Anxiety Series Part 5 of 13: Stop thinking catastrophically! Changing from “what if” to “what is” thinking.

How I became free of Anxiety Series​​ by​​ Brian Kerkhoff

Part​​ 5​​ of 13: ​​​​ Stop thinking catastrophically! ​​​​ Changing from "what if" to "what is" thinking.

In my study of​​ anxiety,​​ I learned​​ catastrophic thinking was pumping up​​ feelings of​​ anxiety​​ to the point I was panicked. ​​ Why​​ did I choose​​ catastrophic​​ scenarios? ​​ Why did I have a habit of​​ jumping to the worst possible outcome of a situation? ​​ Why couldn’t I think the outcome would be a​​ best-case​​ scenario until I knew​​ otherwise?

An example I use to illustrate is this: ​​ One day I was working in my yard.​​ ​​ I had been experiencing a​​ severe​​ headache​​ for about​​ two days. ​​ I​​ seldom​​ experience a headache. ​​ I remember so clearly walking around the corner of my house thinking “maybe I have a brain tumor”. ​​ I had been working to rid myself of catastrophic​​ thinking​​ and had developed a habit of surveilling my thought life,​​ so this​​ caused me to​​ laugh at myself! ​​ With no way of knowing why I had a headache I had jumped to the scariest, worst possible reason for the headache. ​​ I asked myself the question “in light of insufficient​​ facts​​ why do I fill in my thinking with a negative, catastrophic possibility?” ​​ Of course,​​ this was how I was telling myself I was NOT going to be okay. ​​ I decided to investigate this catastrophic thinking in​​ depth,​​ so I could understand changes I needed to​​ implement.

I found it was important for me when anxious to​​ purposely​​ view life “how it really is” not through the lenses of unreality (imaginings), feelings of being alone and distorted thinking​​ that led to “how bad can it get?”. ​​​​ I read a great article on Cognitive Distortions​​ and​​ I will​​ share my experience with each one to highlight distorted thinking I was habitually accustomed to. ​​ The following 10 categories are searchable on the internet and I spent some time reading about​​ them. ​​ I needed to​​ put language to​​ and understand​​ what I was experiencing in my brain. ​​ See full article at​​​​ 10 Cognitive Distortions Sabotaging Your Brain.

#1. ​​ Mental Filtering. This​​ thinking​​ practice​​ describes​​ my​​ mental habit to​​ prefer, meditate​​ on​​ and predict​​ negative outcomes over positive outcomes. ​​ This was the habit of telling myself I would not be okay. ​​ I chose to​​ begin a new habit of​​ willfully thinking the best, even if my emotions didn’t agree. ​​ Consciously choosing God​​ (faith), not anxiety​​ (fear). ​​ In cases where I couldn’t predict a future outcome, I chose to recall how things worked out okay in the past. ​​​​ I found it truly amazing that I had power here to choose​​ positive​​ thinking. ​​ The calming effect on the emotions was also astonishing to me. ​​ I chose to believe God could bring a positive outcome​​ as I chose to​​ make​​ the best right decisions​​ I was capable of!​​ I’ll explain​​ later why I​​ found I​​ desired the worst outcomes.​​ ​​ (see exaggeration).

#2 ​​ Jumping to​​ Conclusions. ​​ My habit of​​ making irrational assumptions​​ based​​ on self-centered feelings,​​ cynical​​ opinions,​​ negative perspectives and fear of the future led to​​ negative and exaggerated​​ conclusions. ​​ To make change​​ I began choosing to do the best “right” way​​ in the present moment​​ and trusting​​ God for the outcome. ​​ Believing God can work things out in ways I can’t imagine​​ took pressure off​​ from​​ me to know everything and allowed me to focus on the present​​ moment. ​​​​ I learned to wait until I had more facts before NEEDING to predict outcomes. ​​​​ I began to allow faith​​ and “righteousness”, not anxiety, to be involved in decision making when information was incomplete.

