10 Irrational Thinking Patterns That Increase Anxiety

Do you engage in irrational thinking?

Irrational thinking – it’s a term we often hear about, but what does it really mean? Moreover, is there a relationship between cognitive distortions and anxiety?

If you’ve ever wondered about the relationship between thoughts and emotions, you’ve come to the right place. That’s because I’m about to show you ten patterns of thinking that can put your anxiety on steroids.

Here’s the hard truth – your thoughts largely influence your mood. I’m not saying this is always the case. Indeed, there can be biochemical and physiological reasons for anxiety.

Additionally, medications and substances (i.e., alcohol, drugs) also need to be factored into the dynamic.

But in the absence of these issues, what you think can have a tremendous impact on what you feel. For many people, their thinking patterns have become so deeply ingrained that it has become a way of life.

What follows are ten irrational thinking patterns, also known as cognitive distortions, that may be making your life miserable. Some of these might seem like common sense. Others may cause you to pause and reflect.

I encourage you to read them all to get the most from this experience.

Check it out:

1. All or nothing thinking

Sometimes called “black or white thinking”, all or nothing thinking is when you adopt the mindset of “either-or” and don’t allow for other possibilities.

Examples:

  • “Even though I earned an A on the exam, I still got a few wrong, which means I’m not smart.”
  • “I got passed over for a promotion so that obviously means I’m not talented.”
  • “That girl I liked never called me back, so she must think I’m ugly.”

In the examples mentioned above, can we really say the conclusions are accurate? Are there other possibilities?

2. Overgeneralization

When you overgeneralize, you assign a negative pattern to almost everything – even though there’s little evidence to support your thoughts.

In many ways, this type of thinking plays into the concept of learned helplessness [see this post on men and anxiety to learn more].

Examples:

  • You get a flat tire and say to yourself, “This always happens to me – why should I bother?
  • You smile at someone and they don’t smile back. Moments later, you say to yourself, “That’s proof nobody likes me.”
  • “I’m too short to attract a partner. Nobody wants to date someone my height.”

As you can see, overgeneralizing happens when we paint with a wide brush, often in the absence of evidence. Could other factors be at play in each of the scenarios described above?

3. Mental Filter

When you slap on a mental filter, you focus on one negative detail and allow it to color an entire experience. If you do this enough, it can sink you into a depressive hole.

Examples:

  • It’s a beautiful day and decide to go for a long walk. As you pass by a public park, some kid on a bike flips you the middle finger. The rest of the walk, however, is fantastic. But because one person was rude, you believe the entire experience sucked.
  • You say to yourself that the whole drive to work was miserable, even though you only got stuck in traffic for five minutes.
  • You tried to lift five extra pounds at the gym but struggled. As a result, you think your entire workout was crappy. This happens even though you ultimately lifted the weights.

Notice with these examples how something perceived as negative overshadows the entire experience. That’s called a mental filter.

4. Disqualifying the positive

Similar to a mental filter, disqualifying the positive is more insidious. Here, you place pressure on yourself to achieve a specific outcome.

When that outcome doesn’t happen, you assume the entire experience was negative.

Examples:

  • You go out on a date and have a great time. She even suggests meeting again in the future, stating she had a “great time”. But because she didn’t kiss you, you feel rejected.
  • Your employer gives you a raise of five-percent for doing an outstanding job. But because you didn’t get seven percent, you believe you aren’t valued. This happens even though your company has put a cap on raises this year for all employees.
  • You go to the movies with your wife, and the film turns out to be uninteresting. Even though your spouse liked it and said she enjoyed spending time together, you chalk the whole thing up to a waste of time.

Disqualifying the positive is insidious because most folks who engage in this type of distorted thinking do so without realizing it.

In fact, some folks have been doing it for so long that the pattern has become deeply embedded into their psyche. Can you relate?

5. Jumping to conclusions

When you jump to conclusions, you project negative feelings onto a circumstance or situation. In cognitive therapy, this is also referred to as awfulizing.

In almost all cases, there’s little data to support the cognitions.

