Common Thought Traps that Keep You Stuck in Anxiety and How to Avoid Them

Strategies for Escaping Thought Traps and Embracing Positive Change from RAFT Counseling

From your RAFT Counseling Team

Anxiety is a normal part of human life, a biological reaction that triggers a state of fight-or-flight to overcome danger. However, when little things that cause virtually no harm or have no real risk of danger trigger an anxious reaction, you may be looking at an anxiety disorder. (One key symptom of which is irrational fear.)

While the effects of anxiety—increased heart rate, shallow breathing, digestive problems, throat tightness, etc.—feel real, they’re all side effects of mental illness. One way people stay trapped in intense states of anxiety is through thought traps.

What Are Thought Traps?

Thought traps are irrational negative thinking patterns that can lead to panic, low self-esteem, mistrust in the self, helplessness, and other damaging feelings related to depression and anxiety. Talking with a therapist is a great way to see what thought traps you frequently get caught up in and find tools to break the habit of them.

There are a few common ones…

  • Overgeneralization: Using a single piece of evidence to make a general, sweeping conclusion about your situation.
  • Personalizations: Over-internalizing challenges to the point where you feel blame for everything that goes wrong in life. (Even when circumstances are outside your control.)
  • Filtering: Paying attention to bad parts of a situation, forgetting to consider the good.
  • All-or-Nothing Thinking: Thinking in extremes—if you’re not a huge success, you’re a burning failure. 
  • Catastrophizing: Fixating on the worst possible outcome when a variety of outcomes are likely.
  • Jumping to Conclusions: Making a decision without considering all the facts.
  • Emotional Reasoning: Letting your emotions tell you what is “true” about the world. (While emotions are valid, they are not reflections of truth.)
  • Discounting the Positive: Brushing off the positive aspects of your situation as random or coincidence.
  • “Should” Statements: Focusing on guilt-based “should” statements, like, “I know I should do this…” instead of focusing on what you want or need.

Tips for Escaping Thought Traps

Prioritize facts over feelings

Let’s take emotional reasoning for example. If your close friend is moving out of town, you may feel sad about it. Specifically, you may feel betrayed, surprised, lonely, or abandoned. 

That doesn’t mean you should now treat the situation as if your friend is purposely abandoning you. Your feelings are completely valid and understandable—no one wants to live far away from their friends. However, the truth of the situation is likely more complicated. Your friend may have gotten an exciting new job opportunity and had to make a tough decision. 

Allow yourself to sit in the feeling of betrayal for a moment, then recognize the facts. You may find you also feel pride or excitement for them. Making decisions based on feelings over facts in this situation could have cost you a valuable friendship.

Choose action over anxiety

Find evidence that your anxious thoughts are untrue. If you’re nervous about your friendship growing apart, call them and find a time for your first trip to visit them.

Reframe your thought patterns

Therapists work to help you understand the differences and connections between your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Before you can reframe your thinking, you need to know your thought patterns. Are you able to pause and observe yourself in the moment the next time you think of a negative or irrational thought?

Let’s say you think, “I’m disgusting” every time you clean because you struggle to live with an imperfect apartment. Next time it comes, stop and notice it. Try to reframe this thought into something more realistic and positive.

Introduce gratitude

Wash the dishes while recalling the warm meal you had. Make your bed while admiring the sheets. Make life more about you and less about your anxiety.

Check out Navigating Life's Transitions: A Guide to Overcoming Anxiety and Stress for more coping strategies. Want individualized help identifying and getting through your stickiest thought traps? Get started with one of our counselors today at RAFT Counseling. Online sessions available and in office sessions in our Parker, CO office, providing guidance and hope.

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