anxious thinking cognitive therapy

Types of Anxious Thinking

Some of us may not even realize we are engaging in anxious thinking. So, let’s look at the different types of anxious thinking to get a better understanding.

Once you learn about these types of thinking, you may be able to identify that these are thoughts you partake in. Once you identify which types of anxious thinking you are engaging in, you can then address them appropriately.

Probability Overestimations

When you believe something will happen, but in reality, it is very unlikely to occur. Let’s say you are about to meet a new person. You believe that it is not going to go well despite the fact that you have a good history when meeting new people. You tend to overestimate the likelihood of something bad happening.

I believe a lot of us with social anxiety engage in this thinking. I used to think things like: everyone at the meeting will think i’m stupid, if I make a mistake then I will lose my job, I will have nothing to say when talking in a small group setting, I will mess up badly during my presentation, and if I’m at the mall everyone will look at me.

As Tom Petty stated, most things I worry about never happen anyway!

Do you often think things will turn out badly but literally have no evidence to support that assumption?

Mind Reading

Making negative assumptions about what other people are thinking. For those of us with social anxiety, we love to assume we know what other people are thinking of us! I have a whole article devoted to stop caring what other people think.

I personally struggled with this area for many, many years. I would always think people found me boring or weird or think I’m an idiot if I did something stupid. I would think people thought I was incompetent if I started blushing. I would also think that people could easily see when I was anxious and they would think I’m weak because of my anxiety problems.

As Cooley stated,

I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am, I am what I think you think I am.

For most people, this is true. Is it true for you as well? Do you make assumptions about what other people are thinking about you?


Taking more responsibility than you should in a given situation. Instead of citing the different factors that contributed to an outcome or a situation, you take the brunt of the responsibility.

This could happen in any situation. For example, let’s say you are in the store and making small talk with someone. Eventually you run out of things to say. Then, you think, we ran out of things to talk about because I’m boring and lame.

The truth is, there are many things that could have resulted in that outcome. It’s not always about your perceived faults. It could be that the other person didn’t have much to say or that you didn’t have anything in common with the other person or that the conversation had simply run its course. All conversations end eventually.. it doesn’t mean you’re boring or lame.

Or let’s take another example. You notice someone staring at you and think, they think I’m weird or different. Again, your perception and reality are not in alignment. The person could have been staring at you for many reasons.

Is it possible that the person liked your outfit or maybe they liked the way you looked. Is it possible that they may have been looking in your direction but not directly at you? Or is it possible that the person was looking at you but not really paying attention (they were just day dreaming).

Do you ever find yourself thinking in these ways? Focusing on the negative judgments like personalization, rather than considering all the various possibilities?

“should” Statements

Anytime you use the words always, never, should, and must, you should pause and consider if what you’re saying is true. Do you ever say to yourself, I should never make a mistake, I should never let my anxiety show, I am always quiet and shy, I can never think of anything to say, I must be perfect, other people should never think poorly of me, I should never feel nervous, other people should never laugh at something I’ve done, and so on.

You have an idea of the way things ought to be. Sometimes we become so rigid in our thinking which leads to unrealistic expectations. Have you engaged in this type of thinking before?

Catastrophic Thinking

Catastrophizing, is when you believe that if a negative event happened, it would be absolutely terrible. For example, if I lost my place during my speech, it would be an absolute disaster. Or, if I blushed in front of people in a meeting, it would be terrible and I wouldn’t be able to manage.

The truth is, we all make mistakes! We all embarrass ourselves from time to time and that’s perfectly ok. The problem occurs when we try to be perfect and when we mess up, we get wrapped around the axle about it. People who are not socially anxious are able to have an unfortunate social event and move on because they understand that mistakes will happen from time to time.

For example, let’s say someone is giving a speech and they forget their place momentarily. Person A says, oops, I lost my spot… They remain calm and think of the last thing they said and then get back on track. They don’t see a small mistake as an absolute disaster.. they get back up and press on. They stumble and keep going.

Person B, on the other hand, demands perfection. As soon as they begin their speech they are extremely nervous because of all the pressure. When they mess up, they spiral out of control quickly. They think, oops, I lost my spot.. oh no, what am i going to do now? I look like an idiot, people are going to think i’m an incompetent loser.. this is the end of my career! They just spiral out of control instead of regrouping and acknowledging that everyone makes mistakes. Everyone makes a jackass out of themselves from time to time and that’s ok!

Do you ever think it would be terrible if someone didn’t like you or if you made a fool of yourself? Do you ever catastrophize or exaggerate how bad a certain outcome would be if it actually happened?

All or Nothing Thinking

This ties into the perfection thing again. Those of us with social anxiety usually have unrealistic standards. When you do something (performance related) that isn’t perfect, you consider it a failure. Your performances are either perfect (rarely) or awful! If your speech or presentation isn’t perfect, then you consider it trash.

I remember thinking that I was a failure if i got less than an A on an exam or thinking that if I got any negative feedback from a teacher, parent, or employer, that I sucked. I wouldn’t consider and balance all the inputs, I would just focus on the negative ones – the things that made me fall short of perfection.

Another big one for me is when I made a small mistake in a meeting or presentation. I would focus on that one little mistake instead of looking at the whole entire presentation.

Instead of considering the whole event, you focus on the small errors. In reality, there is a continuum between awful and perfect that you need to consider. Look at the event from a holistic stance.

Selective Attention and Memory

Those of us with social anxiety have a tendency to place more attention and weight on certain information. We pay attention to information that back up our beliefs, and unfortunately, that information is usually of the negative variety. We pay attention and place more weight on the criticisms, low grades, and negative feedback instead of balancing it out with its opposites (good grades, positive feedback, and compliments). We ignore the positives and dwell on the negatives.

We also have selective memory. We remember the times we were teased instead of the good times we had with friends. We remember the small mistakes when public speaking instead of the overall success of the event.

We remember the small mistakes we made during a conversation instead of remembering that the conversation went pretty well overall.

Ask yourself:
If you receive both positive and negative feedback, which one do you focus on? Which one do you give more weight to and which one do you ignore?

If you do well in school (usually high grades) and you get one low grade, which do you focus on and dwell on? Do you consider all the good grades you have received as well?

Re-cap: Anxious Thinking Types

  • Do you ever find yourself thinking in these ways?
  • Do you overestimate the likelihood of something going wrong?,
  • Do you assume you know what others are thinking about you?
  • Do you take more responsibility for negative outcomes than you should?
  • Do you believe incorrect or exaggerated assumptions and beliefs?
  • Do you assume that if a negative event were to happen that it would be completely awful?
  • Do you seek perfection and then think you are a failure when you fall short?
  • Do you put more weight on negative feedback rather than positive feedback?
  • Do you focus on the mistakes instead of the successes?
  • Do you do peg yourself as the problem rather than considering all the various possibilities? There are so many possibilities, but those of us with social anxiety always seem to focus on the reasons that have a negative judgment (about us) attached to them.

Now we will look at how our negative core beliefs play a role in our anxious thinking patterns.

2 thoughts on “Types of Anxious Thinking”

  1. Pingback: Cognitive Therapy – Changing Anxious Thoughts – Wisdom For Life

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