As we have discussed, emotions are useful, but they do not always fit the facts. Our emotions are closely related to our thoughts and interpretations, which are often inaccurate and prone to bias. Remember back to Week 1, when we discussed the ways that unhelpful thoughts and beliefs can keep anxiety going. As such, whenever we feel anxious, we need to check out whether our thoughts and interpretations are accurate. In some cases, simply changing your view of a situation to be more balanced can have a significant effect on how you feel.
Our thoughts and emotions influence each other in a back-and-forth manner. For example, say you’re anxious whilst talking about yourself with friends. If you think “I’m boring them, they aren’t interested in me”, you’re likely to feel anxious. Now that you’re feeling anxious, you’ll be looking out for signs of threat and might be more likely to interpret your friends’ behaviour as disinterested. This just makes you feel more anxious.
In general, anxious thoughts lead to anxious feelings, and vice versa. However, what if you held the view that your friends were interested in you? After all, they had asked you a series of questions about yourself. If you’d interpreted things this way, chances are your anxiety would have been less intense.
Unhelpful thinking styles
How do we check if our thoughts and interpretations fit the facts? The first step is to know what your thoughts are. From there, you can identify any unhelpful thinking styles that might be biasing your view. Using the mindfulness skills from last week to observe your thoughts will help you get better at recognising what you’re thinking. In Week 1, we covered the idea that anxious thoughts are often flawed in two ways:
- They overestimate social threat, and
- They underestimate our capacity to cope.
Anxiety is associated with many unhelpful thinking styles. The problem with these thinking styles is that they are inflexible and lead to biased interpretations. As a result, unhelpful thinking styles keep anxiety going. Let’s look at some of the most common unhelpful thinking styles:
You predict the worst case scenario. You blow things out of proportion, exaggerate your difficulties, and view the situation as far worse than it actually is.
For example: “I won’t cope”, “it will be a disaster”, “they’ll think I’m stupid and I’ll have no friends”
You take information from a single instance, and draw a general conclusion about your ability, performance, worth etc.
For example: “I always make mistakes”, “everyone makes fun of me”, “I never know what to say”
Taking things personally
You blame yourself even when it’s not your fault. You take criticism or feedback to mean that there’s something wrong with you.
For example: “I made her feel uncomfortable”, “I’m not good enough”, “It’s my fault they didn’t have fun”
Ignoring the positives/self-depreciation
You tend to focus on the negatives and ignore the positives in situations. You might also highlight the positive attributes of others, whilst minimising your own positive qualities.
For example: “They only hang out with me for my money”, “I’ll never be that smart”, “I’m not as successful as them”
Unrealistic rules and expectations
You have inflexible rules and unrealistically high expectations for yourself. You might tell yourself that you ‘should’ or ‘must’ act a certain way.
For example: “I should never make mistakes”, “I must always do my best”, “I should always know what to say”
Black and white thinking
You have an inflexible way of viewing the world and tend to see things in extremes or ‘all or nothing’ terms. You are either right or wrong, good or bad, a success or a failure etc.
For example: “I’m such a failure”, “I always do things wrong”, “I’m bad at making friends”
You spend a lot of time thinking or worrying about the past or future. You go over and over the problem and your worries, without actually achieving anything or solving any problems.
For example: “Why is this happening to me?”, “what’s wrong with me?”, “why am I like this?”
Jumping to conclusions
You assume that you know what will happen in the future and what someone else’s thoughts and intentions are, when in fact, this is not possible. Assuming that you know what someone else is thinking is often called ‘mind reading’.
For example: “They don’t like me”, “They’re judging me”, “I’m going to say the wrong thing”
Once you can identify 1) what you’re thinking, and 2) whether you’re falling into an unhelpful thinking style, you are then able to check your thinking against the facts. Be aware, when you’re highly anxious, you are particularly vulnerable to falling into one of these unhelpful thinking styles. Recall a time when you were really anxious – were you able to think rationally, see different perspectives, and take action without being dictated by your emotions? The chances are you found this hard.
How to check the facts:
Here, we go through the process step-by-step for checking the facts when anxiety shows up. Follow these steps as soon as you notice your early signs of anxiety.
Step 1. Notice and name when you are feeling anxious (mindfully observe and describe your anxiety). Try to pick up on this as early as possible before the anxiety becomes overwhelming.
E.g., Kelly notices a strong feeling of anxiety coming on. She feels hot in her cheeks, her palms become sweaty, and her heart starts racing. She also notices a flood of catastrophic thoughts and the urge to escape her situation.
Step 2. Describe the situation or event that prompted your anxiety. What was the trigger? Where were you and what was happening at the time your anxiety showed up? The event can be internal (e.g., worrying about an upcoming event) or external (e.g., someone said something to you).
E.g., Kelly describes her situation as follows. She is told that she will need to step in and do a speech on behalf of her boss. The speech is important for the company and could either make or break a business deal. Kelly is not comfortable with public speaking.
Step 3. Identify your thoughts, interpretations, judgements and assumptions about the situation or event. What is your mind telling you about the situation? Notice the language you are using to describe things here and watch out for judgemental and critical language.
