What we say is crucial to creating and maintaining meaningful relationships in our personal and professional lives. It’s wise to be concerned with what we say. However, when the concern turns into persistent and circular worry about what we’ve said in the past or what to say next, we can get trapped in a cycle of anxiety that works against us, moving us further away from engaging with the people and activities we value the most.
In this article, I’ll explore practical ways to step out of this cycle. Before jumping into strategies, it’s important to understand some key concepts.
The Brain and Anxiety Cycle
Our brain has an amazing threat detection system. It’s constantly scanning our internal and external worlds for possible threats. When it detects a potential threat, it sends us alarm signals and urges us to act in a way that gets us out of harm’s way.
The only thing is the threat detection system is terrible with accuracy. It constantly alerts us to danger when there’s no danger. This is anxiety.
When we experience anxiety, it sets off a series of events. You can think of it as a cycle:
- Triggering event (external, internal, or a combination).
- The feeling of anxiety hits (i.e., increased heart rate, sweating, stomachaches, etc.).
- Urge to avoid or protect yourself against the “danger.”
- Anxiety decreases in the short term.
- Long-term maintenance of the anxiety.
Why does decreasing anxiety in the short-term reinforce it long-term? Let’s go back to the threat detection system.
The threat detection system learns by watching how we react when it sends us danger signals. Suppose it sees us acting in a way consistent with danger (e.g., escaping a situation, analyzing an interaction in our head, avoiding talking to someone). In that case, the threat detection system learns, “This must be dangerous. I’ll continue sending danger signals in this situation in the future.” As a result, our threat detection system will activate the next time we approach the same situation (or a similar situation).
This is the anxiety cycle. It’s a reinforcing, circular trap.
One way anxiety urges us towards safety is by encouraging us to engage in mental problem-solving. We think about potential future outcomes from our actions and look towards our past to learn and grow from previous experiences.
This mental problem-solving is essential to protect us from all sorts of dangers. It’s also needed to reach our personal and professional goals. We want to keep this ability.
At the same time, when we feel anxious, we are more susceptible to overthink and overanalyze situations. We may think of a possible solution to a potential danger but find our brain is unsatisfied. It finds possible holes in the solution or another unlikely scenario to sort through. It’s an illusion of problem-solving. It’s our brain on a treadmill. Not only that, the longer we stay on the treadmill, the more it reinforces the anxiety. As the anxiety is reinforced, the speed of the treadmill increases more and more. It’s a neverending self-reinforcing process.
There are two main drivers of this circular thinking.
The first is uncertainty. Our brain hates uncertainty. The more uncertainty, the less we’re prepared to deal with possible dangers. Circular thinking aims to obtain the impossible: the certainty that a negative outcome won’t occur. Intolerance of uncertainty is at the core of anxiety. I’ll touch on this more later.
The second driver of circular thinking is distorted thoughts.
Our brains are powerful problem-solving machines. But they’re far from perfect. All day we have flawed thoughts that distort reality and cloud the facts. Here are some examples:
- Forecasting: Forecasting is when we convince ourselves we know with 100% certainty a negative outcome will occur. “I have no idea what I’ll say during this first date. I will freeze, and she will think I’m crazy.”
- Mind Reading: Mind reading thoughts convince our brain that it knows what someone else is thinking and their intentions. “They think I’m socially awkward.”
- Catastrophizing: Catastrophizing thoughts convince our brain the worst-case scenario is the most likely outcome. “I’m not going to know what to say; I’m going to freeze up, lose control and lose all of my friends.”
- Personalization: Personalization is when our brain overestimates our responsibility for events or situations beyond our control or that we have little control over. “Jim didn’t even say ‘Hello’ to me this morning. I must have said something inappropriate yesterday. He must be mad at me.”
- Black and White Thinking: Black and white thinking is when our brain puts situations into simple either/or categories and doesn’t allow for any middle ground. It’s all good or all bad, nothing in between. “I didn’t say it perfectly. I failed.”
