Common Distortions that Contribute to Anxiety

anxiety tips

All humans experience anxiety. It keeps us safe, draws our attention to something important or unfamiliar and prepares us to handle different situations. It can also, however, interfere with our daily lives. Not all anxiety is a problem. It only becomes a problem when it is unmanageable or shows its head when we do not need it. This article outlines common cognitive distortions that contribute to unnecessary or heightened levels of anxiety.

1) I can’t handle this.

Can’t is a dangerous word. Everyone has things that they physically can or cannot do. However, if you find yourself using this word often it may have a negative effect on your confidence. “Can’t” can contribute to second guessing, thinking only of worst case scenarios, and causing us to back out of events and tasks that we are actually capable of managing. I’m not suggesting that every use of this word is unhealthy. But if you notice yourself thinking this in a patterned kind of way, it may be time to take a closer look at how this is effecting your level of anxiety.

2) Catastrophizing/Worst Case Scenarios

This thought pattern can show itself in many ways. At first, it may even be protective. It allows us to prepare and, momentarily, may even relieve our anxiety that comes from experiencing an unknown. The unfortunate and often unanticipated side effect of having this be our “go to” thought pattern is that it primes our minds and bodies to always expect the worst. Soon even an event we are looking forward to is riddled with possible catastrophies and as a result we may choose not to go. This thought process also leads to withdrawing from social events, work related tasks, and significant relationships.

3) I should/Others should

Having a general expectation of how a decent human being acts is normal. You may have core beliefs about interacting in relationships that hold you accountable. However, if you find yourself talking or thinking about what you should do or what others should do (mostly because you would do the same thing) you may be placing unrealistic demands. A client of mine in the past called this “shoulding yourself”. Expectations are different than demands. Expectations encourage and shape healthy behavior. Demands create rigidity and irritation if they are not met. “I should be a better mother. I should work out every day. I should be dependable. I should be in control of my emotions. I should not care what people think of me.” But what happens if you don’t do those things? Perhaps the reason you are overwhelmed is because of the amount of “shoulds” in your self talk. Creating goals is healthy. Creating demands creates unnecessary anxiety.

4) Overgeneralizing

This thought process sounds like “everything is always bad, nothing goes my way, everyone has an angle, nobody is trustworthy”. I’m not questioning whether or not you have had experiences that support these distortions. However, this is likely not serving you well. This thought process increases your anxiety unnecessarily and can lead to an avoidance of a situation that may well have turned out just fine. Can you see how thinking “Nobody is trustworthy” may prevent you from creating new relationships? Pay attention to how often you use the terms ‘always, never, everything, and everyone’.


Throughout this article the concept of avoidance appears frequently. The worst way to manage your anxiety is to avoid. You will continue to reinforce your distortions if you don’t gather evidence against them. It is hard not to believe “nobody is trustworthy” if you have not given someone a chance to be. When working with a client or your own anxiety consider working in your thought process to help support behavioral change. Your thoughts have as much power as you give them. Be careful what you think.


author: Caitlin de la Cruz, LCPC

Caitlin is a licensed clinical professional counselor at The Counseling and Diagnostic Center of Woodfield. She specializes in treating millennials and adults who struggle with issues related to self-esteem, relationships, depression, anxiety, and mood disorders.

(this article was originally published by author on LinkedIn)

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