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The anxious mind follows its own course, as if it had a life of its own. You want to stop worrying but you can’t. You want to stop experiencing apprehension but you find it impossible. As a result, anxiety ends up submerging you in a spiral marked by irrational fears, unfounded expectations and erroneous generalizations.
To get out of this vicious circle, it is essential to understand how an anxious person thinks, to know which are the mental cards with which anxiety plays to overcome it in his own field. And that “battle” must begin with the conviction that anxiety does not eliminate the problems of tomorrow, but absorbs your energy today.
The terrible trap of selective attention
To understand the functioning of the anxious mind, you can imagine that there are some “anxiety glasses”. When you wear those glasses, you cannot avoid seeing the world through those crystals, which means that you perceive and process the stimuli of the environment in a distorted way. These distortions give rise to generalizations and emotional reactions that further increase anxiety.
In practice, the anxious mind automatically focuses on the stimuli it considers threatening. The problem is that it sets in motion a mechanism of selective attention according to which, it only focuses on the most negative part of what happens, ignoring everything that can be positive, reaffirming or comforting.
The threatening interpretation of reality
Since the anxious person sees the world through these “anxiety glasses”, he ends up making an exaggerated assessment of the threats. The anxious mind will interpret a sound in the middle of the night as a murderer approaching or the bad mood of the partner as an unequivocal sign that a relationship break is coming.
Anxiety alters the processing of stimuli to the level of irrational threats. Even ambiguous or innocuous events are interpreted as possible threats that increase the level of alertness. For the anxious person, no place is safe because his mind is constantly looking for dangers. Obviously, living in this state of anxiety passes a huge bill physically and emotionally.
The deep intolerance of uncertainty
One of the main problems with wearing the “anxiety glasses” is that you will not see the safety signs that are incompatible with your worries and the threatening interpretation that you have already made. In practice, the anxious mind rejects any signal that implies a cognitive dissonance with its way of interpreting what happens. Therefore, you will not see that although your partner is in a bad mood, still shows loving details, your mind will only revolve around the threat of separation.
Basically, the anxious person has a great difficulty dealing with uncertainty and seemingly contradictory information. When someone suffers anxiety, he feels that he has no handle to hold on to, that there is nothing solid to grab to. That feeling of instability drives him to frantically search for security, and although it may seem contradictory, he finds it in the thought that the world is a threatening place. In this way he eliminates the cognitive dissonance because he subjugates his perceptions to his sensations and anxious thoughts.
The erroneous generalizations
The anxious mind usually makes hasty conclusions, acts impulsively without realizing that the lenses through which sees the world are distorted. As a result, it is common for it to reach erroneous generalizations that further increase the level of anxiety.
To understand how an anxious person thinks, we can imagine that in his world all the dangers, real and imaginary, are over-dimensioned. The anxious person has few average terms. If a friend tells him that a dog has bitten him, he will think that all dogs are dangerous. If in the past his partner left him, he will think that no one is reliable. The anxious mind generalizes the specific events turning them into a latent threat, so it is not strange that the person lives in a state of constant alarm and expectation.
The excessive concern for the future
As a result of these erroneous generalizations, worries become one of the main symptoms of anxiety. In an ideal scenario, the concern would help us solve the problem as it would lead us to prepare for possible setbacks and plan the steps to follow. However, in the anxious mind, the worry is totally counterproductive as it leads nowhere but keeps the person circling over the same recurring automatic thoughts.
Worst of all, normally that concern for the future has a vague and diffuse character. The anxious mind anticipates that something bad will happen but does not know what or when. It knows that it must protect itself but it does not know how to do it since it does not know for sure the danger. The anxious person cares about his performance, when he must give a speech, and recreates everything that can go wrong, but he does not try hard to prepare for everything to go well. This triggers a permanent state of mental agitation that tends to cause great psychological exhaustion.
The feeling of not being able
As a climax, the anxious mind closes the vicious circle by making the person believe that he will not be able to face the problems or adversities. The anxious person has low self-efficacy, which means that he does not trust his abilities and potential to face the challenge. If that person sees himself as weak and incapable, he will worry more about the negative results than to elaborate a strategy that allows him to leave the hole where he is.
The greater the doubts about their level of competence, the more concern will grow, which often tends to give way to learned helplessness. The anxious person who must face an exam, for example, will worry about the possibility of not approving it. In the end you will end up thinking that you cannot pass it and, as a result, you will not study enough. Thus the anxious mind ends up creating a prophecy that self-fulfills and ratifies a catastrophist vision of the world.
The results are defensive and avoidant behaviors
The anxious person usually has an external locus of control, believes that the problem is “out there”. Therefore, he will resort to different defense mechanisms to displace the real problem outside of himself. Through these self-defensive strategies, he ignores the cause of the problem, which he always attributes to others: anxious parents, a very stressful job or a society that goes too fast. Any excuse is valid for not taking responsibility and launching new strategies to help treat anxiety.
In fact, anxious people are usually true masters of evasion. Avoidant behaviors are a classic strategy for dealing with anxiety, so that the person postpones the problem they have to face or resort to distraction to avoid thinking about a solution. Obviously, procrastination, in the long run, worsens the problem and generates even more anxiety.
There’s a solution
The good news is that understanding how an anxious person thinks involves unmasking anxiety and, therefore, it is the first step in eliminating it.