- Should Statements: Should statements place unreasonable expectations on ourselves. It’s self-criticism. “I should never feel nervous when I speak with others.”
- Negative Filter: Imagine a filter connected to your brain that only allows negative information in and even turns positive information into negative. Imagine speaking in front of an audience of 200 people and noticing one person appearing distracted by their phone. Instead of also catching the positive engagement by most other audience members, your brain fixates on this one person’s disengagement.
- Emotional Reasoning: Emotional reasoning occurs when our brain assumes that a particular emotion we’re experiencing is an accurate reflection and assessment of a situation. “I feel afraid; therefore, there must be danger.”
It’s important to remember that thought distortions are common and normal. It’s not a sign that you’re ‘losing it’ or delusional. It’s a sign that you’re a human being with a properly functioning brain.
A quick review:
- Anxiety is a false alarm sent by our brain’s threat detection system.
- Anxiety urges us towards “safety” away from “danger.”
- The more we seek “safety” when there is no real danger, the more we reinforce this false alarm and start the anxiety cycle.
- Overthinking and overanalyzing is the illusion of problem-solving and our brain’s way of seeking “safety” and obtaining the impossible: certainty. In reality, it just reinforces the anxiety cycle.
Let’s look at a few other ways we seek “safety” and inadvertently reinforce the anxiety cycle.
One way the brain seeks certainty (“safety”) is by asking for reassurance from others. We ask friends or family members things like:
- “Did I say something inaccurate at the meeting yesterday? I’m worried I came across as uninformed.”
- “Did I say something inappropriate just now? I hope I didn’t offend anyone.”
Reassurance seeking is different than asking for support and feedback, and they can be hard to distinguish from one another.
A question that can help is, “What is my intention for asking this person for feedback?”
If the intention is to lower your anxiety or is an attempt at obtaining certainty, it’s likely reassurance-seeking and will reinforce the anxiety cycle.
Support and feedback intend to gain insights, guidance, and assistance to grow and achieve a specific goal. A genuine desire for constructive input or emotional encouragement is the motivator.
Support might look like this: “I’m worried I said something inappropriate during my presentation today. Do you mind taking a walk with me while this feeling passes?”
Support is acknowledging your emotion and current state but not trying to escape the feeling of anxiety by diving into the details of the worry. Instead, it’s simply to be with someone you trust while waiting for the wave of anxiety to pass.
Feedback may look like this: “Can I ask you for your honest feedback about my presentation today? What went well, and what can I improve in the future?”
Feedback involves asking someone qualified to answer. If you ask a coworker their opinion of your presentation and they’re not involved in the project, it’s more likely to be reassurance-seeking. Feedback is seeking truth and aims to achieve a specific goal. The urge for feedback disappears once you obtain the needed information.
Being perfect is another common way we try to avoid danger. Perfectionism is another attempt at obtaining certainty.
If we can be perfect, we can be certain we won’t slip up and say anything inappropriate and, therefore, can be 100% protected from any possible dangers.
Just like certainty, perfectionism is alluring because it promises 100% protection. And just like certainty, perfectionism is impossible to achieve and reinforces the anxiety cycle.
Now that we have a good understanding of what anxiety is and how we inadvertently reinforce it long-term let’s look at strategies to experiment with that may help break the cycle of anxiety.
Build Your Tolerance for Uncertainty
Anxiety, at its core, is an intolerance for uncertainty, demanding from us the impossible: perfection and certainty. Acknowledging this the moment you first notice anxiety is one of the best things you can do. By doing so, you switch off the autopilot. You move away from out of control, completely susceptible to the urges of anxiety, and move into a place where you have more power and more ability to make a conscious choice.
Building your tolerance for uncertainty is like building muscle. You already have the tolerance muscle, but anxiety has its way of convincing us not to use it. Just like a muscle, you can strengthen and see results relatively quickly by intentionally exercising it consistently.
Here are some ways to help exercise the tolerance muscle.
