7 Distorted Thinking Patterns That Contribute to Anxiety

UPDATED: March 30, 2020
PUBLISHED: March 19, 2018
7 Distorted Thinking Patterns That Contribute to Anxiety

Anxiety is widespread and epidemic. It’s a problem that attacks the body but germinates in the head.

Related: 11 Subtle Signs of Anxiety You Might Not Notice

Much of our anxiety comes from telling ourselves a bad story. The dialogue usually goes something like this:

  • You’re not smart enough for this job. 
  • You’re too young, too old, don’t have any experience, can’t learn new things fast enough.
  • It’s just a matter of time before you are exposed. 
  • People wouldn’t respect you if they really knew you.

If you change your story, you can change your life. Start by recognizing the voice in your head, listening to what it’s saying, and identifying (and then dumping!) faulty thinking patterns.

Here are seven of those thinking distortions that fuel anxiety:

1. Absolute Thinking

Sometimes this is referred to as “polarized thinking.”  It’s the always and never talk, and it usually leads to victimhood.

  • I’ll never find someone I can count on. 
  • People always let me down.
  • This relationship is over. 
  • I cannot be happy without him/her. 

Everything is either all good or all bad. It’s an overgeneralization where one negative event is a never-ending pattern of defeat. I didn’t get accepted into that school/program. I’ll never get my dream job. This kind of thinking becomes a mental perspective through which all other reality is seen. The result is that our vision of life is distortedly darkened. Yet when we stop to count our blessings, we discover that life is rarely so absolute.

2. Downplaying the Positive

This is the tendency to marginalize our successes. We disqualify positive experiences by dismissing them as not counting.

  • It really wasn’t that significant.
  • It wasn’t a big deal. 
  • It was really minor. 

A chance for affirmation becomes a channel for anxiety.

3. Jumping to Conclusions

Jumping to conclusions is the only exercise some people get. Further inquiry often results in the opposite conclusion.

  • She walked right by me and didn’t say a word! She must be upset with me. I wonder what I did wrong.

What are the facts? She passed you, didn’t say a word and didn’t make eye contact. Yet another possible conclusion (and a more empathetic one) is that she’s upset about some bad news and had no thought about you at all. This is often referred to as “personalization,” thinking that everything people say or do is some kind of reaction to you.

4. Fortune-Telling

We tend to anticipate that things will turn out badly. We approach the prediction as though it were fact. We activate the flight simulator in our minds and go over the disaster again and again.

  • My relationship is breaking up, and my family and friends will ostracize me. 
  • My life of fitting in has ended.

5. Emotional Reasoning

This is the fallacy of thinking that our emotions reflect the reality of what is happening.

  • Since I feel this, it must be true.

If you feel stupid and boring, then you must be stupid and boring. I have learned it’s always a bad idea to allow my reasoning to be shaped by my current mood, especially if I’m down or depressed. This creates unwarranted anxiety. Not all thoughts are true, and not everything you feel is a fact. With practice, you’ll begin to notice these thoughts—are they true or not?—and then let them go.

6. Shoulds and Shouldn’ts

Shoulds and shouldn’ts are poor motivators. I should do this leaves us feeling anxious, even guilty. 

  • Rather than, I should do this, ask…
  • Why do I want to do this? What is the outcome I want?

Some people should all over themselves and never touch on the real motivator of why they want to do something. When the should is directed at someone else, the anxiety can turn to anger or resentment.

7. Filtering Information

Even if we hear 20 positive comments and one negative, we filter out the positive and amplify the one negative. We put it in our mental petri dish and let our anxiety grow like a bacteria. We have successfully isolated the negative “bacteria” from the serenity-producing information.

We can’t control the weather, the economy or the actions of others. But we can control our attitudes, thoughts, words, emotions and behaviors. Understanding our distorted thinking patterns is the best place to start.

Recognize all of these, but pick one or two that are most relevant to you and your life, and start taking control today.

Related: 5 Simple Habits to Manage Your Anxiety


This post originally appeared on LeadershipTraQ.com.

Mick Ukleja, Ph.D., is the founder and president of LeadershipTraQ. He empowers leaders to optimize their talent and equips them to excel in their professional and personal life. Mick is an author, speaker and generational strategist. He writes and speaks on engaging millennials at work. He is the co-author of Managing the Millennials: Discover the Core Competencies for Managing Today’s Workforce, 2nd Edition, which is used in corporate training and business schools. He co-founded the Ukleja Center for Ethical Leadership at California State University, Long Beach, which promotes ethics across the curriculum. Mick is an adjunct professor in the MBA program at Concordia University. His book Who Are You? What Do You Want? has been praised by legendary coach John Wooden: “I have always taught that success can be achieved by each one of us. These principles provide an excellent life-planning guide for bringing out your best.” Mick has been featured on Fox News, CNN, Fox Business Network, NBC and in numerous publications. Keep up with Mick at Leadershiptraq.com.