Over-Thinking and Anxiety

When we are anxious about something, we tend to worry. Sometimes we ‘worst-case scenario’ our worries, other times we spend time ruminating through something endlessly; we can also have the tendency to over think everything.

Over-thinking and anxiety work hand in had to keep us stalled. Self-doubt and fear combine to put us in a position of not being able to make a decision; it binds us to a state of limbo and opportunities may pass us by. The tendency to over-think may be a learned behaviour, a consequence of low self-confidence or esteem, or simply a bad habit.

Our first step in moving past the tendency to over-think is to recognize it’s hold. From there, we can begin to shift our focus to include:

  • Challenging the fear. Lean into it by simply recognizing the fear. Acknowledge it – we can remind ourselves that curiousity is a way to temper fear’s grip.
  • Write down the alternatives. Sometimes this helps us as it allows some of our rational mind or logic to chime in on the issue.
  • Vet it with a friend. Sometimes we over-think as a way to simply avoid something. Using someone else as a sounding board prompts us into action.
  • Set a timer. Give yourself a set amount of time to overthink – then make the decision.

When we actively work towards tempering our over-thinking, we can begin to feel more confident in our ability to make a decision; thereby feeling less anxious and more prepared to face life’s challenges.

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Have Social Anxiety? Try this tip!

When clients come into therapy with the issue of social anxiety, one of the most common statements I hear is “I am afraid of what people will think of me.” It would seem that somewhere along the line, what was incorporated into their core belief system was a fear of judgement, a fear that somehow they weren’t going to live up to someone else’s expectations. “What happens if I say something stupid?” “I worry that all eyes will be on me.” They fret about what they should wear, how they look, what they should say or not say, that people will talk about them.”

Although it is important to gain an understanding as to how this core belief developed, it is also important to understand the thinking trap that we get into called ‘Mind Reading.’ Mind Reading is when you assume what others are thinking and feeling about you without having any concrete evidence about what they are really thinking. The problem is that we often respond to these assumptions as it they were true.

And in challenging this thinking trap, I ask you to think about why it is that we always assume that what another person is thinking about us is negative? Why aren’t we assuming that they might like our outfit, or laugh at our joke?

Because when we go into a situation already geared up for a negative response, we will distort or misinterpret the information we are receiving. As we are getting ready for the social event, we lean into the negative feelings and thoughts, we feed our fears.

We are much better served to tell ourselves, “I am not going to mind read. I am not going to assume that people are thinking anything of me. I am going to remind myself about the reality of the situation which is that people really aren’t paying that much attention.” (Which really is the truth.)

Challenging this cognitive thinking trap will help you to push past your fears and accept the invitation – you will be glad that you did. 🙂

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Two Common Thinking Traps of the Anxious Mind

There are times when our internal dialogue works against us. Sometimes this comes in the form of our core beliefs, but other times it can come from our thinking styles. For someone with anxiety, two common thinking traps tend to have the capacity to influence and reinforce their anxious mind:

  • Catastrophising: the tendency to magnify the situation; to blow things out of proportion. This is really the “what if” kind of thinking that can lead someone into a loop of rumination, as they work themselves into worst case scenario thinking. It is the type of thinking style that keeps you very centered on the future, and what you can’t control. Very often, what started out as a legitimate worry, becomes so magnified that it takes over the ability to rationalize it.
  • Jumping to Conclusions: Very often, we imagine we know what others are thinking and begin to guess at what their actions mean; we become so focused on what it “could mean” that we lose sight of using effective communication, and end up in another all consuming thought loop.

The first step to changing a thinking style is simply to recognize it. Understanding that it has developed as a habit can give us permission to create newer, healthier thinking styles that focus more on the present and on what we know. Allowing our logic to play some role in our thinking will take away some of the power that our emotions have in those moments.

With the overall goal of having flexible thought, we can begin to recognize when we are feeling trapped by our thinking and remind ourselves to “Take a deep breath, focus on the facts, ask for clarification or support.”

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Our “Cone of Attention”

Our survival brain is constructed to be alert and ready at any sign of danger. It is the part of the brain that will create a fight, flight or freeze response when our system becomes alarmed. In short, it creates a cone of attention – essentially, we become super focused to the alarm in our system and our energies are directed towards getting out of the danger zone.

Thank goodness we have this cone of attention! Imagine encountering a bear without it – or not reacting quickly to a car veering in our lane, or a thunderstorm bearing down upon us?

