Can Our Thoughts Cause Anxiety?

Yes, our thoughts can cause anxiety and our anxiety can influence our thoughts.

Key Points:
  • Our thoughts can make us feel more anxious when we apply cognitive distortions
  • Cognitive Distortions are internal mental filters or biases that we tell ourselves that are not necessarily true
  • Examples of cognitive distortions include thinking in extremes or letting one challenging event dominate your entire day or week
  • Recognise your thoughts and notice any patterns then ask yourself what evidence you have to support them. What evidence have you got that doesn’t support them?
  • Remind yourself that you are doing your best to cope with each situation, and you are more resilient than you may think.


      We may already be aware of the physical impacts of anxiety, such as a racing heart and a shortness of breath, but our thoughts also play a big part in how we are feeling and may cause us to worry even more.

      Unconsciously, we may distort the reality of a situation when we are worried or anxious. The thoughts that accompany these situation are often referred to as cognitive distortions.

      This isn’t about stopping our thoughts, but being aware of some of our repeated thought patterns and questioning the evidence we have to support them.

      What Are Cognitive Distortions?

      Cognitive Distortions are internal mental filters or biases that we tell ourselves that are not necessarily true and are very often unhelpful. They can increase our anxieties and make us feel negativity towards ourselves.

      It is said that we have approximately 60,000 thoughts per day. Our brains are continuously processing so much information and to help us cut down on the mental burden, our brain creates shortcuts. Sometimes this serves us well, ie when we instinctively stop at a red light, other times, these thoughts don’t serve us so well.

      Being mindful of our self-talk, and how we speak to others, can help us understand ourselves and other people better. 

      Cognitive Distortions, Can thoughts cause anxiety, anxiety management

      Common Cognitive Distortions

      Black and White Thinking / All Or Nothing Thinking: Strongly linked to anxiety and our fight or flight response, learning to see shades of grey, instead of thinking in extremes, is immensely useful. When we can appreciate that there is a middle ground, that the situation isn’t “always” as we may believe it to be, it reduces, or stops, the negative emotional thoughts that are necessary to maintain an anxious state. An example could be “I always get anxious when driving.” Recognising that you only sometimes get anxious can be a relief, as you become aware that there are also times when you don’t feel so anxious.

      Overgeneralisation: Generalizing is natural and may have validity in some situations however, seeing a pattern based on a single event, or being overly broad in the conclusions we draw, can blind us to the reality of the situation. An example of an overgeneralisation could be “Nothing good ever happens to me.” Ask yourself, “Nothing? Really?” and you will generally find evidence that this thought pattern is not valid.

      Mental Filter: When we only pay attention to certain types of evidence. We may pick out the negative detail and dwell on it exclusively, and ignore any positives. An example could be “The traffic jam ruined my entire day”, even though you enjoyed a phone call from a good friend.

      Disqualifying the Positives: By discounting or rejecting the good things that happen to us, or we have done, we can feel anxious even when we achieve something great. An example of this would be justifying something positive as if it was pure luck alone and you had little influence over the result. For example, “The A* I received in Maths was a fluke, so doesn’t count”. It still counts!

      Comparisons: When we compare ourselves to others, we assume we know their reality when we don’t. Assuming that all our co-workers are smarter than us shines a negative light on ourselves. Sure, there may be some things that they find easier, but these comparisons are out of proportion when there are most likely some situations we find easier than them.

      Jumping to Conclusions/Mindreading: This is when we believe we can guess what someone else is thinking, when they may not be thinking that at all. An example of this would be when we feel guilty and worthless if someone ignores us or doesn’t return a call, when the reality is most likely that they didn’t see us or are tied up with something else at that precise moment. It is often nothing to do with us at all but we feel negative emotions because we try to predict what is happening in their life or thoughts.

      “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
      Mark Twain


      Fortune Telling: This is when we think we can predict the future, often as a result of something that has influenced our past. So if we didn’t get the last three jobs we applied for, we can start “predicting” that we wont get the next few jobs we apply for either, and it is all too easy to give up trying. The reality is that no one gets accepted for every job, and eventually, if we keep putting ourselves out there, we will be successful.

