The difference between a person who suffers from some kind of anxiety disorder (or who may present with some of the symptoms of GAD) a “typical” / “Neurotypical” person’s thinking can be significant and often involves the intensity, frequency, and content of their thoughts. Everyone experiences anxiety to some degree at various points in their lives, it is important to note, and anxiety can actually be useful. “Anxiety” is the part of our nervous system that motivates us, presses us out of bed and into productive uses of our energy. Too little means we get stuck in a rut, we “fall behind” (at work, school, in our functioning at home) and too much, ironically enough, can often lead to the same consequences. People with significant anxiety often fall into procrastination, avoidance of the thing that causes anxiety (e.g. phobias, social anxiety, etc) leading to isolation, “falling behind,” and so on. Individuals with high, or problematic levels of anxiety may exhibit distinct patterns of thinking that can have a profound impact on their daily lives.
Here are six common traits of the thinking exhibited by people with anxiety. This is not an exhaustive list, and your way of experiencing anxiety may differ in some way.
- Intensity of thoughts: Anxious individuals often experience a heightened intensity of thoughts compared to a typical person. They may dwell on negative events, worry excessively about the future, or replay distressing scenarios repeatedly in their minds. These thoughts can become overwhelming and may interfere with their ability to concentrate on other tasks or engage in enjoyable activities. In contrast, a typical person may have passing worries or concerns but can often shift their focus and move on more easily.
- Catastrophizing: Anxious individuals tend to engage in catastrophic thinking, where they automatically jump to the worst possible outcomes in various situations. They may exaggerate the potential consequences of their actions or anticipate negative events without considering more realistic alternatives. This can lead to a constant state of fear and apprehension. In comparison, a typical person may approach situations with a more balanced perspective, considering a range of outcomes and weighing the likelihood of each.
- Overgeneralization: Another common thinking pattern in anxious individuals involves overgeneralization, where they take one negative event and apply it to all future situations. For example, if they experience a social embarrassment, they might conclude that they are universally incompetent in social settings. This cognitive distortion can limit their willingness to take risks or engage in new experiences. A typical person, on the other hand, is more likely to view negative events as isolated incidents and not allow them to define their entire identity or future possibilities.
- “What if” thinking: Anxiety often involves excessive “what if” thinking, where individuals constantly imagine worst-case scenarios and worry about potential future problems. They may obsessively analyze every aspect of a situation, trying to anticipate all possible negative outcomes. This can result in decision paralysis and a perpetual state of anxiety. In contrast, a typical person may consider potential risks and make informed decisions but will not get caught up in an endless cycle of worry and speculation.
- Self-criticism: Anxious individuals frequently engage in self-critical thinking, constantly judging themselves and their actions harshly. They may have unrealistic expectations and feel like they never measure up to their own or others’ standards. This self-critical thinking can erode self-esteem and contribute to feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. A typical person is more likely to have a balanced self-assessment, acknowledging both strengths and areas for improvement without excessive self-condemnation.
- Mind-reading and personalization: Individuals with high anxiety often assume they can accurately read others’ minds or predict how others perceive them. They may interpret neutral or ambiguous social cues as signs of rejection or criticism. This tendency to mind-read and personalize can strain relationships and lead to social isolation. A typical person is more likely to seek clarification and communicate openly, avoiding assumptions about others’ thoughts or intentions.
It is important to remember that these differences between “anxious” and “typical” thought patterns are generalizations, and individuals may display variations in their thinking patterns. Additionally, anxiety exists on a spectrum, so someone may experience some of these thinking patterns to a lesser degree and still be classified as a “typical” person.
Understanding these differences can be valuable in providing support and empathy to those with anxiety. It highlights the importance of cognitive restructuring techniques, therapy, and other interventions to help anxious individuals challenge and reframe their thinking patterns to reduce anxiety and improve their overall well-being.
An important piece to note is that there is significant overlap between trauma, anxiety, ADHD, and other clusters of symptoms. For example, a person who has been “just trying to survive” for a long time, whether it be early childhood ruptures or because of workplace stress, may have a hard time switching their internal experience to “I am safe now (and I’ll think, act accordingly).” Is this because of trauma, an underlying attention disorder, an anxious disposition, or all of the above? For the purposes of therapy, the question may remain unresolved while the therapist and client work towards addressing the need for safety.
Are you in, with, being, feeling “safe,” and can your body, mind, settle into the experience of “safe?”
The healing process means, for some, identifying in-the-room, here-and-now what is “safe,” what senses externally indicate safety, and what the experience of safety feels like in the body. For an anxious person, there can be a hyper-vigilance running in the background of their mind, which sounds like “I think I’m safe but…” or “I can only be safe if…” For a traumatized person, the experiences and sensations of the past may be locked into the nervous system, and so the body’s safety-seeking (or threat-seeking and threat-preventing) systems are still online. Integrating a whole-self, whole-body feeling of safety can help a person ‘get under,’ behind, before the thinking presents — imagine if you were in some utopian experience of safety, how would your body, nervous system feel? What kinds of thoughts would come into your head? For a person predisposed, or socialized to think in an anxious way, it’s hard to imagine an environment with no threats, people with whom one can let the walls come down, life roles and positions that require no “strategizing” (plan A, plan B, plan C). The idea here is, “I’m OK” in your thoughts, as well as in the rest of your Self.
As we say, safety is the healing, and healing is the safety.
Do you want to know more? Does the experience of safety sound like something you want to bring into your life? We have clinicians who are trained in a wide range of modalities, all of whom are ultimately seeking to cultivate healing, progress towards healing in your life.