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You need to know, anxiety distorts your thinking

You need to know, anxiety distorts your thinking

 I want to guide you through how anxiety impacts and distorts your thinking. I will then show you some really effective ways of minimising this so anxiety is not running the show in your life.


How does anxiety impact our thinking?

When we get anxious our bodies release the stress hormone adrenaline and cortisol, this is part of the threat response, it gets us ready to fight or fight from the dangerous situation. You will experience more threat-based thoughts when you are anxious, this is sometimes called catastrophic thinking. You will only be able to think of the worst outcome and overgeneralise worst-case scenarios.


The cognitive tunnel

 When this occurs there is a dramatic shift in our thinking, which not many people are aware of. As soon as you begin feel anxious for any reason your thinking narrows creating a cognitive tunnel, so you can only focus on the threat. This is a very powerful response, which is out of our control.

It is how our brain is wired and the reason for it is to improve our survival rates. It’s not useful to remember what’s on your shopping list, if you are being chased by a lion!

It’s also the reason why our minds can go blank in exams for example. When you are sat in an exam and you have had the thought “I’m going to fail this”, all your knowledge goes out of your mind and all you can focus on is the worst case scenario ‘failing’.


What’s the solution?

A key concept in CBT therapy is that our thinking impacts how we feel and then how we behave and vice versa. One of the starting points in CBT is to increase your awareness of the link between how you think, feel and act. Cognitive restructuring is just one technique used within CBT where unhelpful thoughts are identified and examined in order to modify them.

This can be done outside of therapy by noting down the key thoughts you have when you feel anxious. Unhelpful thoughts can create or exacerbate unhealthy patterns of behaviour or mental states and there are often patterns in the way we think so writing them down is a useful way to begin to notice these patterns.

Once they are written down mark the anxious thought as Theory A and at the side of it write Theory B, this would be the alternative non-anxious thought. It can be difficult to come up with Theory B’s when you are anxious so you may need to come back to it when you have calmed down. The more you do this the easier and more effective it gets.

Increasing your awareness to your anxious state and saying to yourself “I’m anxious” can help to settle the anxious state down as you are engaging your logical brain to do this. When you learn to increase your awareness of your emotional states then you will begin to also increase your awareness of how your thinking is being impacted.

This is not just in anxious states the same applies when we are angry or very sad. At times of high emotion it can be helpful to focus on working with the emotion rather than trying to change the emotion by thinking it through due to the distortion in the thinking.

Notice where the anxiety is in your body and breath into that area of the body. When you are anxious your blood pressure has increased, look to reduce this, as this will also calm your mind. Calming the body calms the mind

Your motivation with anxiety always needs to be to build your tolerance to it, to accept the experience and ride the wave of it. If you try not to have anxiety you will experience more of it.

The bottom line

Through increasing your awareness of your thinking patterns you can start to become more curious about your thinking style. This new found awareness will help you move towards modifying you unhelpful thinking so you can establish new patterns of responding and therefore feeling.


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Sarah Rees

Sarah is a fully accredited Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and mental health writer delivering Modern Mental Health for you and with you in Mind. Sarah is the author of ‘The CBT Journal’ which helps you write for your wellbeing incorporating CBT techniques. For more information and to keep in touch have a look at