6 Common Thinking Errors that Worsen Anxiety
Anxiety is a common problem for anyone struggling with or recovering from addiction. The National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions surveyed more than 43,000 people and found that among people who had experienced an anxiety disorder in the past year, about 15 percent had at least one substance use disorder--about twice the rate of addiction as in the general population. And that didn’t include post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which is an even greater risk factor for substance use than generalized anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder.
At the moment, most of us in the US and elsewhere are under lockdown to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, or COVID-19. If you are already struggling with anxiety, this only adds to the challenge, compounding uncertainty with boredom and isolation. Unfortunately, our own thinking is typically the biggest source of anxiety. The following errors in thinking may be making you more anxious than you need to be.
Trying to Eliminate Anxiety
The first thing to realize is that anxiety is a normal and useful emotion. You can’t eliminate it entirely, nor would you want to. Anxiety alerts us to danger and spurs us to prepare for upcoming challenges. People who never felt anxious left the gene pool a long time ago, which is why everyone feels anxious occasionally and as many as 30 percent of American adults experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.
Trying to eliminate or avoid anxiety, ironically, just ends up making you more anxious. What does make sense is to think about anxiety--and things that make you anxious--rationally. When you do feel anxious, recognize that it’s just the ancient parts of your brain trying to protect you. Accept your anxiety for what it is--a feeling, a sort of warning signal. Then, try to figure out if the thing you are anxious about is really a threat or if you’re making it worse with faulty thinking.
Jumping to Conclusions or Predicting the Future
Worrying about the future is always an issue for people with anxiety issues because the core thinking of anxiety is always something along the lines of “Something awful is going to happen and I won’t be able to do anything about it.” At the moment, that kind of worry is both more concrete and widespread than normal. Right now, a lot of people have the same few worries--will they be able to keep working? How long can they go without income? How long will we be quarantined? Will I or someone I care about catch the virus? And so on.
It’s likely that most of us will face a challenge on one or more of these fronts but attempting to predict the future only makes you worry unnecessarily. No one knows what’s going to happen but when you think about it, the same has been true every day of your life. When you have trouble with anxiety, you tend to imagine the worst possible outcome and assume that it is inevitable. In reality, the future is fundamentally unpredictable. All we can do is make sensible preparations right now and trust that we will find ways to meet challenges in the future.
Should thoughts come from a belief that you, other people, or the world should be different somehow and that it’s awful that they aren’t. When you apply should thoughts to yourself, the result is often depression, whereas applying should thoughts to other people and the world tends to increase stress, anger, and anxiety. So, at the moment, a lot of people are thinking this quarantine is unfair, that they should be able to go to work, go out with friends, play sports, and so on. However, should is just a wall for you to beat your head against. It would be lovely if the world and other people conformed to our wishes but most of the time they don’t. Insisting they should, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, only makes you more miserable.
Black-and-white thinking, sometimes called all-or-nothing thinking, is the idea that if an outcome isn’t exactly what you want, you shouldn’t bother. This is also sometimes called letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. There are many ways black-and-white thinking can lead to anxiety. In our current situation, if you’re trying to figure out how to cope with being under quarantine, you may not bother with measures that can make you feel better if they aren’t perfect solutions. For example, many people have started doing therapy sessions and 12-Step meetings over Zoom and other online platforms. These are clearly not as good as in-person meetings, but they are considerably better than nothing.
Mental filtering is the habit of only seeing the bad things that happen. It’s a special case of the larger phenomenon of confirmation bias, which is when you only look for evidence that supports your current beliefs. When you do mental filtering, you’re only seeing evidence that supports your belief that something bad is going to happen or is already happening.
In times of crisis, it’s far too easy to focus on the negative, especially now, since all we see on the news is the rising death toll and the shortage of medical supplies to treat new patients. However, if you look for them, there are positive things too. As Mr. Rogers said, look for the helpers. In addition to medical workers and people supplying critical goods and services, there are a lot of communities coming together to help each other and find ways to adapt. If you’re stuck at home, it might be a great opportunity to read, make art, or learn new skills.
Emotional reasoning is the belief that something is true because it feels true. It’s easy to fall into this trap when thinking about the future because ultimately, we don’t have much evidence to rely on. The central belief of anxiety--“Something bad is going to happen and I can’t do anything about it”--relies entirely on emotional reasoning. In reality, no one knows what’s going to happen; everything is a guess. However, you may be able to refute the second part to some extent. Most of us have survived trying experiences. One thing you can do is to look back on those times and think, “If I made it through that, I can make it through this other thing I’m worried about--if it even happens.”
Anxiety is a common challenge for people recovering from addiction and right now is an especially trying time. Anxiety is normal and healthy, but our thinking often makes anxiety far worse than it needs to be. Learning to identify and change this faulty thinking is one of the main priorities of cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, and dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT. It can be very hard to recognize your distorted thinking on your own and a good therapist will speed up the process. At The Foundry, we use CBT, DBT, and several other evidence-based methods to help our clients recover from substance use and co-occurring mental health issues. To learn more, call us at 1-844-955-1066.