Ten Psychological Tricks The Brain Plays On Us


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If you're anxiety-prone like I am, you'll have some specific anxiety-driven thinking patterns that hold you back and cause you unnecessary distress.

There are lots of genetic lists of the thinking errors that people with anxiety and/or depression make. While it's good to start with these, you can also get more specific about the thinking errors you personally make on a repeated basis.

Why Do This?

It's much easier to identify when you're making a thinking error when the error you're looking out for is something specific and you understand the situations that tend to trigger that error for you. For example, emails are a huge trigger of thinking errors for me!

When you identify the thinking errors that hold you back the most, you can learn to spot your patterns when they show up and discount that thinking. Instead of automatically believing your anxiety thoughts, you can learn to say to yourself "Oh that's just my anxiety brain kicking in. It's no big deal."

I thought I'd share some of my own, very specific anxiety-related thinking patterns.  You'll get to see what it's like to use cognitive-behavioral strategies in real life. These are some of my most common anxiety thoughts and the solutions I use. Here we go:

1. Requests people make of me seem larger and more difficult than they are.

If I get a work email asking me to complete something in two weeks, my anxiety brain will pipe up with stressed-out thoughts about whether I can get the task done on time. However, it wouldn't matter if the deadline I got was in two weeks or six months. My brain reacts to any deadline by generating the feeling of being overwhelmed. Even when the deadline gives me masses of time to complete the task, my brain will come up with ridiculous potential hazards that could prevent me from being able to get the task done, such as "Well, what if I fall into a coma for the next six months and can't do that 10 hour task?"

Likewise, if an editor asks me to check over a magazine article I've written before it heads to the printer, I'll think "Oh I'm probably going to find mistakes. This is going to be stressful." I anticipate that things I'm asked to do will be hard rather than easy, when most times, they're easy.

My Solutions:  

  • I use suddenly feeling overwhelmed as a cue to hunt for thinking errors. If ever feel overwhelmed by an email, I tell myself "There's a ninety percent chance my reaction is just my good old anxiety brain, and that the request will seem easy when I look at it with fresh eyes tomorrow." I've had enough experiences of this alternative thought being true, to believe it! 
  • I try to have a bit of fun with some of the more extreme thoughts and highlight the ridiculousness of them by making them even more extreme, like saying "Well, what if I fell into a coma in the next five seconds." I'm not mean to myself when I do this. It's a gentle ribbing.

2. Only expecting negative feedback.

When I get a new Amazon review or I get a reader email, I see it in my inbox and automatically think the feedback is going to be critical, when it hardly ever is.

A friend recently offered to review my next book for a professional journal, and I immediately thought "Oh, she probably won't like it. She might disagree with some points I've made and think I've done a bad job." Sure, this could happen, but given that we have a very similar thinking style professionally, it's highly unlikely. Even if there were a few parts she doesn't love, chances are she will generally really like it.

My Solution: I remind myself that if I'm getting eighty to ninety percent positive feedback I'm doing fine. If the occasional reaction or feedback I get is negative, it's not the end of the world and is typically something I can learn from. I also remind myself that when something I've done wrong is pointed out, it's usually fixable rather than a catastrophe.

3. Misremembering and second guessing myself.

If I'm feeling unsure of myself, I'll often get the sense that I've forgotten to do something important, such as I'll worry I've forgotten to pay my health insurance.  Sometimes I'll have the urge to look back at work-related emails or articles I've written and check if maybe I sounded too harsh or didn't clarify enough etc.

My Solution: This type of second guessing myself typically happens when I'm either stressed or challenging myself in some way. Therefore, I usually try to identify that trigger and give myself some self-compassion. My self-talk might be something like "Hey, you're putting yourself out there more than you usually do. You feel exposed, and so your anxiety has kicked up. That's understandable. Hang in there. It's good to try new things."

4. I create imaginary roadblocks to taking action.

My sister and I are both self-employed. She can go to a conference or read a business book, and even for tips that seem cheesy to me, she comes away and starts applying them. When I hear tips (e.g. marketing tips), I think "Oh I couldn't do that," and come up with a million reasons why the tips wouldn't work for me, and/or why it would be too hard or too inappropriate for me to use them in my situation.

My Solutions:

My solutions for this situation vary. 

  • Sometimes I'll have fun with the idea that my brain is coming up with so many reasons to sabotage my own success.
  • Sometimes I'll ask myself, "What would (my sister/my brother in law) do?"
  • Occasionally, I'll ask my sister's advice. If I ask her a question and she gives me a suggestion, instead of going into "But, what about....." mode and putting up barriers, I bite my tongue and give myself a chance to digest the suggestion. Just allowing myself this time often lets me see past any barriers I'm imagining.
  • When moving from thinking to action feels hard, or I feel overwhelmed by having thought of too many possible paths I could take, I'll also use strategies like the 1% improvement principle. See this post for an explanation and examples.

Wrapping Up

Because I'm confident in my solutions and understand my patterns, these anxiety-related thoughts don't trap me or hold me back. Hopefully I've given you some ideas for your own solutions!

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