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Anxiety and Irrational Thoughts

Daniel Sher, MA, Clin Psychology
Anxiety and Irrational Thoughts

Those that have never had an anxiety disorder often struggle to understand how anxiety can affects the mind and body in so many different ways. Everyone experiences some level of anxiety at some point in their life. Whether it's asking someone out on a date, making a presentation, taking an important test, or getting called into a meeting with the boss, manageable amounts of anxiety represent a normal part of life.

But anxiety disorders are very different, particularly with regard to their intensity. For example, if your anxiety is so persistent and intense that it interferes with your work, social and home lives, then this might be a case of anxiety disorder, rather than just everyday anxiety. Anxiety disorders are associated with many powerful physical and emotional symptoms that can cause significant disruption to your life, and one of the issues that is very common when it comes to anxiety is the presence of "irrational thoughts."

What Makes a Thought "irrational"?

Usually, an irrational thought is one which is not entirely connected to a sense of reason and not based on evidence. An example of a common irrational thought for people with social anxiety is: “I’m going to look stupid and everyone is going to laugh at me”.

Here are some other examples of irrational thoughts:

Many thoughts can be considered to be irrational. What makes this worse is that anxiety makes it much, much harder to forget the thought after you've had it. Once a thought causes you stress, anxiety makes you more likely to continue thinking about it in a way that makes it very hard to stop thinking about it in the future. The more distress your "irrational thought" causes you, the more you are going to keep thinking about it and keep thinking about similar thoughts in the future.

How Forcing Yourself to Stop the Thoughts Reinforces Them

Another problem that affects those with anxiety is the impact of trying to force a thought out of your mind. Studies have looked at a phenomenon called "thought suppression," which is the act of trying very hard not to think a certain thought.

Some studies found that those that attempted to suppress a thought were actually _more likely_ to have the thought than those that didn't care one way or another if they had the thought or not. For one reason or another, the act of trying to make a thought go away makes it more likely to come back and continue to cause you stress.

The Best Way to Avoid the Irrational Thoughts

Irrational thoughts are always going to affect you if you suffer from anxiety. Anxiety changes thought patterns. It alters neurotransmitters and changes behaviors. Thoughts are affected by anxiety, and anxiety is affected by thoughts. The two build on each other in ways that make it harder and harder to control.

Based on what we know about these thoughts, there are several tools that you can use to control them. The most important are as follows:

All of these are useful ways to deal with anxiety-related irrational thoughts. Of course, this is only the first step. You are still going to have these unusual thoughts if you don't learn to control your anxiety, because it's your anxiety that is creating these thoughts in the first place.

Article Resources
  1. Abramowitz, Jonathan S., David F. Tolin, and Gordon P. Street. Paradoxical effects of thought suppression: A meta-analysis of controlled studies. Clinical psychology review 21.5 (2001): 683-703. 
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