their marriage or even their hobbies.
- The Filter – You know those neat Instagram filters that make our pictures look better? Well, we also have mental filters and sometimes, people turn them upside down. So instead of looking at things as better, they focus on the negatives. Most often people will find themselves making the negative their baseline and they rule out the positives as just luck or chance.
- Should or should not – This is when we set up a rigid set of rules and insist on conforming to a set of ‘should or should not.’ When one of these rules gets broken, people become very hard on themselves. Do not ever should yourself and do not let anyone should on you.
- Catastrophizing – This is when someone immediately leaps into expecting the worst case scenario.
- Personalization – This is when people take responsibility for situations that are not within their control.
How can you identify misbeliefs in your thoughts?
The first step in figuring out whether something is a misbelief is to ask yourself the following questions.
- Is there evidence that this thought (idea/concern/scenario/mental picture) is really true? Or is this just a fictional ‘what if’ that you have created? Weighing the reality of the situation will often help give us more balance in our thoughts.
- Shift Perspective. Are you able to step outside your own thoughts and see it from an outsider’s view? Or maybe put yourself in someone else’s shoes? A perspective shift can sometimes clear that haze of loud, controlling thoughts. Being able to see it from a different side takes us out of the center of things and helps us to realize it’s not often as large as we’d thought.
- What are the odds that the things I’m scared of actually will happen? Is this something that will take an entire series of highly complex Rube Goldberg type events in order to come to fruition? Or is it more likely that everything’s going to turn out okay?
Once misbeliefs are identified, then we need to remove them and replace them with positive thoughts. Changing your thought process is essential If you don’t make that shift, your negative reactions will only make your symptoms worse. This will make it harder to live a normal life and go through every day routines. Without this change, negative thoughts, and symptoms, will become more frequent, and more debilitating.
Next time I will share tips on how you can easily replace these misbeliefs with positive, encouraging, and healthy thoughts.