The ways in which we explain the negative events that happen to us and to others in the world have a considerable bearing on whether we are likely to suffer from excessive anxiety. As you can probably now see, the types of thinking just described are limiting rather than empowering.
Three particular types of limiting thinking (of which there are examples above) are especially connected with the development of anxiety and its close partner, depression. We call them the three Ps, they are:
- How personally you take events
- How pervasive you think the effects will be
- How permanent you think the effects will be.
You might like to see for yourself whether you have a tendency towards any of them, by thinking about the following scenarios.
How personally do you take events?
- If you were passed over for promotion, would you assume it was your fault for not being good enough? Would you beat yourself up about it? (Or would you consider other factors, such as the successful candidate's superior qualifications or greater experience or even the role of politicking in the decision?)
- If a friend doesn't ring you when she said she was going to, to arrange a cinema visit, do you agonise about what you might have done to offend her? Might you assume you can't be important enough for her to bother about? Or that it isn't surprising that she hasn't rung because she has probably found someone better to go with? (Or might you think that something unexpected has probably cropped up that she has had to deal with? Or that it has quite simply slipped her mind and that she'll remember later?)
- If a family holiday doesn't work out as well as you hoped, is it your fault for some reason? Perhaps you didn't research the destination well enough? Or you didn't organise enough activities to interest your partner and the children? Or perhaps you weren't sensitive enough to everyone's needs? Do you worry about it afterwards? (Or might you think that neither your partner nor the children took enough responsibility for making sure they had fun? That the resort was not quite the paradise the brochure made it out to be? That it was a shame someone or other in your party developed a really bad cold and so felt pretty miserable thereafter?)
How pervasive do you think the effects will be?
- If you were to lose your job, would you think your whole life was in crisis and that nothing could go right for you? Would losing your job take the colour completely out of everything you usually enjoy, such as hobbies or time spent with the family? Would you be difficult to be around? Would you withdraw from people and become absorbed in catastrophic thinking? (Or would you be shocked and upset but make sure that you drew comfort from every-thing that is working well in your life, such as family relationships and friendships, and think practically about what to do next?)
- If your relationship with a spouse or partner ended, might you become uninterested in the job that you normally enjoy? Would you have no interest in seeing friends or pay less attention than usual to your children's needs? Would you think your whole life was ruined and worry about what will become of you? (Or would you be devastated but grateful for the many resources, such as your job and your relationship with your friends and/ or children, that you can call on to help you through this difficult time?)
- If you were to suffer a physical loss such as a limb or your sight or to develop a chronic, disabling illness, would you consider your life might as well be over and that you could never feel happy and fulfilled again? Would you dwell on all the things you that you couldn't ever again do and be convinced you couldn't even start to cope? (Or would you grieve for the loss but then move on to find ways to make the most of the abilities you have?)
How permanent do you think the effects will be?
- If you have, in the past, experienced the break up of a much-valued relationship, did you think for some time that you would never have another one? Or at least never have another one with someone you cared about so much? If a current relationship ended, would you think it irreplaceable ever? (Or would you grieve and then gradually become open to finding someone new?)
- If you were to lose your job, would you worry that you would never find another that fit your particular skill set so well? (Or would you set about maximising your chances for getting an even better one, or take the oppor-tunity to explore some completely different possibilities?)
- If you did less than brilliantly in the one exam you needed to pass especially well, in order to study for a chosen profession, would you think that you had ruined your chances forever? (Or would you brush up on your weak areas and retake the exam? Or decide that you might be better suited to a different career, and explore other options?)
Clearly, if you have answered 'yes' more often to the questions that aren't inside the brackets, you have a tendency towards anxious (and depressive) thinking. It might be worth considering the typical anxieties that bother you and checking whether you are indeed viewing them as personal, pervasive and/or permanent.
Not only are anxious thoughts of " Anxious thoughts help keep the emotional arousal going. " the kinds discussed above the products of black-and-white emotional thinking; they actually help keep the emotional arousal, and therefore the anxiety, going. This is because the thoughts themselves generate more and more emotion.
Of course you feel anxious if you believe that, if something isn't perfect, it is a complete disaster! But most of the time, things aren't perfect. And of course you feel anxious if you think the bad times are never going to end or that all aspects of life will become problematic as a result of a single setback.
Continued in this article: Anxiety is usually a misuse of the imagination