5 Thinking Errors that Trap us in Anxiety and How to Break Free

Rehana, a coaching client of mine, is the envy of many of her peers. As the general manager of a large, successful store, her work is one of the CEO’s core priorities. She does good work and is well-loved by her team.

But she has a secret. She suffers from anxiety. It keeps her up at night, impacts her health, and takes a lot of time and energy to manage. When people praise Rehana’s poise during a major customer presentation, they’re unaware that she survived the meeting by taking anti-anxiety medication. She handles two jobs each day: the one outlined in his job description and the other managing her anxiety.

As a result of her anxiety she has sleepless nights, she is agitated, shaky, unable to relax, irritable with occasional anger outbursts. She breaks downs in tears at no apparent reason. Despite her best efforts of coping by distracting and reassuring herself that everything will be fine, she has as sick feeling in the stomach that “everything is going to come unravelled”

We all know what it feels like to be afraid when confronted by a threatening stranger on the street or be anxious before an important exam or job interview. Its hard to imagine that life can be lived in a state of perpetual calm and safety.

Fear is a basic emotion and often a useful part. Fear warns us of impending dangers. Whereas feeling anxious can motivate a person to be better prepared. When fear is misplaced, excessive and disconnected from reality it no longer provides an accurate and reliable signal of danger. For some people anxiety becomes overwhelming characterized by excessive feelings of apprehension, worry and nervousness over everyday situations that most people face with little concern. While fear helps us survive, when mixed with uncertainty, it can lead to something quite bad for our mental health: anxiety.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in any given year, 19% of U.S. adults are suffering from an anxiety disorder, and 31% will deal with a disorder at least once in their lifetime.

Last one and half years has made it even worse as perhaps the most difficult part of this pandemic is the uncertainty we are all facing. Uncertainty about how contagious and deadly Coronavirus is. Uncertainty about the travel that we have planned. Uncertainty about the economy. Uncertainty about our jobs.

Based on my personal experience and research, I’ve learned there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to determining when anxiety becomes maladaptive and when to get help. The fact is that anxiety exists at different levels and in different ways in each of us, depending on our brain chemistry, genetic makeup, backgrounds, environments, social relationships, and so on.

According to Cognitive Behavioral Therepy (CBT) when anxious, we tend to get trapped in false or limited ways of thinking. These thought patterns create a debilitating negative spiral that can take over our lives by convincing us of impending doom and further exacerbating our sense of helplessness. Here are five traps and thought patterns that people most commonly experience and the kinds of things they say when in the grip of a specific trap:

Catastrophizing: Imagining the worst possible outcome. “I will get fired if the presentation has any glitches.”or Thinking that chest tightness is a sign of heart attack.

Mind reading: Imagining what others are thinking. “I know he doesn’t like working with me because he thinks I’m dumb.”

Fortune telling: Imagining what the future holds, but without data. “They will all hate me in the new group because I’m the only one who isn’t a physicist.”

Black-and-white thinking: Considering only two possible outcomes. “I’ll either hit a home run or get fired.” Or Person with social anxiety is convinced his work colleagues will think that he is incompetent if he speaks up

Overgeneralizing: Painting all situations with a generalized outcome. “I presented to the CEO last year, and it didn’t go well. I never get things right or always fail when it comes to executive audiences.”

If one or more of these thinking traps has a hold on you, try these strategies I’ve used with my coaching clients to overcome them. These suggestions do not replace the need to consult mental health professionals for possible diagnosis and treatment for anxiety, but they can help you break your negative thought patterns, gain control over your anxiety, and allow you to listen to the chatter that really matters in your daily work.

  • Pause the pattern. Anxiety is often preceded by physical symptoms. Learn to recognize your physical cues of an impending attack: a churning stomach, sweaty palms, or flaring nostrils. These reactions are part of an amygdala hijack, causing your body to react with a fight-or-flight response instead of operating from your thinking brain. When you notice these reactions, consciously change your activities. Engage the thinking part of your brain, for instance, by doing math. But not something as simple as 2+2; try something that will challenge you enough to divert your brain away from your stressor.
  • Name the trap. Give your pattern a name, whether it is one of the traps listed above or something you come up with yourself. Naming converts the vague threat to something concrete. You regain power by realizing you’ve encountered it before — and survived. You can fine-tune your mitigation strategy based on the specific trap that’s ensnared you. Rehana, for instance, had a better sense of the steps to take once she had named her patterns and could distinguish between catastrophizing, mind reading, and fortune telling.
  • Separate FUD from fact. Create a two-column list. On one side list all your fears, uncertainties, and doubts, or FUD. The second column is for verified facts. Being able to compare the two can quell your fears and bring you back to reality.

It’s human to experience fear, self-doubt, and confusion. In the right dose these feelings can be helpful — they keep us vigilant, engaged, and productive. But when anxieties overburden our brains and undermine performance, it’s time to consciously choose the strategies that put us in charge of our internal dialogue and tune in to the chatter that matters. For further conversations please reach out to me..your coach in possibilities. Parul