Anxiety doesn’t usually come out of nowhere. That’s how it feels to us in the moment. It feels like anxiety just hit us. In most cases, though not all, anxiety is triggered by our thinking. There are several common thinking errors that often drive our anxiety. Learning to identify these errors can help us to address them in the moment of an anxiety attack. First, however, we need to understand the ways in which our thinking influences our anxiety. Our thoughts effect anxiety in two specific ways: (1) triggering anxiety, and (2) perpetuating anxiety.
Our thoughts trigger our anxiety. The specific causes of anxiety may vary, and there are biological factors that should be considered. Yet, more often than not it is our own thinking that triggers an anxiety attack. Anxiety often lives in the future, focusing on various “what ifs.” “What if I don’t get into a good college…” “What if I contract HIV…” “What if I have a panic attack while visiting friends today…” “What if I don’t have enough money for retirement…” Sometimes fear can motivate us to take necessary steps to ensure we are being responsible. Fears that become obsessive, persistent, and overwhelming, however, are indications that we have crossed into a more dominating anxiety, where “what ifs” of the potential future govern my reaction to the present. Dwelling on the “what ifs” triggers that anxious reaction.
We know that our thinking plays a huge part in the experience of anxiety because the most effective counseling treatment to date focuses on cognition. Cognitive Therapy is built off of the assumptions hat “the way we think influences the way we feel, and therefore changing how we think can change how we feel” (Clark and Beck, The Anxiety & Worry Workbook, 5). If Cognitive Therapy can be a bit reductionist in its assessment of people and problems, it is, nontheless, on to something with regard to the power of thoughts. We are not simply thinking creatures, but our thoughts are powerful and influential.
In particular, anxiety is often triggered by an overestimation of the likelihood and/or severity of a threat or danger (see Clark and Beck, 31). Our minds are drawn to a potential threat or danger, like a car accident. Then we begin to fixate on this potential danger and increase the likelihood that it will happen to us in this moment, and increase the severity of the accident. We are now fully consumed with this possibility and begin to live as if it has already taken place. Our emotions are responding, then, to the certainty of the accident. Learning to evaluate the core issue underlying our anxiety, the interpretive extremes that we are adopting in that moment, and the reasonable details we are leaving out of our assessment of the situation can help us to curb that anxiety.
Our thoughts perpetuate our anxiety. Not only can our anxiety be triggered by our thinking, but those same thoughts can determine what happens next. Clark and Beck point out that “anxiety declines naturally if left alone” (28). Of course, if you have anxiety and panic you probably disagree with this statement. They know this and acknowledge that anxiety episodes are not necessarily brief. Yet, they note that often an episode persists because of our thinking. As they state it:
The important point is that the way you think determines whether anxiety persists or declines. Thinking about threat or danger [like car accidents] and vulnerability or helplessness (“I can’t do this”) will cause anxiety to persist. Thinking about acceptable risk (“Driving is an acceptable risk that millions take daily in our society”) and personal ability (“I can deal with this situation”) leads to a decline in anxiety. (30)
It is, of course, not easy to shift our focus in the moments of anxiety and panic. These statements are not written to condemn or discourage anyone who struggles with anxiety. Battling anxious thoughts is extremely difficult, that is, perhaps, why 40 million Americans admit to chronic worry. Realizing the role our thoughts play in shaping, triggering, and prolonging our anxiety, however, is vital for fighting back against them, and we can fight back.
Over the next several weeks it will be my plan to identify common thinking errors we make with regard to anxiety. We may list them below as part of this introduction to the topic. This list is a composite drawn from several different resources that identified common themes, but which may have used different verbiage to communicate them:
Catastrophizing – focusing on the worst possible outcome
False Extremes – various forms of all-or-nothing, black or white thinking.
Jumping to Conclusions – expecting that a dreaded outcome is certain
Generalizations – assuming a negative past experience will become the norm
Nearsightedness – focusing only on the data that is consistent with perceived threat, and filtering out contrary evidence
Mind-Reading – assuming that others have negative opinions of us
False “Shoulds”– obligating ourselves to fulfill unrealistic or non-moral expectations
False Responsibility – taking responsibility for people or events over which we have no control
Emotional Reasoning – assuming that all negative feelings must be true because they are so intense
Perhaps, as you look at this list, you already recognize some of your own tendencies towards these false interpretations and thinking errors. I hope you will check back each week as we explore each one and attempt to respond to it with the truth of God’s Word.
If anxiety is triggered and perpetuated by our own thinking we have every reason to hope. God’s Word assures us that we can be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Rom. 12:2). This is not intended to be a simplistic formula: right thinking = right living. For Paul the word “minds” here is more robust and deals with the whole person, not just the cognitive piece. Yet, the cognitive is a part of this picture, and challenging our thoughts can help to cultivate peace (Isa. 26:3). So, as we begin this series let’s hold out hope that God will enable us to grow and change as we wrestle with our thoughts.