#3 ​​ Personalization​​ Distortion. ​​ I read this one as victim mentality. ​​ The crippling power of self-pity. ​​ The way I think about this now is taking responsibility for my​​ part and​​ being at peace with​​ what or who I had no control over. ​​ I do play a part in my future, but so do events, circumstances, weather, people and so​​ forth. ​​ I’m willing to take on what is my part without feeling responsible for all the parts I had​​ no​​ control over. ​​​​ I had to learn to not feel a victim of circumstances or other people’s free will choices.

#4 ​​ Black and White Thinking, All or Nothing! ​​​​ Seeing things in extremes. ​​ This cognitive distortion only sees two​​ possibilities, “perfect” or “ruined”.​​ ​​ For most of my life​​ I could not integrate that life had both “good” and “bad”​​ experiences. ​​ Because perfection is​​ unattainable,​​ I would move to “it is ruined” thinking. ​​ Most of life is neither perfect or ruined but is a series of positive and negative experiences. ​​ I would let one negative experience “ruin” the whole experience. ​​ In effect giving the single “bad” experience power to cancel out any positive aspects. ​​ I had to learn to not give “bumps in the road” power to create a negative overall experience. ​​ Once I was able to grasp this​​ concept,​​ I found I could move beyond a single negative event quickly and get back to enjoying life. ​​ Yes, I said enjoying life! ​​ This is letting go of rigid, legalistic​​ thinking, any need to be right, judging overall experiences based on a single negative part. ​​ Example: ​​ because one part is bad – the whole is bad. ​​ This is getting rid of the thinking “because this one thing happened the whole experience is ruined”. ​​ I learned to solve the mistake, problem, issue the best I could and get on with the overall experience​​ choosing to prefer​​ the positive​​ over​​ the negative!

#5 ​​ Exaggeration!. ​​ I learned this was simply​​ catastrophic​​ thinking for effect. ​​ If my life was only marginally difficult no one was impressed. ​​ If my life was a “catastrophe” then I had attention. I learned this need or bid for attention GREATLY influenced my thinking​​ and communicating. ​​ In her book “Mercy Triumphs over Judgment” Joanne Highley writes about exaggeration (see Exaggeration pages 112-114) ​​ “It keeps one in the unbalanced unreality of half lie/half​​ truth”. ​​ The goal​​ here​​ is reality, living in all truth and no lie.​​ No self-serving embellishment for effect! ​​ If the need is attention, be honest, be genuine about how you feel. ​​ This is losing the need for “drama”​​ to place oneself in the center of attention! ​​​​ I learned I can take my “need for attention” to my Heavenly Father. ​​​​ I always have HIS attention!

#6 ​​ Overgeneralization. ​​​​ Definition: ​​ A type of thinking where you apply one experience and generalize to all experiences, including those in the future. ​​ I love how this is described in the article*. ​​ “tendency to use our past experiences as a reference point for making assumptions about present or future circumstances.” ​​ Or worded another way “essentially using a past event to predict the future”. ​​​​ This basically describes what I​​ was required​​ to​​ comprehend​​ concerning anxiety​​ and turn from completely. ​​ My past is​​ no longer​​ allowed to speak​​ negativity​​ into my future.​​ ​​ Faith​​ (confident expectation)​​ in God and choosing His ways​​ (obeying Truth)​​ now tell me how the future will be. ​​ Be encouraged, this took me years to put into practice! ​​ Keep in mind anxiety is a prophet spirit attempting to speak fear into our future. ​​ I began to learn to rid myself of “always”,​​ “everyone”​​ or “never” types of thoughts​​ or speech. ​​ These types of words​​ reject​​ the​​ possibility​​ that upcoming experiences can be different and better. ​​​​ In addition these overreaching words are dramatic (exaggerated) expressions.

#7 ​​ Labeling. ​​ I​​ understand​​ this​​ distortion​​ as passing judgement based on my own opinions or experiences. ​​​​ I learned this is​​ part of how​​ I view myself​​ and/or others. ​​ Think of “labels”, such as “I’m a loser”, “I’m​​ fat”, “I’m stupid”, or “what a bunch of idiots”. ​​ This is making a general identity statement typically based on a single event, emotional upset​​ or brief sets of circumstances. ​​ I now choose to “label” myself and others using God’s words, not​​ a depreciating or demeaning negative label from upset emotions. ​​ I choose to believe I am who and what My Heavenly Father says. ​​ This can also apply to situations or activities.

