Unlearning anxiety.


3 min read



Jason Brien.

Unhelpful thinking styles, or cognitive distortions, underlie anxiety. Cognitive distortions are deemed ‘unhelpful’ because they are exactly that…UNHELPFUL. Cognitive distortions (when we hyperfocus on them) contribute nothing positive or meaningful to our lives. If anything, they drain us of precious time and vital energy and they keep our mind and thoughts spinning around and around in circles until we are a bundle of stress, anxiety and nerves. If we go too far down the rabbit hole of cognitive distortions, our whole sense of reality can become severely warped to the point that we are unable to tell the difference between reality and fantasy.

Cognitive distortions are disproportionate, exaggerated and irrational thought and belief patterns. They can develop in response to trauma, repeated abuse, faulty introjections or invalidating environments and once they are set in stone so to speak, they are used and relied upon as mental shortcuts. They become very rigid, automatic thinking patters. These inaccurate thought patterns/beliefs reinforce and exacerbate anxiety. They are self-limiting and self-defeating by nature and they can become so habitual that the person becomes unconscious of their use. This is why people who experience anxiety often need professional help to ‘reverse’ the process. Let us examine some cognitive distortions.

All or nothing thinking: You interpret things in absolute terms. Black-and-white categories (i.e., is or is not, have and have not, want and don’t want). There are no grey areas and there are no maybes, potentials or other possibilities. 

Over generalizations: When you encounter a negative event you perceive it as an always occurring and never-ending cycle of defeat. For example, if you have a bad encounter with one stranger on a bus then you will have a bad encounter with all future strangers on the bus. 

Mental filtering: Overly focused on the negatives. Your perception of events is finely tuned to see only the negatives and to disregard the positives. Related to negativity bias.

Discounting the positives: You demand that your positive traits and achievements shouldn't count. Rather than appreciating and accepting compliments, you convince yourself that it cannot be true and that the other person is just being nice. Alternatively, you dismiss the compliment by insisting that "it was nothing really".

Magnification or minimization: You either blow things out of proportion or you minimise the significance of things. In layman's terms "making a mountain out of a molehill". You elaborate and exaggerate an arbitrary event to make it appear much more negative or damaging than it truly is or was in reality. Alternatively, you minimize the importance of an event to transform a significant and important event into an unimportant and meaningless one. 

Emotional reasoning: Your emotional response/reactions to arbitrary events dictates your thoughts about that event. You think with your feelings (e.g., I feel stupid so I must be stupid, I know that my best friend betrayed me because I feel betrayed).

Labelling: Instead of accepting imperfection and mistakes you label yourself stupid, a loser, incompetent. Alternatively, instead of considering what factors could have made the driver cut you off on the motorway you instantly label them a jerk or an idiot. 

Personalization and blame: You attribute 100% of responsibility to yourself even if you were not entirely at fault or you blame others and deny your role in the problem. 

Jumping to conclusions: 

     (A) Mind reading: You automatically assume that people are reacting negatively to you without sufficient evidence. If your employer provides you with constructive criticism to help you increase or improve your performance at work, you automatically assume that they are saying these things to you because they no longer like you. 

     (B)Fortune telling: You arbitrarily predict events will end badly without any conclusive proof that it will end in that way. For example, "I'm not going to go to that party because it will only turn out to be a bad night".

Anxiety is typically organised into 6 main groups or conditions. These are panic disorder, phobias, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, social anxiety and OCD. These 6 conditions don’t necessarily refer to 6 different types of anxiety. What they refer to is the different ways in which anxiety, and by association cognitive distortions, manifest differently depending upon the context or situation that invoked it. For example, if a social setting invoked the anxiety, then its manifestation is viewed within the context or framework of social anxiety disorder. Often though, people are diagnosed with more than one anxiety disorder simultaneously and so the symptoms of each of the diagnosed disorders can overlap.

Let us now have a look at the typical thinking styles underlying each of the 6 anxiety disorders.

Panic disorder; Destructive or highly exaggerated interpretations of bodily and mental experiences. For example, a racing heart is interpreted as a heart attack of racing thoughts mean the brain is about to explode. 

Phobias; Unreasonable, highly exaggerated and irrational fears about danger in highly specific, avoidable situations. The fear can be provoked in the absence of a physical stimulus (thoughts of spiders, the word ‘spider’, etc.). The phobia, anxiety and related cognitive distortions will lead to extreme avoidance.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD); Persistent and consistent sense of impending doom and or impending/approaching physical, emotional or psychological danger. GAD becomes a problem because it exceeds an individual’s ability to cope. GAD is often referred to as ‘everyday’ anxiety and it significantly interferes with daily living and functioning. 

OCD; Repeated warnings, fears, apprehension, concerns or doubts about safety. A person diagnosed with OCD will perform certain rituals or highly specific, repetitive behaviours designed to ‘ward off’ the threat and the anxiety the threat provokes.

PTSD; Repeated and uncontrollable fear of -re-experiencing the memories, feelings, sensations, etc associated with the original traumatic event.

Social anxiety disorder; Persistent, exaggerated and irrational fears of being judged within social situations or exaggerated fears of being or becoming the centre of attention.