Examples:

  • You interview for a job and are told you will likely be called the next day with a decision. Twenty-four hours pass, and you hear nothing. You assume the company hired someone else.
  • Your girlfriend doesn’t text you to say goodnight. The next day, you believe she has lost interest is looking elsewhere.
  • You send an email to your boss about an important issue. When she doesn’t reply to you the same day, you assume you’ve done something wrong and will be fired.

In each of these examples, there could be dozens of reasons why a desired result didn’t materialize. Can you think of what some might be?

6. Magnification

When you magnify, you minimize the positive and blow up the negative. It’s like putting an experience under a microscope and focusing only on one (bad) thing while overlooking everything else.

Examples:

  • You give a presentation at work. At the conclusion, everyone smiles and claps – except for one person. As a result, you believe your performance was terrible.
  • You are out at a bar getting lots of attention. People are attracted to your persona and appearance. But because one person seemed disinterested, you believe you aren’t good looking.
  • You get a review at work that includes lots of positive praise. But buried in the narrative is one sentence that suggests you need to be more mindful of time management. As a result, you think your employer has plans to fire you.

Magnification is all about over-focusing on a detail or event and then assigning a distorted belief.

7. Emotional reasoning

This one often happens when you feel depressed. Think of it as putting on a pair of sunglasses and seeing everything through a dark lens.

Examples:

  • You feel down and assume all your friends already think of you as a “Debbie Downer”.
  • You don’t have enough money to buy a new house and have come to believe you’ll never be able to buy one.
  • You’ve gained five pounds and feel embarrassed. As a result, you assume everything thinks you are overweight.

Emotional reasoning lies to us because it distorts reality with personal emotions. Evidence to support the beliefs (usually) is non-existent.

8. Should statements

When you engage in should statements, you likely hold guilt or resentment about a person or situation. If left unchecked, you end up shoulding on yourself.

Examples:

  • You miss a deadline for work because of a family crisis. Even though your child was injured, you believe you should have gotten the work completed.
  • You bring donuts to the office and everyone grabs one. At the end of the day, you become resentful because nobody said “thanks”. As a result, you leave work pissed off, believing people are ungrateful.
  • You go to the gym and accidentally drop a barbell. Afterward, you call yourself an idiot, thinking you should be able to able lift weights without errors.

Shoulds are absolutes. In many cases, they are often accompanied by “must” statements. In cognitive therapy, we call these types of distortions musturbations.

9. Labeling and mislabeling

At their core, labeling and mislabeling are extreme forms of overgeneralization. Examples include saying to yourself, “I’m a freaking loser,” or “She’s always a jerk!”

Even though there is little evidence to support such comments, you place a label on yourself or another person and adopt an irrational belief.

10. Personalization

When you engage in personalization, you take the blame for events that you had little or nothing to do with.

Examples:

  • Your department is cutting jobs. As a result, you believe the layoffs happened because you didn’t work hard enough.
  • Your child gets a bad grade in school. You blame yourself and assume you are a lousy parent.
  • Your divisional vice-president tells everyone in your department that mandatory overtime is required this weekend. As your coworkers complain to one another, you secretly blame yourself for management’s decision, believing it’s your fault for not being productive.

As you can see, irrational thinking is often unsupported by the facts. But that doesn’t stop you from letting them run roughshod over your life and increasing anxiety.

One of the best ways to stop distorted thinking is to recognize your pattern. By challenging your thoughts and asking if there are other possibilities, you break the negative cycle.

One excellent resource to consider as part of changing your thinking is the book, UnF—Yourself by Bishop. Head over to Amazon to check price.

What I like most about this read is the simple, straightforward tone of the author.

So, there you have it, folks – ten ways irrational thinking increases anxiety. How many these apply to you?

About John D. Moore 343 Articles
Dr. John Moore is a licensed counselor and Editor-in-Chief of Guy Counseling. A journalist and blogger, he writes about a variety of topics related to wellness. His interests include technology, outdoor activities, science, and men's health. Check out his show --> The Men's Self Help Podcast