How To Fight Back Against Thinking Traps That Trigger Your Anxiety

Pretty much everyone experiences anxiety sometimes — and that's not a bad thing. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, anxiety kicks off the body's acute fear response, which helps us escape dangerous situations and respond swiftly to emergencies. Moreover, it can often improve performance and decision-making when they're needed most.

However, anxiety can become an issue if it regularly makes an appearance. When fear and worry dominate your daily life, it can lead to an anxiety disorder, per Mayo Clinic. Then, you might avoid situations that trigger anxiety, struggle to focus on anything other than your worries, and experience physical symptoms like tiredness and digestive issues.

It's important to understand that anxiety isn't just a feeling — it's often triggered by negative thought patterns, which then influence how you feel about yourself and the world around you. When you regularly fall victim to harmful thinking traps, known as cognitive distortions, you may have a harder time pulling yourself out of an anxiety spiral. To ease your mind and reclaim your mental health, follow these steps to curb toxic thoughts.

Identify the thinking traps wrecking your perspective

The damaging, anxiety-triggering thoughts that feel so personal to you may actually be more universal than you think. Psychology trailblazer Aaron Beck helped identify several cognitive distortions that people often struggle with, and at least a couple of these distortions are likely behind your anxiety too. Understanding which thought patterns hijack your mind most often can help you better manage anxiety and distance yourself from the beliefs that aren't benefiting you.

According to Good Therapy San Francisco, the two prevailing cognitive distortions among those with anxiety are catastrophizing and future tripping. Catastrophizing is where you believe the worst possible outcome has happened, even if the problem at hand is manageable and will likely soon blow over. Future tripping is similar, though it involves ruminating over events that haven't yet happened. When caught up in this thinking trap, it can be difficult to imagine other more plausible outcomes, as your brain fixates on everything that could go wrong.

Several other cognitive distortions can feed anxiety and negativity too, per PsychCentral. These include mental filtering (seeing the "bad" in a situation and ignoring the "good"), overgeneralization (applying what happened once to every similar scenario going forward), jumping to conclusions (making negative assumptions without evidence to back them up), control fallacies (believing everything is your responsibility or, alternatively, that you have no control at all), and all-or-nothing thinking (seeing things in black and white, such as labeling yourself as a failure after making one mistake).

Challenge your thoughts

Common advice often says to follow your instincts and trust your gut, which can make it confusing to learn that you shouldn't believe every thought you have during an anxious episode. When your mind is spiraling, you may view reality through a negative lens, only seeing the information that supports your anxious thoughts. Challenging these thoughts is one way to make them feel less powerful and overwhelming.

According to Healthline, this is part of a process known as "cognitive restructuring" in the therapy world, and it can be done alone or with a mental health professional. A good place to start is by questioning your negative thoughts when they come up. Ask yourself: Where did I learn this belief? Is my source trustworthy? Is the thought based on emotion or objective evidence? Does the thought leave out information, or could it be the result of a misinterpretation? If my past experiences were different, would I still be likely to believe this thought?

Asking these questions and viewing your thoughts from a new perspective may help reverse your negative thinking traps. Even if you find that some cognitive distortions never completely go away, challenging them makes it easier to respond to them more thoughtfully, rather than reacting the moment they pop up.

Escape thinking traps by reframing

Once you've started identifying your negative thought patterns and questioning their validity, it's time to move on to reframing. As Dr. Regine Galanti, a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Long Island Behavioral, explained to Self, "A thought is like a pair of sunglasses. If you look at the world through sunglasses, things look a little different. Reframing your thoughts is like taking off your sunglasses or putting on another pair with a different lens. You're asking, 'How can I look at this a different way?'"

When you have limited information and your anxiety is spinning a convincing story of doom and gloom, consider what other outcomes or explanations may be just as likely to be true. For example, if you assume a friend didn't message back because they're angry at you, consider if they might just be busy and forgot to respond.

Another option is positive reframing. According to Harvard's Stress & Development Lab, positive reframing is where you accept that the difficult situation may be uncomfortable, but you take into account the silver lining. You might consider a hidden benefit or lesson that the situation offers — much like the viral "burnt toast theory." By shifting to positivity and gratitude, you may notice that your anxious thoughts become smaller and easier to tame.

Consider if the thought is serving you

You've tried reframing your negative thoughts, but you still feel stuck in an anxiety-inducing thinking trap. Maybe you're struggling to determine if the thought is realistic or if your evidence is trustworthy, so you continue to cling to the belief, just in case it might be accurate. In this situation, consider instead if the thought is helpful or harmful.

Notice how the thinking trap influences your emotions and behaviors. For example, if you believe you're being cheated on, but you have no solid, factual evidence to prove it, you may feel insecure within your relationship. As a result, you might act in self-sabotaging ways, calling your partner constantly or picking fights to get them to prove they care. This would suggest that the belief is maladaptive, rather than protective or useful.

The truth is that there will always be information that can't be uncovered. You can't read anyone's mind to know what they're really thinking, and you can't predict the future until it happens, for instance. In these cases, it's important to give up deciding whether a thought is true or false, and instead decide if the thought is serving you and your life. If it doesn't support your well-being, choose to let it go.

Take a break from overthinking

If you find yourself getting tangled up in negative thinking patterns and your stress levels are quickly rising, you might realize that no amount of challenging or reframing your thoughts will help — at least not at first. When you can't see a way out of anxious thinking traps, redirect your attention to something else. "If you're sitting there worried, for example, get up and walk or pace," licensed professional counselor Lisa Henderson shared with WebMD. "Take a few minutes to clean something. Go outside for 5 minutes. Shorts bursts of activity can release that anxious energy."

Henderson also suggests daydreaming and imagining yourself in your happy place. "If your mind returns to its anxious thoughts, notice — without judgment — that it's happened and mentally tell your anxiety 'I'll be with you in a moment.' Then go back to your daydream," she advises.

Taking breaks to distract yourself and calm your nerves can make it easier to regulate your feelings and emotions when you're going through it. However, if you continue to experience anxiety, reach out to a mental health professional. They may offer additional tools and treatments to help you feel better.