I often joke that I am a worse-case-scenario thinker. But, it’s not a joke. My mind automatically conjures up the absolute worst possible outcome of any given situation and assigns a very high likelihood of that outcome becoming reality.
Sometimes, I turn disappointment, or a setback, into a catastrophe. Even if I didn’t experience setback, I will anticipate a setback and build it up to catastrophic levels in my mind.
I often feel like I am caught on a train of anxious thought, speeding out of control, and I am unable to stop the train, or get off of it.
Sometimes, these thoughts are intrusive. They just inject themselves whenever, wherever.
Perhaps I’m in the backyard grilling at a family cookout, and thoughts of how horrible it would be to waste away from an incurable illness will just take over my thoughts.
Also, the physical symptoms and mental suffering of anxiety is so unpleasant that we can become anxious about becoming anxious.
This doubles the amount of anxiety as we are then not only anxious about the event or situation that makes us anxious, but also about the suffering we will endure leading up to, and during, the anxiety-provoking event.
You might have experienced times in your life when your anxiety has spiraled completely out of control. You feel like you’re tossed about in a storm with no way of getting back to calm, and that nobody understands how you feel.
You might feel like a crazy person when life is good but your feelings don’t match your reality.
In this article, I’ll examine some of these anxiety thought patterns more closely, and share the strategies that I use to overcome them.
Types Of Anxiety
There are four main types of anxiety disorder. They include:
1 – Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by excessive and unrealistic worries.
People with GAD generally feel a constant sense of uneasiness and may exhibit catastrophic or worse-case-scenario thinking. These sort of thoughts may be intrusive, and can lead to excessive worry and rumination.
Symptoms of GAD may include:
- A general sense of uneasiness even though there is nothing wrong,
- Inability to feel calm,
- Intrusive, negative thoughts and rumination (particularly thoughts of negative outcomes, catastrophes, worse case scenarios),
- Automatic thought patterns turn toward catastrophic thinking, worse-case-scenarios. These thoughts are often over-the-top and ridiculous when rationalized, but when worrying about them, they feel very real and imminent,
- Difficulty concentrating or getting work done,
- Anger and irritability,
- Muscle tension (tight chest, back, limbs),
- Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting restful sleep (ie: stressful dreams, waking up in the morning feeling exhausted).
GAD is a chronic condition, so in order to be diagnosed, symptoms must persist for six months or more, and symptoms may cause significant stress or impairment of day-to-day functioning.
Acute (short term) anxiety or worry related to a traumatic life event is different than anxiety disorder.
2 – Panic Disorder
Sudden onset panic attacks may cause heart palpitations, sweating, nausea, and the feeling like you are having a heart attack.
Symptoms of panic disorder include:
- Sudden and repeated attacks of intense fear,
- Feelings of being out of control during a panic attack,
- Intense worry about when the next attack will happen,
- Fear or avoidance of places where panic attacks have occurred in the past.
3 – Phobias
Phobias are irrational fears about objects or situations. There are a broad range of phobias, including arachnophobia (fear of spiders), acrophobia (fear of heights), and agoraphobia (fear of open places).
Some phobias are easier to live with. You can generally avoid heights if you have acrophobia. But arachnophobia (fear of spiders), however, can be difficult to live with since spiders are quite common.
Agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) often manifests as a fear of leaving the home, which can significantly impact quality of life, social relationships, and overall mental health.
4 – Social Phobia
While it is a phobia, social phobia is often treated separately because it is quite common and has a dramatic impact on one’s life.
Social phobia is characterized by an excessive fear of social situations, often related to being judged by others, embarrassing oneself, or being fearful of offending others.
Social phobia should not be confused with introversion. Being an introvert doesn’t mean that you have social phobia. Introversion is not a disorder that needs treatment.
Symptoms of social phobia include:
- Feeling extremely anxious about being around other people,
- Having difficulty talking to people,
- Being self-conscious in front of other people,
- Constantly being worried about feeling embarrassed, rejected, or offending,
- Fear of being judged by others,
- Anxiety and worry days or weeks in advance of a social event,
- Avoiding places where there are other people,
- Feeling nauseous, blushing, sweating, or trembling when around people,
- Difficulty making and keeping friends.
What Causes Anxiety?
Anxiety has a variety of causes.
Stress or traumatic situations can cause anxiety.
Anxiety can also be caused by sudden, unexpected, or unpleasant life events such as divorce, death of a loved one, loss of a job or business, injury, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Genetic factors can lead to children and adults developing anxiety. If you have immediate family members (parent, grandparent) who suffer from anxiety, then you have a higher risk of also having an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety can be a learned response as well. Children may learn to be anxious about the very same situations that their parents feel anxious towards. For example, a parent who panics at the sight of a spider may instill that same fear, albeit unintentionally, in their young child.