#8 ​​ Shoulding” and “Musting” ​​​​ Placing unrealistic and unreasonable demands​​ on myself. ​​ I was taught in an anxiety program “not to should on myself”. ​​ Choosing instead I​​ will,​​ or I won’t statements,​​ and owning the decision. ​​ I decided​​ to take responsibility for my decisions without blaming others for unwanted duties or requirements I felt pressured into without my agreement. ​​ I found the statements “I should” or “I must” to create an anticipation of “not taking action” in me. ​​ These words identified a​​ resistance to what it was I felt I was being asked to do, by myself or other people. ​​ Once I​​ rephrased statements in my thinking as “I will” or “I choose” this​​ helped​​ me​​ act​​ voluntarily,​​ not from some external pressure​​ (real or imagined). ​​ This change kept me out of​​ that place of inaction and guilt,​​ trying to find some excuse to not participate.


#9 ​​ Emotional reasoning. ​​​​ “emotional reasoning is a cognitive distortion where we tend to interpret our experiences of reality based on how we are feeling at the moment”*. ​​ Being aware of our emotional state of mind in any given moment is important. ​​ For me this was a big one. ​​ I had so much stored in anger and anxiety that everything I did was viewed through the lenses of those strong feelings. ​​ To say that my emotional experiences colored my reality is an understatement. ​​​​ Learning to take the strong feelings to my Heavenly Father first, and then going on about my life free from all the emotional overtones allowed me to experience life as it was REALLY happening. ​​​​ I began to resolve long submerged anger and fear, thereby removing these lenses that I had so long looked at life through.


#10 ​​ Magnification and Minimization. ​​​​ “You talk down all your positive attributes and accomplishments in order to lower people’s expectations”*. ​​ For me having grown up in a performance for love environment I felt incredible pressure to perform well in return for love​​ and acceptance. ​​ Anything I could do to lower​​ people’s​​ expectations took the pressure off. ​​ This was a sneaky one for me. ​​ I was using a​​ false​​ humility to get out of seemingly impossible tasks, or even maybe something I just didn’t want to do. ​​ The phrase I caught in my mind was “not my gifting”, “I’m not good at that”,​​ “not my job”​​ and so forth. ​​ The truth was I was afraid to try! ​​ God gave each of us​​ unique​​ ability for the building up of the body​​ of Christ and service to others. ​​ Humbly exercise the gifts God gave you without demeaning or exalting them.

The journey to freedom​​ was a process​​ taking place​​ over time. ​​ Choosing to make change in my thinking and feeling took effort​​ on my part. Allowing my Father in Heaven to speak His Truth over me took a step of faith! ​​ I decided to become a student of God’s written revelation. ​​ Studying the Truth (God’s Word), yielding my ways to His ways​​ and daring to live in​​ faith​​ (trust and confident expectation) with God was the answer​​ to all my failed and​​ tearful​​ ways of negotiating life. ​​ I will elaborate in my testimony series on each of the 13 areas I had to learn/change. ​​ We are not meant to travel the road to freedom alone. ​​ Invite the Holy Spirit to help with your anxiousness,​​ find​​ ministry​​ if you need it​​ (be a seeker), ask for prayer, fellowship with other believers regularly and KNOW that God has a plan for your life and that plan is a GOOD plan. ​​ Decide to believe Romans 8:28. ​​ I memorized this verse to remind myself of the Truth, my life is progressing toward GOOD as I love God and cooperate with His work in my life. ​​ ​​​​ Allow​​ His work in​​ your​​ life and ask for help when you need it. ​​ LITS would love to walk with you on your journey to freedom. ​​ See our website​​

*​​​​ 10 Cognitive Distortions Sabotaging Your Brain.

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