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Hello and welcome to my third post about anxiety.

In my first anxiety post I described what anxiety is. Anxiety Part 1 – What is it?. I talked about the fight-or-flight response and how as a species we’ve use the fight-or-flight response as one of our survival instincts. Then in the second anxiety post. Anxiety Part 2 – Managing the Physical Symptoms of Anxiety. I talked about how we can use breathing to get on top of the physiological symptoms of anxiety and bring them under control. Today I want to introduce the cognitive (thinking) components of anxiety. This is quite a large content area so I’ll just start with one element of problem thinking in anxiety: Catastrophic Thinking.

Catastrophic Thinking is one of a number of unhelpful thinking habits that we can engage in, that tends to exacerbate and maintain anxiety. We all have a running commentary going on in our minds all the time. As a species, once we developed the capacity for language, it became quite useful for us to be able to label our environment:  “That’s a stick, that’s a snake, stay away from the snake”. This is something we still do. If you pay attention when you’re walking around you might notice that you’re chatting away to yourself quietly, a bit like having the radio on in the background. And that’s fine, we all do it. But sometimes that running commentary can be really unhelpful and if we don’t notice it, if our unhelpful self-talk goes unchecked, it can have an impact on our feelings.

There’s quite an interesting model that helps us understand how our thoughts impact our feelings. It is one of the core components of cognitive therapy. We refer to it as the ABC model, and I’ll talk about that in another post down the track. Today I just wanted to lay at your feet this idea of “Catastrophic Thinking”. Usually catastrophic thoughts can be identified by “what if … “What if I fail?” “What if I embarrass myself?”  Even if we’re not paying attention to our thoughts these “what ifs” still have an impact on how we feel. Our confidence may be affected, or we may become anxious. What’s even more insidious about these thoughts is that they are about something that hasn’t even happened yet. What’s more, it may never happen! If we spent a couple of days writing down all the “what if” thoughts that we find popping into our mind and when we look back over that long list of “what ifs”, we often find that none of them actually happened.

So in terms of a cognitive process, anxiety is the act of anticipating disaster and acting as if that anticipation of disaster is a fact. So predicting the future and acting as if it’s a reality. So our catastrophic thoughts will trigger an anxiety reaction because they trick the amygdala into thinking that we’re under threat, which in turn triggers the fight or flight response. When, in reality, the thing that we are “what if-ing” about hasn’t happened and may never happen at all.

So have a think about catching yourself “what if-ing”. If you hear that little thought process going on in your brain, try to recognise it for what it is. Recognise it as a catastrophic thought about something that hasn’t happened yet and may never happen.  For new parents, it might be “What if my baby won’t sleep through the night? What if I’m too tired to cope tomorrow?” For people starting a new job or doing some public speaking, it might be “What if I don’t know what I’m talking about?”  For people who are socially anxious contemplating going to a party, it might be “What if I don’t know anybody? What if I’ve got nothing to say? What if I’m boring?

Catch yourself what if-ing and stop it!

Stop and do a little bit of abdominal breathing, and have a think about whether or not you’re going to choose to listen to and buy into that catastrophic thought. Keeping in your mind that what you’re what if-ing about hasn’t happened yet and may never happen. You can choose whether or not you want to listen to that catastrophic thinking and let it influence how you’re feeling. You can choose to recognize it for what it is. It’s a what if, a catastrophic thought. It’s something that hasn’t happened yet. It’s not set in stone. It may never happen.

So you could choose to instead engage your breath, calm yourself down, distract yourself with some other activity and go on with your day.

I’ll leave that thought with you for now. Keep an eye out for my other posts and videos around anxiety.

Best wishes,
Tess.

Connect with me on LinkedIn

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AUTHOR: DR TESS CRAWLEY

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Tess has a passion for mentoring new psychologists. She also has a strong interest in supporting executives as they juggle the balance between leadership and new parenthood. You’ll see Tess regularly speaking on our Facebook pages and our YouTube channel. Her mission is to provide as many free resources to the community as she can, so her videos offer tips and strategies that might be helpful to you. Read Tess’s full Bio here.
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