What is an anxiety-related thought trap?
A thought trap that triggers or worsens anxiety is one kind of cognitive distortion, “an exaggerated or irrational thought that has the power to negatively distort how we see reality,” clinical neuropsychology PhD resident Nawal Mustafa previously told Well+Good. In particular, an anxiety-related thought trap, or anxiety trap, will distort your reality in a way that makes you feel more anxious about the future, even to the point of keeping you from taking action or moving forward with your life.
Indeed, according to clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Joy from Fear, these negative thinking patterns have “incredible power to affect us physically, mentally, and emotionally.” For starters, the activation of your fight-or-flight nervous system triggered by anxiety can leave you sweating, nauseated, feeling jittery, or short of breath with a racing heart. And on the mental-emotional side of things, maintaining even a baseline level of anxiety can lead to self-doubt and low self-esteem.
How anxiety traps can become especially ingrained in our thinking
Because feelings of anxiety can often get intertwined with healthy striving and wanting to be the best version of yourself, it can be easy to gloss over them—particularly in the workplace where you’re being counted on to succeed, says Morra Aarons-Mele, author of The Anxious Achiever: Turn Your Biggest Fears into Your Leadership Superpower and host of The Anxious Achiever podcast. This is especially poignant for the people with high-functioning anxiety who may feel like if they don’t feel anxious, nervous, or agitated at work, they’re somehow letting themselves off the hook or at risk of becoming a slacker.
“[Anxiety thought traps] can become so habitual that we don’t consider their harm.” —Morra Aarons-Mele, author of The Anxious Achiever
“When you’re an anxious achiever, you can sort of forget how to operate without anxiety, especially because in our very productivity-driven world, you often get rewarded for operating with anxiety if you’re getting your work done,” says Aarons-Mele. In turn, the thought traps that fuel anxiety can become a part of your regular thinking—something you just learn to push through, rather than investigate and dismantle. “These thoughts become so habitual that we don’t consider their harm,” she says.
But, as noted above, harboring anxious thoughts is detrimental to both body and mind. Not to mention, operating with constant anxiety at work can fuel fatigue and burnout; trigger crippling perfectionism and imposter syndrome; and reinforce the damaging idea that your worth is based on what you can achieve.
In turn, it’s important to both identify and disrupt anxiety thought traps whenever they creep up. Below, find five of the most common anxiety traps to watch out for, plus advice for how to escape them.
5 thought traps that fuel anxiety, and how to combat them
This anxiety trap is characterized by always assuming that any situation will result in the worst-case scenario, even if you have little or no evidence to think so. To make matters, well, worse, it’s also possible that believing the worst will happen becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to self-sabotage and other behaviors that fuel a negative outcome, says Dr. Manly.
The fix: A powerful tool to stop catastrophizing in its tracks is to simply call it out and redirect your brain to a more productive path by considering the other possible outcomes. That is, if you find yourself thinking the worst, instead push yourself to envision what would be the best or even a neutral outcome of the situation. You don’t necessarily have to believe that these positive or neutral things will happen; simply considering them can help pull you out of the anxiety spiral, says Dr. Manly.
Factual information can be a powerful tool, too. It’s harder to believe in a theoretical worst-case outcome if you’re looking at facts that prove something different may be true. For example, if you’re catastrophizing about your financial situation, Aarons-Mele says getting some concrete numbers together and seeking advice from a financial expert can help put your worries into more realistic perspective.
2. All-or-nothing thinking
When you’re caught in this anxiety trap, there isn’t any nuance. Everything is the worst or the best; you’re either blessed or doomed. But in reality, life isn’t so cut and dried—and falling into the all-or-nothing trap can prevent you from seeing all of the interesting variations and subtleties of things, says Aarons-Mele. Plus, believing that things are either great or terrible can lead you to think that if you don’t do something perfectly, it’s not worth trying at all. Cue: damaging perfectionistic behaviors.
The fix: This thought trap springs, in part, from a tendency toward judgement—both of yourself and of others. So, Dr. Manly advises trying to consider at least one or two alternative perspectives from your own whenever the all-or-nothing tendency rears its head. Keeping an open mind to other perspectives can help you realize that there’s a lot of distance and opportunity between the worst and best outcomes, which can be a useful tool for neutralizing such extreme thinking.
This anxiety trap is marked by calling yourself extreme negative names like lazy, undeserving, or incompetent—especially in scenarios where self-criticism is entirely unwarranted. (Consider receiving a constructive comment on a work project, and instantly assuming that this makes you a terrible employee.)
In addition to fueling anxiety, such negative self-talk can spark a spiral of negativity, potentially triggering depressive thoughts and lowering your self-esteem. “When we listen to the inner critic—the voice that wants to tell us we are unworthy or unlovable—we punish ourselves in the unkindest of ways,” says Dr. Manly.
The fix: When you catch yourself calling yourself an unkind name, pause for a few deep breaths to acknowledge the label, and then redirect to a more positive one. This is a technique called thought-stopping that can help you remember that you’re not your worst moments and that it’s important to give yourself grace. In other moments, it’s also helpful to actively practice positive self-talk as a means to bolster your self-esteem against more critical scenarios.
4. Ruminating and overthinking
Aarons-Mele calls this anxiety trap “an anxious person’s best friend” for how commonly it surfaces. Also known as “stewing,” ruminating or overthinking is all about revisiting the same situations over and over again in your mind and marinating on them. Because carefully thinking things through before acting is often something that high-achievers do, it can be difficult for these folks, in particular, to identify when this helpful thinking takes a turn into rumination territory, says Aarons-Mele.
Often, overthinking also involves thinking about something negative that happened in the past and that you can’t change, which just makes the process even more futile and steers you away from resolution. “When we use our energy to engage in unhelpful repetitive thoughts, we are robbing ourselves of the ability to put our thoughts toward positive directions,” says Dr. Manly.
The fix: To stop yourself from overthinking, start by grounding yourself using your five senses (try the 5-4-3-2-1 technique to home in on things you can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell) or embrace a distraction that’ll pull you out of the thinking spiral, like listening to a favorite song or zoning out to a comforting TV show, says Dr. Manly.
From there, practice psychological distancing by considering the situation you were (over)thinking about from a third-party perspective, like that of a friend, or by scheduling time to consider it tomorrow or on another day. You can also try purposefully shifting your thoughts to something else “in a direction that feels right to you,” says Dr. Manly.
5. Discounting the positive
You’ve fallen into this thought trap when you find ways to make the positive experiences in your life not really “count,” either by rejecting them outright or convincing yourself that any success or achievement happened purely by chance.
The fix: The best way to fight this negative thinking loop is to actively savor any positive moment—however small it may be—whenever it arrives, says Dr. Manly. Instead of writing off your own role in this good thing happening, also take the time to consider how your actions and skills made this positive event or feeling possible, she adds.
It’s also helpful to keep a physical file of positive moments or wins, including compliments or praise from others and personal moments of strength that you record. Being able to reference your capabilities at any point can help you build confidence and reduce the tendency to write off successes.
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