“Anxiety is like having new tabs opening very quickly [on your computer] one after another and not being able to close them or stop new ones from opening — but in your head. It happens while working, taking care of kids, driving, answering questions, and a million other things that people do in a day.”
While there are many visible physical symptoms of anxiety such as sweaty palms, increased heart rate, shortness of breath and muscle twitches, some of the most damaging symptoms remain captured in the mind. Many individuals with anxiety can experience overwhelming, intrusive and unrelenting thoughts that interfere with their daily productivity.
While the exact cause of anxiety is unknown, cognitive distortions are believed to be a factor in the development and maintenance of this mental illness. Cognitive distortions are irrational thoughts and beliefs that are reinforced over time and have the potential to cause psychological harm. Clinical psychologist Jeffrey DeGroat believes that anxiety arises when a person’s cognitive distortions, or irrational thought patterns, make them see everything as a physical threat, whether it’s an actual physical danger or not. For example, almost getting into a car accident is a physical threat. But, having a cashier at the supermarket engage you in conversation is not an actual physical danger.
Two of the most common forms of cognitive distortions include: mental filtering and jumping to conclusions. Mental filtering is the inability to focus on the positive aspects of a situation. Individuals with this cognitive distortion tend to see the glass as half empty rather than half full. This mentality can become problematic, as it may result in depressed mood, low self-esteem, and pessimism with an associated feeling of incompetence. On the other hand, jumping to conclusion is the premise that individuals believe something despite not having accurate evidence to support it. This cognitive distortion is comparable to buying a house without looking on the inside simply because the outside looks nice with freshly cut lawn. Jumping to conclusion not only has a negative effect on the individual but also makes judgments about the surrounding things or people. Similarly to mental filtering, this comparison mentality encourages pessimism, feelings of inadequacy and may foster other mental illnesses such as depression.
However, hope is not lost when battling with cognitive distortions. There are many methods and beneficial techniques that can help slow down and combat these anxious thoughts. Reframing, for example, is a strategy used to alter one’s perspective on a specific situation. This technique provides an optimistic strategy to an otherwise negative situation by identifying and invalidating the thoughts. Getting thoughts down on paper and journaling is another method used to combat intrusive thoughts as it allows the individual to identify a thought, focus on what triggered it and then dissect it. Through this method, individuals can destroy the validity of certain thoughts so that when they arise again, they will be easier to combat. Lastly, research suggests that affiliative and self-enhancing humor can be a beneficial strategy to cope with cognitive distortions. Affiliative humor is used to amuse others and minimize tension while self-enhancing humor is the use of humor in the face of adversity. Therefore, maybe laughter is indeed the best form of medicine.
Overall, while cognitive distortions may be a factor in the development of anxiety disorders, the presence or absence of the aforementioned distortions, neither confirms nor denies a proper diagnosis of anxiety. While these cognitive distortions may become overwhelming, there are different methods available for coping, such as journaling or using humor. With these strategies, those struggling with anxiety and cognitive distortions can take positive steps to become masters of their own mind.
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