Those of us who suffer from anxiety problems know it doesn’t always take very much to trigger our anxiety. We can go from zero to a hundred in nothing flat. And once we get started, it’s hard to come back down. We might have some strategies for calming ourselves, some of us will use medications to help us along.
Have we ever really stopped and looked at what we do that might be causing us to trigger ourselves? David Burns, in his book, “When Panic Attacks,” lists ten cognitive distortions, twisted ways of thinking, that can cause feelings of anxiety, depression and anger. We’re going to examine some of these distorted ways of thinking now and look at how they can help us feed our anxieties.
Fortune Telling. We predict what’s going to happen in the future. Usually, we’re telling ourselves that something awful is going to happen. For example, if you’re shy or scared of public speaking, you might say, “I know I’m going to look like a fool when I give that presentation at work tomorrow.” If you have a fear of getting stung by bees, you might think, “I don’t care how lovely the flowers are, I’m not going anywhere close to that garden.”
Mind Reading. Mind reading is when we assume people are judging us or looking down at us, even when there’s good reason for them to do so. This is one that I was very guilty of during my retail career. If I wasn’t feeling confident that day or if I was the slightest bit unsure of the advice I would be giving to customer, I would feel like they could see right through me. I’d see them getting a second opinion or reading the product’s packaging and think, “They could probably tell I don’t know what I’m talking about so they decided what I said wasn’t good enough.”
The Binocular Trick. When you look at your shortcomings, they seem to be huge and out of proportion. When you look at your good qualities, you flip the binoculars around, and they appear to be tiny and insignificant. This can often be the case when we’re trying to convince ourselves to do something we’re scared of. The idea of asking that girl out is world-ending-terrifying, and the fact that you’re a really nice, sweet guy won’t play any role in her decision-making process. Did you notice how this example also had a touch of mind reading to it as well?
Emotional Reasoning. This is when we base our reasoning on how we feel. We think, “I feel scared, so I must really be in danger.” We can easily escalate our fears into sheer terror using this kind of thinking, but I know it’s one that I’m very guilty of using.
Should statements. We use statements with should, shouldn’t, ought, must and have-to in order to criticize ourselves. “I shouldn’t feel so anxious. There must be something wrong with me.”
Labelling. You take a flaw about yourself and make it your whole identity. Idiot, depressive, nervous, loser. The list can go on and on. Take your pick.
Self-Blame. Instead of figuring out what caused a problem, you just blame yourself. You beat yourself up over every flaw you can find.
I know the first time I looked at this list, I was able to find myself in a few of the distortions. After looking at it a couple more times, I realized that I could find myself in every item on the list. That’s not uncommon, so don’t feel bad if you’re the same way.
In fact, being able to recognize yourself performing these distortions is really the first step to using them to help ease your anxiety. Become familiar with this list and see if you can’t catch yourself. Remember, these are all twisted ways of thinking – they’re all inherently untrue. They’re all lies. When you’re able to find the lie in the way you’re thinking about yourself, you’ll be able to reduce the amount of anxiety you’re feeling.
When you’re feeling anxious and you find the lie about what’s making you anxious, the anxiety will disappear – you’ll see that it’s just not true.
Let’s look again at the person who was scared of getting stung by bees. He made an assumption that going to the garden would automatically result in his getting stung. First of all, it is untrue that going to a garden will automatically get you stung by a bee. Secondly, he never considered his options to protect himself from what he feared. He could have worn a long-sleeved shirt and jeans to minimize his risk. He could have purchased repellent. He could have carried a fly-swatter with him. By finding the lie in this man’s fear, we can see all sorts of other options to carry on with what might have seemed like an otherwise impossible task for him.
Look at the labelling distortion. There’s a real quick distinction to make here. The phrases, “I’m nervous” and “I feel nervous” are wildly different. Absolutely none of us are the physical manifestation of anxiety – it just doesn’t exist. But every single one of us knows what feeling nervous is. It is a feeling that we experience, separate from ourselves.
There are lies present in every single one of these distortions. The key to using them to reduce our own anxiety is to look at ourselves honestly. When we recognize that we’re using one of the distortions, we want to examine our thinking and find the lie in it. Finding the lie will show us that the thinking that’s causing our anxiety is simply not true.