This concept is simple: as long as we’re not in real danger (99% of the time, we’re not), do the exact opposite of what the anxiety urges.
Why does this work?
The threat detection system doesn’t learn through language or logic. Have you ever been told to “Just calm down” when angry or upset? How did that work out? The threat detection system is the same.
The threat detection system can only learn through experience and when activated.
For example, imagine going to a haunted house at a Halloween carnival. Before entering, a carnival worker pulls you aside and gives you an hour PowerPoint presentation on how safe the haunted house is: “We’ve been in business for 30 years, and NOT ONE person was ever injured. Not even a stubbed toe.” The carnival worker intends to comfort you in hopes of teaching your threat detection system not to be triggered inside. However, no matter how convincing the presentation is, you will get triggered at some point inside the haunted house.
The way to teach the brain a new lesson is to go inside the haunted house repeatedly.
When you’re about to enter a second time, your threat detection system will likely send even more danger signals than the first time. It hated the experience and wants you to stay out. By going inside, your brain is first confused: “Why aren’t you listening to me?” But, the more times you go in there, the more it’s open to the possibility of being wrong about the situation being dangerous. Eventually, it learns there is no danger. As a result, it will decrease the intensity of the signals and may even stop completely.
Doing the opposite urge is scary. There’s no difference in the feeling between a false alarm and a true danger alarm. It’s just as intense and just as real.
So, it takes quite a bit of courage. Examining your automatic worry thoughts can help with this.
Make Your Worry Get Specific
When anxiety hits, automatic worry thoughts are there to follow:
- “What if I said something inappropriate?”
- “What if I get laughed at?”
- “I know I’m going to get criticized.”
Most of the time, we fuse with our automatic thoughts. We believe them and almost become one with the thoughts. As a result, they take us for a wild ride.
Automatic thoughts also love to stay vague. As long as they remain vague, they will remain unexamined, and we will remain fused with them. Here is an example of worry thoughts staying vague:
- Worry: “We might have said something inappropriate.”
- Response: “Oh no. That would be bad.”
- Worry: “Right? How will we be certain if we said something inappropriate or not?”
- Response: “I have no idea. I could call and ask my friend who was there.”
- Worry: “But that might be strange.”
- Response: “True. I could Google search it and see if I can find a forum or something.”
- Worry: “That might be a good idea. Let’s Google it for a while to see what we find.”
A helpful exercise is to force the thoughts to get specific. Here’s an example of how to do that:
- Worry: “We might have said something inappropriate.”
- Response: “What do you mean by inappropriate?”
- Worry: “You know, something that’s not socially normal or rude.”
- Response: “If that were true, then what would happen?”
- Worry: “What do you mean? That’s a ridiculous question. Everyone knows that would just be awful.”
- Response: “Ok, but why? How would it be awful?”
- Worry: “Well, they would think we are weird.”
- Response: “That’s possible. And what would happen if that happened?”
- Worry: “Well, they would talk bad behind our back.”
- Response: “Ok, then what would happen?”
- Worry: “Then they might tell our good friends.”
- Response: “Ok. Then?”
- Worry: “Well, we would lose out on potential friends, and we would lose all our good existing friends.”
- Response: “And?”
- Worry: “Then we’ll live a lonely life forever.”
The more we drill down and force worry to get specific, the more we expose its flawed assumptions. It becomes less scary, and often, when we reach the bottom, we realize that we don’t want that thing to happen but that it’s highly unlikely, and if the worst does happen, we’ll be able to handle it.
Remember, engaging in this exercise doesn’t stop the threat detection system’s danger signals. Instead, it gives us access to logic, which gives us more control over our behavior and urges. It gives us a greater ability to do the opposite of what the emotions are urging, setting us up to teach the brain a new lesson.
More on Thoughts
The previous exercise doesn’t necessarily stop the circular worry, though. What do we do if worry continues to be circular and relentless?
