The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a great deal of uncertainty leaving many people feeling anxious and fearful of what’s to come. Anxiety is often associated with symptoms like persistent worry, feeling “on edge”, changes in sleep and appetite, and physical symptoms like headaches, muscle tension, and gastrointestinal distress. Chronic anxiety can take a toll on your health, both mentally and physically. It’s understandable to be anxious in the face of so much uncertainty; however, it’s important to be proactive in learning strategies to keep your anxiety in check to protect yourself against downstream health consequences.
Learning strategies for approaching negative thoughts can be an important component to protecting your mental health. “Cognitive restructuring” is a strategy used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a popular treatment modality helpful for relieving symptoms of mental health problems like depression and anxiety. At the basis of cognitive restructuring is the acknowledgment that our thoughts are often biased by our own emotions, experiences, personality, and biology. Our brains are wired to alert us to potential threats, which is why we tend to overestimate the likelihood of negative outcomes and anticipate worst-case scenarios. In psychology, these biased negative thoughts are called “cognitive errors” or “cognitive distortions”.
Cognitive errors left unchecked can leave us stuck in an “anxiety spiral”. Our emotions are closely related to our thoughts, and when we are feeling anxious and fearful, these emotions will likely influence our thoughts to sway toward the negative. In turn, negative thoughts can perpetuate anxiety and fear, creating a feedback loop that can quickly spiral out of control, leaving us feeling helpless and running through an endless list of possible catastrophic outcomes.
Because our thoughts are so subjectively influenced, it’s important to remember that they are not reflections of some indisputable, objective “truth”. We often treat them as if they are, and this type of thinking contributes to the spiral. So what’s the solution? We can check our thoughts for logic and objectivity to interrupt the feedback loop before it gets out of control.
Here are three questions to ask yourself to check your thoughts for cognitive errors:
1. Am I overestimating the likelihood of a negative outcome?
Negative predictions are a common cognitive error. Be aware of the thoughts you have, and remember that just because you think about something doesn’t mean it’s true or that an outcome you fear is likely to happen.
2. Even if I do encounter a negative outcome, am I jumping to conclusions that the outcome will be catastrophic?
This is a cognitive error called “catastrophizing”. Consider the alternatives. Sure, the worst-case scenario is a possibility, but what are other possible outcomes? Imagine outcomes that are neutral, positive, or mildly negative instead of really negative.
3. And what if the worst-case scenario I’m envisioning does happen? Am I underestimating my ability to cope with it?
Imagining an experience to be completely intolerable is another common cognitive error. Take stock of your own resilience. Most likely, you’re underestimating your own ability to cope through something distressing. Think about times in the past you’ve made it through something challenging. What helped you to cope?
Learning and implementing these skills can be an important component of managing your anxiety. However, there may be more to the story if you find your anxiety to be unmanageable. If you are suffering, know that help is available from the safety of your own home. Great Lakes Psychology Group values access to mental healthcare for all, and we believe that getting started with therapy should be simple. If you’d prefer to start online therapy in the wake of the pandemic but anticipate that you’d prefer to switch to in-office therapy at some point, you have the option of choosing a GLPG therapist located in your community.
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