What about the difference between a true alarm and a false one? How does the cone of attention work for our perceived fears? Our ruminating thoughts, worst-case-scenario worries, our sense of overwhelm? It works in the exact same way. 

Regardless of whether we are in true physical danger or trapped in the angst of a perceived fear, our cone of attention is biological and will target all of your focus to your worry. It is why we report feeling less able to concentrate when feeling uneasy.

We are much better served to recognize what is happening, be grateful to our cone of attention for working so diligently and to then take some deep breaths. By resetting our nervous system, we can move to accessing our rational brain to weigh in on the facts. “Is this a true alarm or a false one? Can I do something about this worry right now?”

From here, we can settle our attention on other things, grounding ourselves in the facts.

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What Anxiety and Anger Have in Common

You’re running late, feeling keyed up about not being on time; no one seems to be co-operating and the littlest one is starting to have a meltdown because she can’t find her favourite hat. Before you know it, you are yelling at the kids and yanking the closet door practically off of its hinges.

How did you go from anxious to angry so easily? Simply answered, our bodies set us up for it. When we are anxious, our body’s muscles tense up, our blood pressure rises, our heart rate increases, our breathing becomes more shallow and our attention narrows. The same thing happens when we are angry. Both our anxiety and our anger activate what is called the sympathetic nervous system which gets us ready for action. It becomes very easy when feeling stressed, to simply shift into anger because our bodies are already there.

It is our parasympathetic system that gets us back to a relaxed state. Eventually, whether anxious or angry, built in mechanisms eventually bring us back to calmness (picture driving to work after having dropped off the kids, coffee purchased and music playing). In the midst of feeling stressed, we can help that process along and allow it to get us there sooner by taking some deep breaths.

Focusing on slowing down our breathing pushes the reset button on both our physiological state and our mindset. We are much better served to stop, take some deep breaths and state to ourselves “It’s okay, like every other morning, we’ll get there.” Leaving everyone less rattled and the door still on its hinges 🙂

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Anxiety Symptoms in Children

When exploring when anxiety first started for them, many clients will link it back to their early adult years; I often remark that their anxiety may have started earlier than that as it tends to manifest differently in children.

In an article entitled “10 Anxiety Symptoms in Children that Most Parents Miss” by Angela Pruess, we learn about how anxiety isn’t always what we assume it to be in children. Pruess lists symptoms that might be masking what turns out to be underlying anxiety. Three that stood out to me include:

  • Anger. “When our brain’s emotion center is overactivated (which is what happens with anxiety) a child is more inclined to be irritable and reactive as all emotions are working in overdrive.” I often mention to folks that it is a natural response to jump from feeling anxious to feeling angry as our body physiologically is essentially mimicked in both cases – heightened blood pressure, rapid breathing, feeling ‘wound up.’ Makes sense that could be happening to our littles too.
  • Struggling to fall asleep. “Anxious thoughts love to visit when our minds are quiet and the hustle and bustle of the day are no longer there to distract us. Night waking is also common when our brains are functioning out of a state of anxiety and are more hypervigilant of any external or internal stimuli such as a noise from the hallway or a scary dream.” Children’s tendency for magical thinking might also trigger an anxious response; especially when the house is dark and quiet.
  • Trouble with focus. “Living under a heightened state of stress puts a child’s brain on continual ‘survival mode’, meaning the emotion center of the brain is continually overactivated. When a child’s amygdala is working in overdrive their ‘thinking brain’ (located in the frontal lobe) automatically becomes less accessible.” This is why it is important to assess the amount of stress that might exist in our children’s lives; from overscheduling, to conflict in the home, or not enough down time/connection as a family.

Pruess mentions seven other symptoms that are noteworthy of reading. To read the full article: https://parentswithconfidence.com/anxiety-symptoms-children-parents-miss/

To visit her website entitled “Parents with Confidence”: https://parentswithconfidence.com/

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Asking the Worry

After a worry has passed we can often look back and recognize that the worry grew too big. We agonized over it, paced the floor with our minds over it, allowed it to grow out of proportion until it occupied way too much of our time and space. Perhaps, instead of reflecting after the worry, we can pause for a moment mid-worry and ask it “Are you a hypothetical worry or a practical one?”

Hypothetical worries are not based on facts – they are based on fears. They are the worries that niggle at our doubts and drown us in anticipated despair. They are the worries that take up way too much space. Practical worries might actually help us. They are the here and now worries, the ones we can do something about.

