You spend your entire life with your thoughts, so sometimes it’s hard to tell if your long-term thought patterns are unhelpful. But if you have high-functioning anxiety, chances are your brain is lying to you pretty much constantly. These unhelpful thoughts, called cognitive distortions, filter the world around you into a much scarier place. But once you can identify what common cognitive distortions you are prone to, your anxiety might begin to abate.
Having constant patterns of thinking that tell you reasons to be anxious will likely make your daily life more difficult to get through, even if you function pretty well despite your anxiety. You just may not realize all the ways your brain is filtering your daily interactions into anxiety-bait.
“Cognitive distortions are patterns of thinking that are skewed or biased in an unhelpful way,” licensed psychologist Giulia Suro, Ph.D., CEDS, tells Bustle, “… Everyday interactions are experienced through a cognitive lens that distorts it and makes it difficult to be grounded in the present moment.” The power behind these thoughts often comes from anxiety. The more anxious you are, the more you may have these thoughts. And the more you have these thoughts, the more anxious you may become.
Having these distorted thoughts is like seeing the world through filtered lenses. “Cognitive distortions … are always biased in a way that enhances our doubts or fears,” Dr. Suro says. “A piece of objective information (e.g. [the coffee shop] barista didn’t make eye contact with me) that passes through our cognitive ‘sunglasses’ all of a sudden becomes a distorted thought (e.g. I must be ugly).” Taking these metaphoric sunglasses off may be a lifelong pursuit, but you can make the filtered thinking less powerful by just realizing it’s happening.
Here are seven ways your brain lies to you daily if you have high-functioning anxiety, according to experts.
One of the most common daily lies of anxiety is constantly saying the word “should” to yourself.
If you notice yourself focusing on why you, or others, “should” behave a certain way, take a pause. Trying saying what you just said to yourself out loud. These filters can sound like “I should make everyone like me,” and are pretty common. “Holding ourselves to these extreme rules means we will feel as if we failed regularly,” licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) Laura Federico, tells Bustle. It is hard not to feel anxious if you’re constantly letting yourself down, so try to find ways to take the pressure off yourself.
This cognitive distortion is framed in a variety of ways — all or nothing, always or never, black or white — but whatever you call it, it’s a common way high-functioning anxiety kicks into overdrive during daily interactions.
“All-or-nothing thinking: this occurs when our mind can only exist in the extremes and we have trouble finding the [gray],” Dr. Suro says. “This is very common in individuals who are highly ambitious or perfectionistic. If things are not done to the highest standard then it is a total failure. This distortion can contribute to high levels of stress and burnout.” So while you may think your logic that anything less than an A is actually an F is a fantastic motivator, it’s likely just as much serving as a magnifier for your anxiety.
If you tend to get a bit over-dramatic, it may actually be a sign you may be prone to a pattern of thinking common to high-functioning anxiety called “catastrophizing.” “[‘Catastrophizing’ means] taking a statistically small probability and treating it as the norm,” owner and clinical director of Elevate Counseling Jamie Dana, MC, LPC, tells Bustle. Instead of seeing all the potential ways something can go, you may only notice the worst-case scenario.
“[An example of this is] someone who doesn’t feel she is valuable or worthy may have a cognitive distortion about a text exchange with a friend. If the friend doesn’t respond to a text quickly, a catastrophic cognitive distortion based on the belief [they aren’t] good enough will lead [them] to believe her friendship is over,” Federico says. If you’re prone to thinking this way, taking note of it may help you realize what’s driving your anxiety.
Being anxious often means being caught up in your own little world. If you’re used to thinking this way, your brain might lie to you by making it seem like everything happening around you is because of you, or about you.
“[Personalization means] casting yourself as the central figure in everyone else’s story and assuming that you’re actions or inactions are overly impacting others around you,” Dana says. Reminding yourself that what other people do has nothing to do with you might help you move past this particular mental roadblock.
Of all the ways anxiety lies to you, it’s ability to tell you that you can predict the future may be one of the most obvious from the outside. But from the inside, making drastic assumptions may feel like a normal way of looking at things.
“[Fortune telling] occurs when we assume what others may be thinking about us or what will happen in the future,” Suro says. “For example, if I get an email from my boss asking me to meet with [them] at the end of the day, I may spend the afternoon a nervous wreck preparing to be fired. When we engage in mind reading or fortune telling we can spend time in a reality that hasn’t even come to pass yet.”
This cognitive distortion may make you feel more in control of possible outcomes, but it’s likely actually making you more stressed. Remind yourself that you cannot know what people are thinking, or what will happen next, to feel some relief.
“Filtering” is a bit of a vague name for this cognitive distortion, but it means minimizing the good, and zooming in on the bad in any given situation. If you find yourself disqualifying the positive often, you may need to focus on this particular thought pattern a bit.
“We are … likely to draw to memory the negative things that happen to us and use them to justify why they will continue to happen in the future (e.g. I will always be single, because all previous relationships have failed),” Suro says. “If we are able to remember the positive, we are tend to write it off as an anomaly or something that was just due to luck (e.g. I only got the job because I was in the right place at the right time, it didn’t have anything to do with me).” In reality, the good things that happen to you are not random (and the bad things are not a grand scheme), and you deserve to know that.
No matter how strong your emotions, the truth doesn’t necessarily lie in how you’re feeling. Just because you’re feeling something deeply, doesn’t mean it’s true. And just because you feel like no one wants to hang out with you, it doesn’t mean there’s really no one around who wants to hang out with you.
“Thinking emotionally can breed anxiety,” licensed psychotherapist Arlene B. Englander, LCSW, MBA, tells Bustle, “… The goal is to spot these pain-producing thoughts and answer them back in a self-soothing way. Awareness is key to controlling these thoughts and developing the habit of replacing them with those that are far more pleasurable and productive.” The goal isn’t to invalidate your own feelings, but to remind yourself they’re separate from objective truth sometimes.
In fact, dealing with a lot of these distortions can begin with identifying the thought and responding to it. It may be the human condition to occasionally catastrophize or think in “should” statements, but if you have high-functioning anxiety and you experience these patterns daily, then minimizing the effects of these mental filters is a health goal.