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3 Mistakes We Make When We Feel Anxious

How to auto-correct anxiety-based thinking mistakes.

Key points

  • Managing anxiety doesn't require eliminating all of one's thinking errors, since they can be auto-corrected.
  • Anxious people make the same thinking errors repeatedly, which means the same solutions can be reused.
  • The more one auto-corrects their own thinking errors, the less of a problem anxiety will be.
 The Creative Exchange/Unsplash
Source: The Creative Exchange/Unsplash

If you're anxious by nature, a big part of managing anxiety is learning the ways your thinking is biased. When you know the mistakes your brain regularly makes, you can automatically correct them.

Over time, correcting your thinking mistakes will become as automatic as making them in the first place.

These are some of the anxiety-based thinking mistakes that come up for me on the regular! Which of these errors do you make?

1. I fixate on the hardest parts of a task.

If an editor requests 10 edits to a piece of my writing, and 2 feel difficult to make, I might get hung up on these. I think less about the 8 easy edits.

Why is this anxiety-related? Anxiety causes us to be on the lookout for danger. Anything difficult feels dangerous.

How I solve this: When I get feedback, I read it, then don't do anything with it for at least 24 hours. Whenever I come back to the work with fresh eyes, problems that felt difficult to solve when I first read the feedback usually feel easier. Why? When you do this, your unfocused mind will still work on the harder problems in the background, even if you're not consciously thinking about them.

I also start with problems I can immediately solve, and swing back to the tough ones. By the time I swing back, I have ideas for how I can fix those issues.

2. I underestimate how much support I have.

Concerns about social acceptance are part of anxiety. They're also very healthy. Being worried about what other people think of you is adaptive. Why? In an evolutionary sense, getting excluded from your tribe is dangerous. We've evolved emotions like guilt to stop us from behaving in ways that would lead to social rejection.

If you're prone to anxiety, you're probably very sensitive to signs of social rejection. This can lead to setting the bar too high for others. Sometimes it can lead to ridiculous conclusions like, "If colleague X isn't over the top, effusive in every work interaction we have, they must not believe I'm talented. They must not support me."

How I solve this: I try to look for signs of social support and acceptance, instead of looking for signs of social rejection. When I do this, I inevitably see I've got more support than I realized. As a result, my interactions with those people become warmer and these relationships stronger, creating a positive spiral.

3. I see excessive barriers to opportunities.

Whenever I think, "I'd like to do X," my anxious mind chimes in with, "You couldn't do that because of A, B, C, D, E, F, and Z!" In reality, most of these concerns usually aren't real barriers, they're just worries.

If you're an anxious person, foreseeing potential problems will be one of your strengths, and simultaneously, one of your weaknesses.

How I solve this: I use one of three approaches, depending on what I feel like.

  • One option is a self-compassionate approach. I use kind self-talk. I thank my mind for trying to protect me but identify that it's overdoing it, and that will result in me missing out on opportunities, which I don't want. I remind myself that I can handle problems if they arise. I don't need to pre-solve every potential problem.
  • Another option is to use irreverence. I imagine the voice of the worry wort as a grubby, little potato chip-eating gremlin that sits on my shoulder. I talk back to it with an element of "yeah, right," "thanks for giving me non-existent problems to think about" and some side-eye.
  • A third thing I do is that I practice seeing simple solutions to barriers. Sometimes foreseeing potential issues is useful, but only if you possess the complementary skill of seeing simple solutions to those potential problems.

I hope you'll see from these three examples that managing anxiety is not about "beating" it. It's a gentle process, not a rough or aggressive one. There are a lot of high-level skills involved in managing anxiety expertly. You can learn these with time and practice. The only other option is not learning them, and that won't give you the life you want and deserve.

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