If one of your parents was always a worse-case-scenario thinker, you might have picked that habit up as well.
Children may also model their parents’ or caregiver’s coping skills when under stress.
In many cases, poor self esteem or lack of confidence play a role in causing, fueling, or aggravating anxiety.
Four Typical Thought Patterns In Anxious People
Anxiety tends to manifest as a variety of habitual patterns of thinking that lead to negative thoughts, that can also lead to physical symptoms.
These thought patterns are common in those who suffer from anxiety. Learning to recognize, and then challenge/reverse these thought patterns can be the most effective method of overcoming anxiety.
Rumination is the act of deeply and continuously thinking about something. In this context, we’re talking about ruminating on thoughts that make you anxious.
For me, these thoughts are typically “what if” types of thoughts and almost always veer toward negative outcomes.
As a self-employed person, the thought of business failure and running out of money are ever-present on my mind. And it doesn’t matter if revenue is flowing in at record-shattering levels, or if we’re going through a temporary, seasonal sales lull.
People who suffer from anxiety (and depression) have a tendency toward ruminating about the things that make them anxious, whether it is paranoia about a spider being in their home, or of losing their income, contracting an incurable illness, or just having to deal with negative or difficult people – particularly when those people exert some level of control in our lives (landlords, bosses).
Rumination is characterized by a continuous pattern of thought that is difficult to escape from. You often feel stuck on these thoughts.
Ruminating stirs anxious emotions that cause you to feel these thoughts, which then feeds your anxiety.
So how do you stop ruminating?
It’s really as simple as learning to recognize when you are ruminating.
Just knowing what rumination is can give you the upper hand on your anxiety.
But, it takes practice. It’s so easy to get caught up emotionally in anxious thinking that we become unable to objectively observe our own thoughts.
Plus, we’re so used to anxious-thinking running by default that we don’t find these thoughts out of the ordinary. They are normal to us.
One way I’ve found to help me recognize rumination is to use physical cues. If my chest is feeling tight, or I’m restless, or my anxiety is particularly ramped up, it serves as a reminder to be critical of my thoughts.
Rumination tends to be at its worst at night when I am trying to fall asleep, or during periods where I’m by myself. When I am going through a stressful situation, I try to pay attention to my thoughts and actively attempt to counter negative rumination.
Once you learn to recognize when you are ruminating, it gets easier to take a step back and actively counter negative thoughts.
2) Catastrophic & Worse-Case-Scenario Thinking
Catastrophic and worse-case-scenario thinking are two dominant thought patterns that affect anxious people.
Catastrophic thinking is characterized by using your imagination to create catastrophic outcomes to situations.
For me, I tend to turn potential disappointments or setbacks into catastrophes, even if such setbacks would have minimal impact, or would be easy to recover from.
Worse-case-scenario thinking is characterized by using your imagination to assume that the absolute worse thing that could possibly happen is the most likely outcome.
That means that if I were to start a business, then I would definitely end up bankrupt, homeless, dressed in rags, and pawing through dumpsters for dinner.
And while I can’t help but chuckle at that scenario, in the throws of anxiety, this scenario feels very real.
The possibility of succeeding, or even eking out a modest income that pays my bills is outrageous, even though that outcome is far more likely than becoming reduced to living behind a dumpster.
Both worse-case-scenario and catastrophic thinking tend to be over-the-top exaggerations of what could happen, but they are rarely the most likely outcome.
And while I can chuckle at the absurdity of some of the horrific scenarios I’ve concocted while in the grips of anxiety, these negative outcomes feel very real and imminent when in the throws of rumination and worry.
For example, the vast majority of us would not end up homeless. We have family, or even friends, that would take us in in extreme circumstances.
Even if we lost absolutely everything we have, we could recover from it and rebuild. Nothing is permanent.
The fact is, you have better odds of starting a successful business than you do of becoming homeless and eating out of a dumpster.
I’ll talk about this more in a minute, but there are some simple tactics you can use to flip catastrophic thoughts into focused, solution-oriented thoughts.
3) Intrusive Thoughts
Catastrophic and worse-case-scenario thinking is often intrusive. We don’t consciously decide to think this way. It’s just where our brain goes.
We may be doing an activity that we enjoy, or trying to fall asleep at night, and these thoughts will sneak up on us and stoke the fire of our anxiety.
