If you were being chased by a hungry wolf, your fear would flood you with the energy you would need to try to either fight the wolf or run quickly away (the “fight-or-flight” response). In this way fear is adaptive and life-preserving.
When your fear is directed at things or situations that are not likely to be dangerous (for example, talking to an attractive person at a party, seeing a mouse, or having a scary thought) the adrenalin onslaught is unnecessary and therefore “Anxiety”.
And so, anxiety occurs when our body responds as if it is in danger when it is most likely not. Since Anxiety desperately wants to preserve your life, it will “say” whatever it has to say to motivate you to leave the situation, including lies, half-truths, exaggerations, and rigid arbitrary rules. Psychologist Aaron Beck called these Cognitive Distortions, but I prefer the term Thinking Traps because if you fall for these mental tricks, you can become trapped by Anxiety.
Here are some types of Thinking Traps:
- The Trick: You know what other people are thinking or can pick up on their “vibes”.
- Examples: “She thinks I’m a loser…nobody here likes me…He thinks I’m hideous.”
- Winning Comeback: I only know what I can observe. I cannot read minds.
- The Trick: The future holds bad things in store for you!
- Examples: “The party won’t be any fun…No one will ever love me…I’ll panic forever…Someone will die if I don’t tap three times.”
- Winning Comeback: No one can predict the future. It’s ok to be uncertain.
- The Trick: Things are (or will be) unbearable and you won’t be able to handle it!
- Examples: “If I make a mistake during the speech, I’ll die of embarrassment…If I fail the test, my career is ruined…If I have a panic attack, I won’t be able to stand it!”
- Winning Comeback: Something may be undesirable, but rarely unbearable. I can handle it, even if I don’t like it.
- The Trick: You are such a ___(negative label)____!
- Examples: “Because I failed the test, I’m a failure…Because I she rejected me I’m unlovable…Because I had that thought, I’m evil!”
- Winning Comeback: That’s name calling! No one is all good or bad. People are complex and therefore it is not reasonable to be globally judged or condemned.
- The Trick: Because you feel so nervous and worried, ___________ must be dangerous!
- Examples: “I feel so worried on the airplane, it must be dangerous…when I have a panic attack I feel like I’m going crazy so it must be true…Because I feel so worried at the party, people must be able to see my fear!”
- Winning Comeback: I won’t fall for that trick! Most people would not agree that this is dangerous. How many times have my worst fears come true? My feelings are not objective evidence one way or another. I can accept my feelings and go towards my life goals!
Discounting the Positives
- The Trick: The good things you did don’t count because___________.
- Examples: “She was nice to me because she felt sorry for me…He was complimenting me just to be polite…Even though I really studied hard for the test, I only passed it because I lucked out!”
- Winning Comeback: I can feel good about the good things I do or that happen to me!
- The Trick: Forget about all the good things that happened and focus on the one bad thing!
- Examples: “Despite the ten positive interactions at the party, I’m going to dwell on the one person who was rude!”
- Winning Comeback: Instead of focusing on the one negative interaction, I can feel good about the ten positive interactions.
- The Trick: Bad things always happen to you! This happens every time!
- Examples: “I always mess up…I get rejected every time!”
- Winning Comeback: I’m Overgeneralizing. There are lots of times that it doesn’t happen.
- The Trick: Either you do something one-hundred percent perfectly or it is a complete failure…Either you feel at your best or it is a rotten day…If you are even a little bit anxious then you cannot enjoy yourself at all!
- Examples: “It’s unacceptable that I got a B+ when I should’ve aced that test…I only got five hours of sleep so this day is completely ruined…Since I can’t complete all of my reading assignments then I’m not going to do any of it…Why bother if it can’t be perfect!”
- Winning Comeback: Life is not black-or-white, but many shades in between. Nothing is perfect, nor has to be. Even though it’s not perfect, it’s certainly not a total loss. Even though I don’t feel my best, I can still enjoy the day somewhat.
- The Trick: You should or should not do or experience certain things because I said so!
- Examples: “I should make straight A’s…I should be liked by everyone…I shouldn’t think bad thoughts…I should (alternatively—must, have to) always look my best!”
- Winning Comeback: I may prefer things be a certain way, but they don’t have to be.
- The Trick: If something goes wrong, it’s entirely your fault!
- Examples: “The awkward silence in the conversation is my responsibility to fill…The plane crash occurred because I didn’t do my rituals…It’s completely my fault he broke up with me…I deserved to be abused because…”
- Winning Comeback: There were other people or events that share responsibility…It’s not all my responsibility…Maybe it’s nobody’s fault, but just not a good fit…Maybe someone or something else is responsible.
- The Trick: You need to be as (outgoing, smart, attractive, fun…) as (extreme example) or your life is terrible!
- Examples: “I need to be as smart as Einstein…I need to be as attractive as ___________…I need to be as socially adept as _____________.”
- Winning Comeback: It’s unhelpful to compare myself to extremes. It’s ok to just be good enough.
- The Trick: Life would be SOOOOOOO much better if only __________________!
- Examples: “If there was just some way to be taller, then everything would be better…If I was a doctor, then I could enjoy my life…If only my anxiety was completely gone, then I’d get out and live my life…”
- Winning Comeback: I can learn to accept what I cannot change and make the most of my life given the hand I was dealt…Reality is what it is and wishing it was different just keeps me stuck!
- The Trick: The laws of physics and logic don’t apply to you…You are unlucky…Your thoughts can impact the external world.
- Examples: “If I think about someone dying it will make it likely to happen…If I tap the wall six times then my family will be safe…If I think a good thought then I am protected from danger.”
- Winning Comeback: It is normal for good and bad things to happen to everyone…Luck and superstition are the stuff of fantasy…My thoughts cannot impact the external world.
All of us fall for Thinking Traps some of the time. In order to get your anxiety disorder under control, it can be helpful to realize which traps you fall for so that you can plan your winning comeback.
For more reading on cognitive distortions as they relate to anxiety disorders I recommend Robert Leahy’s book entitled The Worry Cure or Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy Revised and Updated by David Burns. This article consisted of material adapted using those texts.
Eric Goodman, Ph.D.