If our worry is hypothetical, we are much better served to ‘put it on the back burner’ and move to a distraction. This can take some work, but it is achievable. And if the worry is practical, we can move to action – doing something always brings us a greater feeling of feeling settled.

Stopping to pause and ask our worry just where it stands can be a small coping strategy with big impact.

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Fretting and the Essence of Time

I have to imagine that at the “pioneer point” in our existence, there was a time for worrying – that we were presented with something we needed to deal with and apart from that, we were pretty busy just trying to till the land, fill the larder, and keep the fire stoked. In times when there was so much work to be done in a day, our worries were immediate and we needed to deal with them accordingly.

It would seem today that our worrying and fretting is no longer balanced with the essence of time. If we are in a position of having too much time to fill, our worries have the ability to take over; we tend to ruminate, overthink and get ourselves worked up. We stew about it.

If we are in a position where we don’t have enough time in our day, our tendency is to push away the niggling thoughts; the worries get set aside as ‘we have no time to deal with them.’ Don’t worry, they will come back with a vengeance, the moment your head hits the pillow or a sense of panic comes out of nowhere.

Perhaps the trick is to deal with the worries as they present themselves. Slow down long enough to give the worry some room, without letting it take over completely. Action being your biggest ally.

Asking yourself:

  • What am I worried about?
  • Is this a true alarm or a false one? (Focus on fact, not on fear)
  • What can I do about it right now?

When we are able to deal with the worry accordingly as it comes up, we also have the essence of time on our side and we can get back to a grounded, take life one day at a time, settled place.

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The Benefits of Mindful Breathing

Mindful breathing is a conscious exercise; one in which we purposefully carve out some time (even 5 minutes) to pay attention to our breathing. The basics include:

  • Pick a quiet location, free of distraction.
  • Close your eyes and turn your attention inward to your breathing.
  • Slow your breaths; inhale through the nose, expanding your belly. Exhale slowly.
  • If your attention shifts from breathing, that is okay. Gently encourage it back to the simple act of breathing – in and out.

The benefits of mindful breathing include:

  • It inhibits anxiety, decreasing stress and worry.
  • It distracts us from the things we can’t control and reminds us that we are capable of facing challenges.
  • It helps to still ruminating thoughts.
  • It slows the heart rate, decreasing pain and the body’s stress response.
  • It helps us to recognize calm.
  • It helps us to feel more centered and increases our self-control.
  • It inhibits anger; allowing our rational brain some space.
  • It helps the brain to focus.

When we practice mindful breathing on a daily basis – this can become a lovely anchor activity – we are proactively working with our comfort system to feel grounded and secure. In order to get started, it may help to listen to a guided mindful breathing exercise (there are countless examples on Youtube!)

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Tips for Moving Past Social Anxiety

Yesterday’s post examined what social anxiety is and how it tends to develop for people. Today, we will look at ways that we can begin to challenge social anxiety by lessening it’s hold on us.

The first step comes by way of exploring why social anxiety has become an issue. When we can understand something, it tends to give us permission to ask ourselves “Does it have to be this way?” It is also important to recognize that what may have started out as an association, has now become a fully formed habit due to reinforcement; after all, the more we feed something, the bigger it gets.

Tips for challenging social anxiety:

  • Start small. Going to the biggest event in history is probably not the best way to challenge social anxiety. Instead, choose an event in which there are going to be people present that you know, as well as a few people that you don’t.
  • Create a safety net. Arrive with someone you know, position yourself closest to an exit (sometimes just knowing that you can ‘escape’ helps), give yourself a timeline (commit to an hour), purposely choose your time to go to the store or use the phone (peak times are not the time to be challenging your social anxiety.) Feeling safer in social interactions will help to temper the fear response.
  • Get your mind into it. Your body is designed to react to your fear response; by challenging that fear with curiosity and positive affirmations, we can begin to temper our visceral response. Are you telling yourself you are going to be judged, or are you telling yourself that people are usually pretty wrapped up in what they are doing, and not really noticing what is going on with you. Use reality; logic, your rational voice. Tell yourself what you would tell a friend.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Challenging a fear means choosing a different focus and creating a new habit. Social situations can be less daunting, and as you challenge those fears, it will increase your self-confidence and sense of agency.

The goal of challenging social anxiety is simply to become more comfortable with social interactions and meeting new people. Big crowds and social situations may still give you the nervous nellies, but with coping strategies in place, you also can be reassured that you don’t have to continually miss out. Sounds like a good plan to me 🙂

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