It’s important to understand that there are two layers to our thinking:
- Automatic thought
- Engaging with the thought
The automatic thought is just that. It’s automatic and something we can’t control.
What we do have control over, though, is how or if we engage with automatic thought.
When we notice an unhelpful, distorted, automatic thought intuitively, it makes sense to try to stop the thought and prevent it from coming back. This usually backfires, though.
To stop a thought, you have to put energy into it, which gives it more power and more energy and is counterproductive.
For example, close your eyes for 15 seconds. Pay attention to the thoughts that come up. At the same time, try hard not to think about a pink elephant.
The harder you try, the more the pink elephant enters your thoughts.
It’s like trying hard to go to sleep. To fall asleep, it takes a different type of energy. Sure, we try to fall asleep by doing things like brushing our teeth, taking a warm bath, and turning down the lights. But there’s more outside our control than within when it comes to sleep. Sleep just happens when it happens. The more we try to force it, the further we get from it.
The same is true for automatic thoughts. We want to be careful about adopting an attitude of trying to force or control thoughts. Instead, we want to acknowledge our limited control over them and accept that they will be there whether or not we want them.
We don’t try to stop them. We don’t try to negotiate with them. We don’t try to reason with them. We don’t argue with them.
We treat automatic thoughts like background noise in a busy city. As we walk through the streets, there are sounds of construction, people talking, and horns honking. We don’t try to block out the noise or convince the construction workers to take a break. Instead, we acknowledge the sounds without getting entangled or trying to control them. We focus on our goal, letting the noise fade into the background.
All this is easier said than done, but with practice and repetition, you may notice more and more that thoughts do not determine our destiny. Thoughts are just thoughts; most of the time, they are simply random, with no meaning or value, and completely distorted.
Focus on the External
Anxiety directs our focus internally:
- “Am I giving the right amount of eye contact?”
- “What am I going to say next?”
Instead of focusing on what the person is saying, we focus on what we imagine the other person is thinking of us and possible negative outcomes from what we say. We are stuck in our heads and involved in mental storytelling. We are not involved in “What is” but consumed in “What could be.”
What can be helpful is to make an intentional effort to focus externally and completely on the conversation. Get completely involved in the conversation.
Pay attention to their words, not your thoughts. Pay attention to their body language, not your interpretation of their body language. Don’t try to stop your thoughts; imagine them like annoying background music. They certainly don’t make it easy to pay attention to the conversation, but it is still possible to pay attention despite how annoying and loud they are.
One way that may help access this state is by thinking of a person you feel completely safe and comfortable around. Someone that when you talk to, it’s easy to focus on the conversation and the goals of the conversation. If you can’t think of anyone, think about a musician or a movie that you find yourself getting consumed in and out of your thoughts. Use this experience and feeling as a template and as a gauge. How would you describe the “effort” you use to listen in these situations? How is it possible that you’re able to get so involved?
Use this as a starting point. Start practicing in situations that are fairly easy to focus on the external. Slowly work your way up to more difficult social situations. Practice and then practice some more.
Remember, no matter how much you practice, it’s impossible to remain externally focused the entire time. That’s not the goal. Instead, the goal is to get good at identifying when you’re overly focused on the internal and shifting your focus back to the external and to the present.
Overcoming the habit of worrying and overthinking what we say requires a shift in attitude and how we relate to our worries. By understanding and recognizing when we’re caught up in anxiety’s trap, we gain more control. And by understanding the lies of anxiety’s urges, we gain the courage to do what’s scary but necessary: Do the opposite of avoiding, escaping, and overanalyzing situations. The more we avoid the urges of anxiety, the more we build our tolerance for uncertainty, and the less anxiety grips us. Slowly these new habits become more automatic and more dominant. With practice, persistence, and self-compassion, we can learn to manage our worries and overthinking and fully engage and enjoy the relationships we value.
I hope you found this article helpful. If you found this article helpful, you might find my Self-Help section useful. You might also want to subscribe to my Weekly Thoughts on Anxiety.