12 Tiny Thoughts You Don’t Realize Are Triggering Your Anxiety
These common phrases aren’t so innocent after all. In fact, they might be triggering your anxiety. Here’s how you need to rethink them.
What if I don’t do a good job?
Anxiety is a feeling of unease that is internally generated—you can learn more about it here. When you’re anxious, you feel like you’re in danger even if there is no actual risk, explains psychotherapist Tanya Fruehauf, MA, CSAT. She maintains that—more than anything else—the source of anxiety is letting “what if” thinking spiral out of control.
The fact is, we can control some things, but we can’t control everything. So, there’s no point in even going there with the what if thought. Instead, Fruehauf suggests re-framing your what ifs in terms of what you can do right now in this moment.
Instead of saying, “What if I don’t do a good job?” try this: “What I need to do right now is to deal with the task at hand to the very best of my ability.”
Look at this traffic! I’m going to be late!
In most anxious situations, the first question you should ask yourself is, “What can I do about this?” It’s crucial to recognize that some things are simply outside of your control. “We can’t control traffic,” says Margaret Bell, MA, who is a certified child and adolescent counselor in Colorado. “Hopefully, you left extra time to get there, but even if you didn’t, here you are. If you sit in your car focusing on the traffic that you can’t control, it’s not productive, and you’re going to suffer.”
Instead of going into an anxiety spiral about the traffic, try this: “I’ll arrive when I arrive, and that is OK. It has to be OK. I’m safe, and I’m on my way.”
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Why even bother when I know I’m going to fail?
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This kind of statement takes uncertainty, which is a normal part of the human experience, and smothers it in negativity, with the end result being that you’ve already decided how things will turn out, and it’s not worth trying. That’s wildly unproductive, points out Mike Vaughn, MA LPCS, CSAT and co-founder of SureHope Counseling and Training Center. Instead, he recommends accepting your uncertainty. Stare it in the face, but then remind yourself of all the positive outcomes that are possible and all the reasons you should feel like things could turn out well. “The idea is to expand the thinking that promotes uncertainty to include anything that is positive.”
Instead of thinking, “Why even bother?” try this: “I’m afraid I’m going to fail, but there have been all these other things I’ve tried and been successful at. This could be another one of those things.”
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I’m an impostor and people can see right through me
You’re not a mind-reader—all you know is that you’re thinking it, says Julie D. Bruno, PsyD, and you’re being unfair to yourself and those around you. This phenomenon is known as “projecting,” and you can stop it by replacing the thoughts with facts. “Interrupt this self-talk by reminding yourself of your accomplishments and that they’re yours and they’re absolutely real.”
Instead of thinking, “I’m an impostor,” try this: “Everything I have accomplished is real. It’s taken me years to get to where I am. I’ve worked for everything I’ve achieved.”
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Everybody is mad at me
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More mind-reading, and you’re making it worse by globalizing it. The good thing about globalizing is that it’s easy to dismantle. Everyone can’t be mad at you—that’s impossible. You need to remind yourself of this as soon as you hear yourself thinking this way, says Sydney Ziverts, a health and nutrition investigator for ConsumerSafety.org.
Instead of thinking, “Everybody is mad at me,” try this: “Not everyone can be mad at me.”
Once you’ve stuck a pin in that first irrational thought, it’s time to remind yourself that you didn’t do anything that would make everyone mad at you; if someone is, in fact, mad at you, they have a right to their feelings. Even if you have done something that would cause someone to be mad at you, you can address it with that person and hopefully resolve the issues.
This person won’t like me
You’ve gone from reading minds to predicting the future: “It’s important to let yourself take a risk,” says Stacy Kaiser, MA, licensed psychotherapist and Editor-At-Large of Live Happy. You have to understand that just as you can’t know how everyone feels or what everyone is thinking, you can’t expect everyone to like you. And that’s okay.
Instead of thinking, “this person won’t like me,” try this: “I don’t know if this person will like me, but I will put my best foot forward and hope for the best.” The importance of this, Kaiser says, is to let yourself take a risk, try your best, and not worry to the point of self-sabotage.
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I’m never getting this done
This sort of statement mixes uncertainty with globalizing, spices it with negativity, and it congeals into one giant stew of “stuck.” You need to get unstuck, says Gina Della Penna, LMHC, a psychotherapist who specializes in anxiety. The way to do that is to give yourself a shot of confidence by resolving to get a small task done—some small part of the whole. It doesn’t matter how small as long as it’s something.
Instead of thinking, “I’m never getting this done,” try this: “I’m going to do this one small thing.” And that, in turn, becomes “I did this. I can do more.”
I am going to mess up this presentation/project/speech/toast/etc.
That’s really not a nice thing to say to yourself, notes Della Penna, and it comes from an irrational belief that you aren’t allowed to make mistakes. To err is human. You might make a mistake, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to “mess up” the whole thing. Instead of blocking your confidence with a big, negative conclusion like this, try practicing compassion for yourself, Della Penna suggests.
Instead of thinking, “I’m going to mess up,” try this: “I might make a mistake, and that’s OK, because I’ll correct myself and keep going. Everyone makes mistakes.”
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Oh no! I shouldn’t have said that!
Well, whatever it is you said, you can’t unsay it, says Monica Ross, LPC. Maybe you shouldn’t have said it, but don’t think in terms of “should.” “Sometimes should-ing leaves us feeling frustrated and angry with ourselves or others. Instead of focusing on what you should or should not have done, why not accept the past as something that’s already happened and move on to the next moment?”
Instead of thinking, “I shouldn’t have said that,” try this: “I said it. Maybe there were better words, and hopefully next time I will find them.”
Everyone thinks I’m an idiot
As Ohio chemical dependency counselor, David Bennett says, “Most people barely pay attention to what is going on around them.” They’re so busy worrying about how they appear that they aren’t paying as much attention to you as you’d think.
Instead of thinking, “Everyone thinks I’m an idiot,” try this: “Everyone’s worrying they look like an idiot and they’re not really focused on me.”
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You may or may not be, but pointing it out to yourself is no help. Instead, find a way to use your momentary feeling of dissatisfaction to come up with a plan of action, suggests Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW. “By focusing on actions that you can take you are taking responsibility and empowering yourself.”
Instead of thinking, “I’m so fat,” try this: “I’m going to exercise and eat a well-balanced diet.”
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I’m scared of the doctor/news/weather/everything
In this situation, you’re uncertain about an outcome over which you really have zero control. It’s nerve-wracking: So recognize that what you’re going through is scary, suggests Kaiser, but empower yourself by reminding yourself that you’ve dealt with scary situations before, and you can do it again. “The importance is to portray confidence in yourself and reassure yourself.”
Instead of thinking, “I’m scared,” try this: “This is a scary situation, but I’ve got this.”