So many of us are bogged down in stress and worry. In fact, 80 percent of Americans report feeling stressed out almost every day. We stew over our finances, relationships, jobs, children, and health. And while it’s normal to worry a bit—we aren’t robots, after all—ongoing, constant worry distracts and derails us.
I’ve identified three common thinking traps that foster anxiety. The good news? Unwarranted anxiety doesn’t have to be a way of life—each thinking trap has an escape plan.
The Trap: Overgeneralizing
What It Is: How would you feel if your friend from high school—the one who always slacked off but got A’s anyway—suddenly bought a fancy new car? You might think to yourself: “He’s more successful than me. This proves that I’m not smart and talented enough to ‘make it,’ and I’m just not lucky.”
Sound familiar? Overgeneralizing happens when you seize on a single piece of information and make a sweeping general rule about the world, another person, or yourself without enough evidence to support your findings. How much do you really know about your old friend’s bank account or salary? Not much, right? How much can one person’s apparent success really say about your abilities?
Why It’s Damaging: By definition, problems that are very general are more difficult to solve. Rather than individual problems that you can tackle, overgeneralizers feel their problems add up to an immovable state of being that leads to helplessness and hopelessness: his life is great, mine is terrible—and there is nothing I can do about it. How do you go about changing talent or luck? You can’t.
The Escape Plan: Listen for the “never” or “always” in your thoughts. Be aware of the times you put things down to character traits like laziness or incompetence either in others or yourself. Ask yourself: “Do I really have the evidence for such a big theory about the world?” Chances are, you don’t.
The Trap: Magnifying & Minimizing
What It Is: Maybe you’ve been trying to save money for a down payment on a house. Instead of focusing on your progress, you dwell on the amount that you have left to save—so instead of applauding yourself for each step forward, you become convinced that you’ll never meet your goal. When you magnify the bad and minimize the good, you let the negative take over and define a situation and your outlook.
Why It’s Damaging: Magnify/minimizers often find themselves in an endless loop of problems that seem to show up wherever they go. For instance, they come away from their workweek thinking that their job is horrible. The boss is incompetent; the workload is too heavy. They resign, go to another job, and they’re still miserable—because they take their familiar magnifying/minimizing habit with them.
The Escape Plan: Write down three good things that happen to you every day. Read your list the next morning before you do anything else. Add to it daily and watch it grow.
The Trap: Worst-Case Thinking
What It Is: Worst-case thinkers take a real problem and follow an unlikely path to a horrible scenario, and then get stressed about it. For instance, imagine that a friend cancels your dinner plans last minute. A worst-case thinker would immediately start jumping to conclusions: “She must be upset with me. I bet I said something offensive last time I saw her. She’ll never speak to me again—this friendship is over!”
Why It’s Damaging: This trap creates a downward spiral that leads you to the worst-case scenario. Bad things do happen, sure. The goal is to move from being a pessimist to a realist. When you focus on the worst-case, you allot the majority of your energy to worrying about something that has a one-in-a-million chance of actually coming true. That is not a good deployment of resources.
The Escape Plan: Each time you find yourself landing on the worst case, think of the absolute best case—don’t be afraid to get creative! Then use your worst and best case scenarios to find the truth. It’s probably somewhere in the middle. Ask yourself: “What’s the probability that the worst case will occur based on this one triggering event?”
We can’t solve all of life’s problems, and everyone feels anxious from time to time. However, we can make our problems seem bigger than they really are through habitual faulty thinking. When we change these negative thinking patterns, we are able to better manage our anxiety and approach problems with a calm and clear mind.