Lately, it seems everywhere you turn people are talking about depression. While it is great that mental health is finally getting the attention it deserves, anxiety seems to be the forgotten sibling of depression. Often, they even go hand in hand.
Anxiety disorders are actually the most common mental disorders in our country, and affect 40 million adults (Source: National Institute of Mental Health). The good news is anxiety is highly treatable. Through therapy and sometimes medication, anxiety can be well managed.
Here I will discuss the two most common patterns I see in patients with anxiety. I will explain what each means, and how you can overcome these negative thought patterns.
Catastrophizing is when you latch on to an idea and finish the story with a catastrophic ending. A typical example goes something like this:
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can’t seem to get along with my co-workers. Then I come home and fight with my children, and I know I haven’t been very nice to my wife. I know what’s going to happen. I’m going to lose my job, my wife will leave me, and my children will never speak to me again. I am just destined to be miserable and alone.”
Notice how the ending of this story is written in his mind, before any of this has actually become a reality.
Here is how to overcome these negative thoughts:
- Ask yourself, “are there any other possible endings to this story?”
- List some of those other possible endings
- Figure out if there are steps you can take to decrease the likelihood of the catastrophic ending. That might mean that you have to make some changes in your own actions, attitudes, and behaviors.
- Rewrite the story with a new, better, more realistic ending
- Challenge yourself with these methods every single time these thoughts creep in
The other pattern that people with anxiety tend to fall into is what I call the “what ifs”. This is the constant, obsessive need to question everything with the question starting with “What if…?” Let me give you an example:
“I don’t want to learn how to swim. What if I think I’m in the shallow end, but I’m really in the deep end? What if I think I can reach the edge, but I really can’t? What if I start to drown and the teacher doesn’t even notice. What if the drain sucks me in? What if I’m too tired to make it across the pool?”
You get the idea. This pattern could go on and on endlessly.
Here is what you can do when you obsess with the “what ifs”:
- Ask yourself what the likelihood of any of those things actually happening is.
- Ask yourself what steps you can take to minimize any of those fears becoming reality. In this example, talk to the swim teacher, stay close to the edge at first, etc.
- Ask yourself the opposite question. In this example, “what if I never learn how to swim?” Chances are the alternative is worse and will instill even more fear.
- Take slow, deep breaths. This has been proven to decrease anxiety. It is especially useful when the fears are related to flying in airplanes.
- Give yourself some credit. Usually the “what ifs” assume that you are completely powerless and incompetent. You are not! Identify your strengths and focus on them.
These are just a couple examples of what I frequently see with anxiety. Through challenging thoughts and beliefs, breathing exercises, guided imagery, exploring fears, and sometimes medication, there is great hope that you can live your life free of anxiety. Know that you are not alone, and don’t be afraid to get help.