Everything in your life could be going great, but anxious, catastrophic thoughts haunt your day-to-day life.
As a self-employed person, I struggled with this (and still do). Even when business is going great, I can’t help but think about losing it all – all of the time!
It makes it hard to enjoy success and focus on growing further when I am constantly fearful about it all coming to an abrupt end (and then having to live behind a dumpster.)
Sometimes, intrusive worry happens when we’re just doing something we love.
Sometimes you hear about somebody you know, or even a celebrity, who is diagnosed with a debilitating illness and you begin to ruminate on how awful it would be if you, too, had that illness.
During the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge a couple summers ago, I’d find myself ruminating on what it would be like to slowly waste away from ALS. These thoughts fueled a pervasive anxiety that lasted for days.
Buying a plane ticket for a vacation that you are looking forward to can be turned into a negative experience as the thought of dying in a fiery plane crash sucks all of the joy from the trip.
4) Attachment To Outcomes
Another thought pattern that exacerbates anxiety is attachment to outcomes.
Attaching yourself (self-worth, definition of success, etc.) to a desired outcome causes anxiety about everything going right.
The fact is, however, that everything seldom goes perfectly right. But you can still get what you want. You just may need to extend the timeline, seek out alternate opportunities, or get creative in what path you take.
A setback isn’t a permanent catastrophe.
When I was filling out mortgage paperwork for the house we purchased last summer, I was writhing with anxiety over not getting approved for the mortgage.
Our credit was excellent. But in my own mind, I created a worse-case-scenario where the bank would deny our mortgage application because we are self-employed.
I even fed my anxiety, getting caught up in reading stories on the internet from self-employed people who were denied mortgages.
However, this anxiety stemmed from an attachment to an outcome.
Getting the mortgage was the goal, but I treated it as if it was literally life or death.
If we were not approved for a mortgage, we wouldn’t be homeless. We still had the house we were renting, and could easily rent a different house, if needed.
There was the fear of feeling shame about not getting a mortgage, but really, being denied because we were self employed wouldn’t cause anybody to look down on us. The bank would be seen as the jerk.
We wouldn’t be forever unable to obtain a mortgage. There are LOTS of banks and loan options.
Also, getting a mortgage isn’t necessarily the great thing that people make it out to be. Being a homeowner has its own set of challenges, anxieties, and limitations.
There are advantages to not owning a house, and there are homeowners who regret buying a house.
Being denied for a mortgage could be a blessing, even if it feels like a catastrophe at the time.
Being attached to an outcome sets you up for experiencing anxiety going into it. You could be attached to the idea of having the perfect wedding, or getting the perfect job, or finding the perfect person to marry.
All of these mental attachments can cause serious anxiety when our desires are built up to critical levels.
How To Break Free From Anxious Thought Patterns & Embrace Solution-Focused Thinking
Learning to break free from anxious thoughts takes time and practice.
Here are a few ways that you can do it:
1) Become Objective About Your Anxiety
It’s hard to be objective about something when you are emotionally involved.
Emotions cloud our judgment. They turn unrealistic catastrophic thoughts into made up scenarios that feel real. They fuel fear and resentment that blind us to opportunities and solutions.
What helps me break a cycle of anxious thinking is to take a step back and recognize my anxious thoughts for what they are, and observing how they affect my emotions (and manifest as physical symptoms).
This takes practice. And even if you are seasoned with this, you can still catch yourself falling into a vicious cycle of emotionally-charged rumination.
But for now, educate yourself on how you think. Start analyzing your thoughts objectively. Challenge your thoughts. Don’t just accept the way you think, but demand evidence from yourself.
What are your anxiety triggers?
Are the catastrophic thoughts in your head truly a reflection of reality? What alternative outcomes are also possible?
How have others overcome something that you dread happening to you?
Actually do research on the likelihood of a negative outcome. Learn more about the things you are afraid of. Read stories from people who went though these anxious events.
Start thinking about solutions, and flip your negative thoughts around to positive ones.
2) Name Your Nightmare & Then Flip It
Name your nightmare, and allow yourself to live it in your mind.
I know, crazy, right? But bear with me for a minute here.
I want you to take a pen and paper and write down your worst nightmare. You can play out a scenario that you are currently anxious about.
Now think objectively while you read what you wrote. Is it REALLY so bad? Will it permanently affect your life? Will it kill you?
Most likely, it won’t.
Now step back and think about how likely your dreaded scenario really is. Will you REALLY end up homeless? Is bankruptcy so bad?
What creative ways can you think of to avoid a worse-case-scenario?
