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How a "Sticky Mind" Can Lead to Anxiety

... and the risk of creating an "anxious consciousness."

Key points

  • "Stickiness of the mind" is a tendency to become mired in worry along with flights into catastrophic images and thoughts.
  • Stickiness runs in families, so people with sticky minds are likely to have been raised by a parent with the same trait.
  • Intense stickiness results in a profound change of awareness we call "anxious consciousness."
  • Stickiness can be tricky, and knowing how it tries to trick you is the path to learning how to best manage it.
Steve Buissine from Pixabay
Steve Buissine from Pixabay

A decade ago, we introduced the concept of “stickiness of the mind” in our text for general clinicians called What Every Therapist Needs to Know About Anxiety Disorders: Key Concepts, Insights, and Interventions (Routledge, 2014). It has proven to be a helpful description of how the anxious mind works. People with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders can immediately identify it in their own experience.

In our latest book, Overcoming Anticipatory Anxiety (New Harbinger, 2022), we describe this as a biologically based phenomenon that is heritable and tends to run in families. So people with "sticky minds" are likely to have been raised by a parent with the same trait.

Stickiness of the mind is experienced as repetitive looping thinking, a tendency to become mired in worry, a talent for imaginative flights into catastrophic images and thoughts, and a tendency for junk channels of the mind to get loud and insistent instead of simply flowing by.

The anterior cingulate cortex, a tiny brain structure, operates as a bridge between the prefrontal cortex (where we think and plan) and the amygdala (where we react with an all-or-nothing alarm response to danger). This part of the brain seems to trigger quirky, looping repeating worries in people with this trait (Straube et al 2009[1]).

Stickiness increases with the stress of fatigue, illness, and chronic conflict, as well as with positive stress like excitement. It is usually greater the day after heavy alcohol consumption, when jet-lagged, when you take steroids, or when you are pre-menstrual.

People with this predisposition are so used to worrying and ruminating that they just see themselves as anxious people. They often do not realize that stickiness need not inevitably lead to distress.

Stickiness is not a sign of mental illness: it is a characteristic that, once understood, can be incorporated into a full and meaningful life.

At rest, especially when absorbed in present moment sensory experience, stickiness decreases. Under stress, stickiness increases. And in particularly anxious situations—when the amygdala sounds a fight, flight, or freeze alarm—the body experiences arousal and the mind becomes highly sticky.

Anxious Consciousness

When this happens, you are far more prone to develop anxious consciousness, an altered state of awareness that feeds anxiety and distress in a number of different ways. Anxious consciousness includes changes in sensory perception, a feeling of urgency, and a narrowed focus on potential threat—whether real or imagined.

Stickiness compresses your mind/body relationship. Thoughts and bodily reactions become closely tied: a “what if...?” can instantly trigger nausea or a change in breathing or a rapid heart rate, and vice versa.

Conditioned associations can be formed instantly. Things that don’t belong together can get stuck to each other just because they happen at the same time—which can lead to superstitious behavior. (“I had a ‘bad’ thought when I looked in the mirror, and now every time I look in the mirror, I get the same thought. So I have to think a ‘good’ thought on purpose to neutralize it. Or avoid mirrors”)

Importantly, when stickiness is high, you are more likely to make mistakes in thinking which increase your anxiety and feed your doubts. But if you understand what is happening and are not bewildered by it, you will not be tricked.

Common Thinking Mistakes of the Sticky Mind

When anxiety increases stickiness, thinking mistakes often occur. Here are a few:

  • Magical thinking (“I can influence reality with my mind”) starts occurring.
  • All-or-nothing thinking increases.
  • You marshal facts that are irrelevant to the current reality to support your worries (“car accidents can happen,” “I heard of one time that….”).
  • You trust your obsessional doubts over what your common sense tells you.
  • No risk seems reasonable,
  • You confuse the idea of “possible” with the idea of “likely.”
  • Your attention is drawn to stories you form in your imagination about future catastrophes or collapses or calamities.
  • You mistake your anticipatory anxiety for a warning or a red flag.
  • You can get hyper-focused on one scary thought or narrative and become totally absorbed, so your imagination blocks out the rest of what is actually present and perceptible.
  • You lose perspective.
  • Your usual common sense flies out the window.

Stickiness Stimulates Rumination

Stickiness is tricky. It makes thoughts seem important—or seem like facts—even when they are not, and demands attention and response when none is needed. It often stimulates deliberate rumination—a preoccupation with repetitive, looping, over-thinking—as if more and more thinking could solve a problem for which there is no answer.

Examples might include trying to find certain guarantees of safety or health or eliminating regrets; trying to solve or prevent a problem that has not happened but exists only in your imagination; or trying to find a way to settle on one pure feeling in a situation when there are many simultaneous and competing emotions.

Rumination gives the illusion of problem-solving, but it does the opposite. It is more like using a shovel to dig yourself out of a hole. You end up deeper down the hole.

Managing a Sticky Mind

Once you understand stickiness and its tricks, you can change your relationship with it. As you learn to recognize the ways a sticky mind and an anxious consciousness cause you to lose perspective and get lost in your imagination, you can let false alarms subside on their own and refrain from rumination.

You can redirect yourself to what you want to do—or were doing—when your sticky mind sends out a message of doubt, worry, or alarm that is not worth your attention.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: DimaBerlin/Shutterstock


[1] Straube,T., Schmidt,T., Weiss,H.J.Mentzel, and Milner,W.H. 2009 "Dynamic Activation of the Anterior Cingulate Cortex During Anticipatory Anxiety" Neuroimage 44, no.3: 975-981

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