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The Two Big Beliefs Linked to Anxiety

Worries and fears and stress, oh my! This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen reveals the two big beliefs that light up anxiety, plus how to pull the plug.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
Episode #106
anxious man

To follow up on the big response to the recent episode The Two Big Beliefs Linked to Depression, I thought we could fry another big fish this week with The Two Big Beliefs Linked to Anxiety.  

The two beliefs that follow aren’t necessarily conscious. Your brain probably doesn’t say these things overtly; instead, these two thoughts are more of an undercurrent. But like a riptide, it can be dangerous to swim in these waters. Here are the two beliefs that will pull you under.

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Belief #1: "The worst-case scenario is sure to happen." You probably know someone who can find the silver lining in any bad event: someone dear to them dies and they are thankful the suffering has ended, or they get fired but relish the chance at a fresh start. You probably also know someone who will complain about anything: the beach was too sandy, the sangria too fruity. And finally, you probably also know (or are) someone who can think of the worst-case scenario in any situation. You have a headache? What if it’s a brain tumor?  There’s traffic? Your boss is sure to notice when you walk in late. You’re going to a resort in Cancun for a week? Don’t get ice in that sangria or you’ll be sick the whole time!

This is the dubious talent of anxiety—the ability to take a situation that’s anywhere from ambiguous to slightly threatening, and forecast a really big catastrophe. Sometimes this is useful—you see your kids hauling a toboggan up the playground slide, and you assume they’re not just planning on enjoying the view from the top.

But other times it’s not so useful. We foresee big problems in small things: you make a mistake at work and think you’ll get fired. Your partner doesn’t respond to a text so they must be mad at you. And sometimes we’re not even sure what we’re anxious about, but are simply convinced something bad will happen.

So how to fight back when your brain makes Mount Everest out of that molehill?  Here’s what to do:

How to challenge it:  When a worst-case scenario pops into your head and starts freaking you out, ask yourself two questions: first, “How bad would that really be?” In other words, is this truly a disaster of epic proportions? For example, “What if we don’t get any offers on the house?” Well, how bad would that be? Usually, the brain can take another perspective and say, “Well, it wouldn’t be great.  I’d have to rethink some financial decisions, but no one would die or anything.  I could put it on the market again next year.” Or, in another example, “What if I’m in the wrong job?” Let’s ask again: how bad would that be? You might come up with, “Well, even if I am, I can always look for another one.”

The second question to ask yourself is, “What are the odds?” What are the odds it’s really a brain tumor? Is it more likely that you’re stressed and dehydrated? What are the odds she didn’t text you back because she’s mad? Is it possible she just got busy, is in a meeting, or accidentally left her phone in the car?

At least one of these questions—”How bad would that really be?” or “What are the odds?”—will work with pretty much every anxious thought, if not both.

Bonus: When you’re hunting anxiety in the wilds of your brain, look for this distinctive plumage: a question mark. Anxious statements are almost always phrased as questions: What if?  What then? What now? And questions are slippery—they’re hard to argue with, and the answer is almost always bad.

So when you hear yourself asking “what if,” change your question to a statement and go from there. For example, “What if the plane crashes?” is hard to answer—that really would be a disaster. But change it to, “The plane is going to crash,” and now you can tackle it by asking, “What are the odds?”

Keep reading for the next big belief linked to depression ...

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