E.g., Kelly interprets the situation as highly threatening. She believes that she does not have what it takes to do the speech. She has thoughts like “I can’t cope with this”, “I never do well with public speaking”, “I’ll mess up and lose the deal”, “my boss will hate me”, “I’ll probably lose my job”. Kelly continues to dwell on worrisome thoughts and ‘what if’ questions.
Step 4. Identify whether you are falling into an unhelpful thinking style. Refer to the unhelpful thinking styles above and see which ones your thoughts fit into. Are you personalising things or ignoring the positives? Are you holding on to unrealistic expectations? This should give you an idea of where bias might be creeping in.
E.g., Kelly identifies that she is getting caught in several unhelpful thinking styles. Kelly is catastrophizing and jumping to conclusions about how she will perform. She is making overgeneralizations about her capacity to speak in public and is discounting the times that she has done this well. She is also making predictions about the outcome of the speech and how her boss will respond. Lastly, she is overthinking by dwelling on ‘what if’ questions, which is just fuelling her anxiety.
Step 5. Look for the facts and leave the rest aside. Put aside things that can’t be proven (i.e., predictions, assumptions, subjective beliefs) and instead focus on the facts of the situation. Facts are objective pieces of information that cannot be disputed. Also look for evidence from the past and alternative interpretations to support or refute your thoughts.
E.g., Kelly lists the facts of the situation. The speech is relatively short and on a topic she knows well. She also has adequate time to prepare. Kelly has done plenty of speeches before and has coped quite well. The speech would have to be extremely bad for her to lose the business deal. Kelly’s boss has never been unhappy with her performance before. In fact, she is asking Kelly to do this because she trusts her work. Kelly acknowledges that she is often prone to catastrophizing and this could be another example of that.
Step 6. Come up with a more balanced perspective. Consider alternative views and explanations.
E.g., Kelly comes up with a more balanced view of the situation. She concludes that it is normal for her to feel some anxiety. She acknowledges that she’s felt anxious in the past and has still been able to speak in public. Based on the facts, Kelly also concludes that she will most likely be able to meet the requirements if she is adequately prepared. Even if she does mess up, it is unlikely that she will lose her job. Kelly still feels nervous, but she is no longer paralysed by the anxiety.
Step 7. Think about how you can manage this situation most effectively. Use Wise Mind to find a course of action that fits with your goals and values and will not make things worse.
E.g., Kelly decides to take a few deep breaths and splash some cold water on her face. She speaks to herself in a kind and encouraging way. She then gets to work on preparing the speech.
Testing your predictions:
When it comes to anxiety, a lot of thoughts are future focussed. That is, they involve predictions about what will happen in the future. Often these predictions are negative and overestimate the likelihood of a bad outcome. Examples of these types of thoughts include, “I’ll have a panic attack” and “people won’t talk to me”. This leads to anxiety and makes unhelpful behaviours like avoidance more likely. As a result, you never get to test your predictions and you continue to expect the worst.
One way to challenge this and check the facts is to gather your own evidence. To do this, you can set up a real life experiment to test out your prediction. Here, you use your own experience to test reality, rather than simply assuming your predictions are true. This is a great approach for social anxiety, because many social situations allow for great experiments. Below, we go through step by step how you can apply this skill.
Example: Let’s say you do some painting on the weekends as a hobby. Your friend, who is a good artist, has invited you to bring some of your work to her exhibition. You feel like your paintings aren’t good enough to go up alongside your friend’s work.
Before the experiment.
- Identify the negative prediction you want to test
E.g., I’ll have an awful time, everyone will laugh at my work and think I’m a joke
- From 0 to 100, rate how strongly you believe your prediction
E.g., Original rating: 95 (very strong belief)
- Come up with a more helpful alternative prediction. If you struggle here, think about what a friend or family member might say to you.
E.g., Some people might like my work and some might not, but I’ll still have a good time with my friend
- From 0 to 100, rate how strongly you believe your alternative prediction
E.g., Alternative rating: 10 (weak belief)
- Plan how you will test your prediction. Be specific regarding what you’ll do, when and how you’ll do it, and how long it will take.
E.g., I’ll go to the exhibition with my friend and show three of my favourite paintings. I’ll stay for a couple of hours at least and will observe peoples’ reactions to the artwork (mine included) to see if they laugh.
- Implement the experiment
After the experiment.
- Write down exactly what happened during the experiment. What did you notice? Consider the evidence that supports and doesn’t support your original prediction.
E.g., I was nervous at the beginning and felt like taking my paintings down. Instead, I distracted myself by talking to my friend. After a while, I noticed that people were stopping to look at my paintings. I did not see anyone laughing, in fact, most people looked interested. They seemed to respond to my art the same way they responded to all the other paintings. In fact, three people came up to me and complimented my work. This helped me relax and I had a good evening.
- Write down what you learned from the experiment
I learned that I can cope with uncertainty and enjoy myself even when my work is on display for others to see.
- From 0 to 100, re-rate how strongly you agree with your original and alternative predictions.
E.g., Original rating: 5. Alternative rating: 90
As you can see, performing an experiment allows you to test out your predictions rather than simply assuming they are true. This is helpful for anxiety, because anxious predictions are often unrealistic and negatively biased. When we put anxious predictions to the test, we soon learn that they are inaccurate and unhelpful. The result of this is less anxiety and greater confidence.