      Magnification and Minimisation: This is when we magnify the importance of errors as evidence of the truth, “I took the wrong turn and it was an absolute disaster,” or when we minimise a compliment we receive because we think it is undeserved or they don’t really mean it, we tell ourselves they were just being nice. Notice how we don’t normally apply the same logic if we receive negative feedback, we are able to take what has been said and ruminate on it over and over again. Does this sound familiar?

      Labelling and Mislabelling: For years, I assigned myself with the label that I was terrible at public speaking. I avoided speaking in front of an audience for 30+ years because of a negative experience that happened to me while at school. I just refused to do it because I was “terrible.” When facing up to some of my fears at the age of 50, I decided to learn. I invested in my development and have now won awards for my speaking, and I love it. What a waste of 30 years because I gave myself a label at the age of 11, and I never questioned it. What labels may you have given yourself that have held you back from achieving great things?

      Personalising: Taking something personally that may not be personal or seeing events as consequences of our actions when there are other possibilities. This can include blaming ourselves for a situation that we didn’t create, or blaming others for a situation that we did create. Personalising can often be seen in relationship conflicts when we can only see things from our own point of view and may choose to ignore anyone else’s perspective, or when we feel personally responsible for a team activity.

      Underestimating our Coping Ability: When we underestimate our ability to cope with negative events and we downplay our own resiliency by not even attempting to cope. Sometimes, we refuse to even try. Instead, try and think back to a time when you did cope with a similar event. How did you do it? If we are struggling to identify something, who do we know that we can take inspiration from or ask for help?

      Catastrophising: Thinking of daunting events as catastrophes instead of acknowledging the reality of the situation. For example, if your boss asks you to come to her office the next day, we may spend that evening thinking that she is going to fire us. We may stay awake all night, thinking then I will not be able to afford the mortgage and my house will be repossessed …… my partner will leave me and take the kids and I will spend the rest of my life alone, living on the streets.  When the reality was, she had a simple question about a report you have completed.

      Should and Must Statements: Using critical words like “should” and “must” can put a lot of pressure on us and make us feel guilty, or like we have already failed before we have started. For example, "I should clean the car this Sunday" when really we have no desire to clean the car and we would rather have a day of fun with our family. Recognise when you use should and must statements, and ask yourself, is that task really important to you, or could you make a conscious decision not to do it? This takes away the guilt immediately!

      Emotional Reasoning: When we use emotions as evidence of the truth, even though the evidence does not support our feelings, such as "I don’t feel clean, even though I’ve just washed my hands three times. Therefore, I should wash my hands again." This is often a contributor for people struggling with Obsessive Compulsive Order, which is a type of anxiety.

      Anxiety Management, Anxiety Therapist, Anxiety Specialist

      So How Can You Become More Mindful of Your Cognitive Distortions? 

      Being aware of your go to cognitive distortions is the first step. Question your thoughts and ask yourself what evidence have you got to support them. What evidence have you got that doesn’t support them?

      One of my favourite quotes is by Mark Twain “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” Cognitive distortions amplify our anxieties and cause us to focus on situations that may never have happened, or are not likely to happen. Dwelling on these worries multiplies them, creating even more anxiety. It becomes a vicious cycle.

      Print this Cognitive Distortion Worksheet and highlight the cognitive distortions you think may apply to you, then pick one cognitive distortion each week and reflect on how that cognitive distortion manifests in your life.

      You can use the Thoughts Diary Worksheet to help you keep track.

      What Should I Replace These Distortions With?

      Remind yourself that you are doing your best to cope with each situation.

      Focus on the following instead:

      Gratitude: When we focus on what is going well in our lives, instead of what isn’t, we can learn to be grateful for events and the people we surround ourselves with.

      Mindfulness: When we focus on the present moment, instead of the future or our past, we can find joy in the simple tasks that we are doing right now

      Healthy Habits: such as exercise, good nutrition and sleep habits help us to take back control of our lives and can help us feel more energised.

      Connection: When we connect with others then we have a sense of purpose and a support network that we can call on when we need to.

      Other Resources You May Be Interested In:

      What Causes Anxiety? 

      What Are The Different Types of Anxiety?

      How to Overcome Anxiety

      Anxious Thoughts Diary Worksheet

      Cognitive Distortions Worksheet

      Circle of Control and Influence

       Anxiety Management, Anxiety Therapist, Anxiety Specialist

      If anxiety is something you or your loved ones struggle with regularly, then please get in touch to discuss how I can help you overcome the underlying cause of anxiety.

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