What do you dread? What makes you procrastinate or immerse yourself in distraction or lose sleep or start and stop a hundred times before you actually do the thing? Some of us dread nearly everything. Some of us dread a few things here and there. (Some people don’t really dread much of anything and to you, I say congratulations, please show the rest of us how you stay so present, and this article isn’t meant for you.)
Many of us live in a constant state of dead (also known as anxiety); some of us are conscious of this and some aren’t. We dread things that will never actually happen, things that could realistically happen but aren’t right now, and things we can’t identify. We try out various types of behavior to manage this dread, but it doesn’t ever really abate.
In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: Mastering Clinical Challenges (Butler, Fennell, Hackmann) anxiety is described as “a complimentary overestimation of the likelihood and magnitude of negative outcomes and an underestimation of internal or external resources by which catastrophe might be managed.” I love this. Anxiety/dread is the overestimation of obstacles and the underestimation of resources. It’s such an organized way of looking at anxiety and dread.
This overestimation of an event and underestimation of our ability to handle it manifests in the form of cognitive distortions. We find our brains swimming in thoughts like “I’ll never be in a loving relationship again,” “There is something wrong with me,” “I’ll never be able to handle this,” or “This is all my fault.” (And really that’s a tiny list of cognitive distortions. There is no limit to the thoughts we can think that will reinforce our fears.)
David Burns, M.D. compiled a list of the types of cognitive distortions we use. (And if you check out his book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, you might find some other useful information.) When we’re freaking out we are usually doing at least one of these:
-All or nothing thinking (black and white thinking, absolutes)
-Overgeneralization (viewing a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat)
-Mental Filter (dwelling on the negatives and ignoring the positives)
-Discounting the positives (insisting positives or accomplishments don’t count)
-Jumping to conclusions (mind reading and fortune telling- both from negative perspective)
-Magnification or Minimization (blowing things out of proportion or shrinking their importance)
-Emotional Reasoning (“I feel like an idiot, so I must be one,” or “I don’t feel like doing this so I’ll put it off.”)
-Should Statements (or “shouldn’t,” “must,” “have to,”)
-Labeling (identifying with mistakes or shortcomings. Instead of saying “I made a mistake,” saying “I’m a loser,” or “a fool.”)
-Personalization and Blame (blaming ourselves for something for which we weren’t entirely responsible or blaming other people and overlook ways that our attitudes and behavior might have contributed to a problem)
When we’re in them, it can be challenging to identify which distortions we’re using (or that we are using any of them at all). What to do? A helpful step is 1) slowing down and trying to identify what you are doing and which distortions you are employing so that you can gain a little bit of perspective and stop being dominated by your dread and anxiety. 2) If you’re having difficulty identifying any and it all just seems like rational thought, try getting out of your head and back into your body. Breathe deeply and notice how your abdominal muscles feel as you inhale and exhale. Notice any sensations you feel in your body and acknowledge them.
Some people find that the first two steps are enough, that once they have calmed themselves a bit and identified their irrational thinking, they are back in control. Sometimes the situation calls for more backup. When it does, you can try 3) examining the evidence that proves (or disproves) your distortion. If your distortion is saying “I never do anything right,” you can list things that you know you have done right. And even with the best tools, it’s still easy to fall down the rabbit hole of dread and anxiety. If you want to walk through it together, I’d love to tackle it with you.
Love and Be Loved,