Now flip your negative outcome thoughts into positive outcome thoughts.
Repeat the above exercise, but allow yourself to create a positive scenario that is the opposite of the worst-case-scenario.
If you are anything like me, then the worse-case-scenario will feel more likely, more realistic. That’s because you have trained your brain to grab onto this thought pattern without challenge.
By challenging your default thought patterns, you disrupt your automatic response to anxiety.
In this exercise, you’re asking for proof that the worse-case-scenario is the most likely, and the fact is that in most cases, there is no proof. The worse-case-scenario is exaggerated beyond being realistic.
Likewise, now you are asking yourself to ponder the opposite – the likelihood that the best-case-scenario, or even an “okay” scenario, or a “I will survive this” scenario will happen.
Most likely, you’ll avoid worse-case and end up okay, or with a temporary setback that you’ll recover from, or things will work out to your advantage.
While you do this exercise, pay attention to the language you use when referring to yourself.
Is your reasoning for these worse-case-scenarios legitimate or does it come from a low self esteem, self-hating place (ie: “I’m not good enough”, “I’ll screw things up”, “I will do or say the wrong thing”, etc.)
Are these thoughts based on past experience or not?
3) Constantly Remind Yourself That You Have An Anxiety Disorder
I know that this may sound odd at first, but it’s worth reminding yourself that you do have an anxiety disorder and to not put yourself down or illegitamize your genuine fears.
Remind yourself that you are probably blowing things out of proportion, because, let’s be honest, you probably are.
And trust me, I’m saying this as someone who has struggled with anxiety since childhood.
This is all part of learning to be objective with your thoughts – to challenge your thinking instead of accepting it.
You need to get to the point where you stop accepting the line of thought your brain automatically feeds you. Challenge it.
Yes, I’m anxious nearly all the time. I’ve had periods where I could barely function. I suffer.
Knowing that what I’m feeling isn’t a reflection of reality but the product of a faulty neural network (or a misuse of imagination) does help me take a step back from the emotional turmoil caused by anxious thoughts.
Many times I ask myself, – “Is this my reality, or is it just my anxiety?”
Perhaps write this question down and hang it on your computer monitor, your bathroom mirror, or next to your bed.
Print out reminders so that you have a visual cue that can help you climb out of an anxious, ruminating funk.
Again, this takes practice. Strong emotion makes it difficult to objectively analyze your anxious thoughts. But reminding yourself that your automatic thought patterns are not necessarily accurate can help you get better at controlling them.
4) Letting Go & Not Giving A Fuck
As truly simple as this strategy sounds, it can be the most difficult. But seriously, letting go, or as I like to say, not giving a fuck, can shut off anxiety pretty quickly – or at least lessen the severity.
It can also pull you out of a one-track, one possible (catastrophic) outcome train of thought into a more open, solution-focused direction.
Release your grip on what you think your life should be, because too often, we sell ourselves short anyway.
You might stress about getting that job, and turn it into a life-or-death thing, but it’s not. There are LOTS of other jobs.
What you think you want right now may be a burden tomorrow. Anxiety about getting a home, getting a job, finding (or keeping) that “perfect” person in your life – these can all turn into sources of anxiety and suffering in the future. Just keep that in perspective.
Don’t let yourself become too rigid in how you “plan” to experience life. There are many paths, many options, and many decisions to make. If one thing doesn’t work out, then blaze a new path.
You might worry about losing something. In most cases, you can replace or rebuild. Sometimes, losing something frees you up to get more out of life.
Business failure might lead to a more authentic, value-centered career.
Losing a home may lead to finding a better home or freeing up your lifestyle to allow you to travel.
One thing that I like to remind myself of is that whatever I am going through right now, whatever big thing is breathing down my neck, is temporary, and insignificant in my overall life.
Another way to think of it is like this: If somebody wrote your biography, how many pages (or paragraphs) would this one situation in your life take up?
In most cases, maybe only a sentence or two. At the worst, maybe a page – perhaps a chapter.
Is it worth letting this current, anxiety-producing situation ruin your life?
When you can let go of attachments to things, to people, and to outcomes, you will gain a more positive mindset where you can see opportunities instead of catastrophes.
Now I’m not asking you to become a minimalist, or to become somebody who is uncaring toward others, or unmoved by negative things that happen.
I’m not at all talking about becoming numb to the world in a desperate attempt to mindfuck yourself out of feeling anxiety.
Instead, I want you to let go of accepting the catastrophe, and instead, look for opportunity.
That can only happen when you are not clutching so tightly to a desired outcome, and held captive by emotionally-charged thoughts.