Mental-Cognitive Symptoms
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How Anxiety Causes Irrational Thoughts - and Vice Versa

Micah Abraham, BSc
How Anxiety Causes Irrational Thoughts - and Vice Versa

Catastrophic and irrational thinking play a common role in the development and severity of anxiety. It is not uncommon for a person with anxiety to begin overestimating a threat or event, worried that something bad is about to happen. Often that type of thinking goes hand in hand with a feeling as though the event occurring would be the “end of the world” - believing that they will be unable to cope with it if it does occur.

This combination can sometimes be summed up as irrational thoughts, where logic is overruled by the belief that something unlikely or impossible will happen. For some, the irrational thoughts are what causes anxiety in the first place. For others, their anxiety seems to lead to the development of irrational thoughts. Many have a combination of both.

About Anxiety and Irrational Thinking

Many people with anxiety have severe problems with anxious and irrational thinking - thoughts that many know are irrational, and yet they struggle to convince themselves of the more logical and reasoned response. 

These unhelpful thoughts may have contributed to the development of anxiety. The cognitive perspective of anxiety states that certain types of irrational thoughts - such as appraisals, interpretations of events, catastrophic thinking (worst case scenarios and overestimation of danger), and other thoughts that are logically irrational may lead to difficulty coping and the development of anxiety symptoms.

In addition, the person that is experiencing these thoughts may not even be aware of it. They may just experience the emotional and physical responses and need to identify what the thoughts are and why they are occurring. That is one of the reasons that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is so useful. 

It is also arguable that anxiety can create its own irrational thoughts. When a person is on edge, or experiencing an anxiety attack, the chances of experiencing irrational thoughts may increase. 

Anxious Thoughts May Be Behavioral And Genetic

Anxiety is a condition that involves both physical and emotional consequences. It is caused by - and causes - feelings as though things are out of control, fearing various problems that may not even exist, and worrying about things more than is helpful. 

There are many different types of irrational thoughts with anxiety. Examples of these how these types of irrational thoughts may manifest include: 

Most thoughts are much more subtle than this, of course. A common health fear, for example, may be convincing yourself that you might have a serious disease like multiple sclerosis based on a few mild symptoms. This is an example of catastrophic thinking. Another example may be worrying that if you wear a certain type of shoes, people are going to judge you and this will have an effect on your life. This is an example of mind reading; assuming that you know what others are thinking. Any thought is not in keeping with reality and is beyond what is typically  experienced given the situation could be described as an “irrational thought.” The challenge comes from how the thoughts may seem rational at the time. 

Where these thoughts originate is a bit harder to understand. The common belief is that they are some combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Environmental Cause or Irrational Thoughts

Irrational thoughts are likely also caused by your environment as well. By environment, we're talking about everything you've ever experienced, seen, heard, etc.

For example, news reports of premature deaths could lead to fears over health. An embarrassing moment in front of your friends may lead to fears of social embarrassment. A bad relationship may lead to incorrect assumptions and beliefs regarding other relationships.

It may not be that simple either. Studies have shown that long term stress (ie, working at a place you hate) can actually create anxiety, and thus create irrational thoughts. Something must go on in your body or with your thought processes as a result of this type of stress. It's likely that experiences create negative thinking, which in turn causes irrational thinking.

Irrational Thoughts Can Be Mild or Severe

Finally, it's important to note that anything can be an irrational thought. Some people simply worry over minor things they expect to occur over the day. Others have extremely irrational thoughts, like the belief that they may hurt someone even though they don't have any desire to cause anyone harm. These thoughts vary considerably in both the type of thought (ie, how much it is based in reality) and the amount of distress it causes. 

How to Overcome Irrational Thoughts

The first step in overcoming irrational thoughts is being done simply by reading this article - recognizing you have irrational thoughts. One of the problems with anxiety is that it alters your perspective to such a degree that your thoughts may not feel irrational at the time. They feel completely normal.

By recognizing they're not accurate, you are successfully telling your anxiety that you know it's affecting your point of view. Sometimes the simple act of recognizing that you have irrational thoughts is all you need to see changes taking place.

Of course, the problem is that at the time, these thoughts often seem rational. It's not usually until later that you realize how inaccurate they likely are. That's why you need to also make sure that you stay aware in the moment.

Mindfulness to Overcome Irrational Thoughts

Experts recommend starting with mindfulness. Mindfulness is the act of recognizing when you have anxiety and then trying to also recognize all of the symptoms and thoughts that go with it.

For example, when you have anxiety and then suddenly you have a negative thought, don't act on it right away. Instead, sit and write the thought down and try to understand how likely it is. Focus on both the thought itself and the other, more balanced thoughts you could have. It may help to consider what someone else might think in the same situation. 

It can be difficult to just “stop” irrational thinking on a dime, especially if you have been having these anxious, irrational thoughts for a long time. This is especially true because in the moment the thoughts may feel rational, which complicates the ability to overcome it without help. That’s where it may be useful to talk to someone. If you can identify the irrational thought and what causes it, you may be able to integrate techniques that can help you manage it both now and in the future.

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