Science & researchThinking

Jumping to conclusions: How we think our way into anxiety

think our way into anxiety
Hayley Stanton
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Hayley Stanton

Director & Coach at Quiet Connections
Hayley shares her personal stories of feeling shy, socially anxious, ‘not good enough’ and fearfully avoiding the good things in life. Growing her confidence through coaching, gradually stretching her comfort zone and connecting with others, she now uses everything she has learned to help other people grow their confidence in her role as a coach. Hayley is passionate about connecting people with similar stories and creating safe, supportive spaces to make friends and try new things. Hayley dreams of a time when all of the strengths, skills and goodness in ‘quiet’ is recognised and appreciated as readily as being bold, gregarious, and comfortable in the spotlight is right now.
Hayley Stanton
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How is it possible that two people can experience the same situation so differently? How can one person feel confident while the other is anxious? Because our thoughts and feelings seem real to us, we believe they must be true. But what if they’re not? Could we just be jumping to conclusions?

The way you think about a situation changes the way you feel, which in turn affects how you choose to respond. Yet, we often mistake how we understand things for the way that they actually are. Is the world you think you see really the reality?

How trustworthy are your thoughts?

Did you know that your senses pick up 2 million pieces of information every single second? That’s much more than any of us can handle! In fact, research shows that your conscious mind can handle just 134 pieces a second. This means that your mind has to constantly filter all of this information, whittling it all down to a fraction of what’s available, just to keep you sane. In doing so, you’re making a lot of judgements and assumptions about situations and people. It’s happening so automatically that how you’re thinking goes unnoticed. Because you’re missing so much detail, it’s really easy to misinterpret what’s actually going on.

Are you jumping to conclusions?

One trick of the mind is distorting information. We adapt information to make it fit with what we already believe or are on the look out for. When you’re jumping to conclusions, you might be interpreting things negatively when there is really no evidence to support your ideas.

Let’s look at two of the most common thinking distortions that spark anxiety.

Fortune-telling

In fortune-telling, we’re predicting the future in a negative way, without any real supporting evidence.

A friend invites you to a party but you decide that if you go you won’t have a good time, you won’t like the food and the other guests won’t be interested in you. So you choose to stay home and feel down about the state of your social life. Which is likely, because avoidance tends to be a side effect of this thinking pattern.

“Now hold up,” you might be thinking “I went to a party before and I didn’t have a good time at all”. Well, here’s the thing: fortune-telling can become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. What’s common with this thinking error is that we’re imagining negative outcomes. If you go to the party believing that you’re not going to enjoy yourself, you’ve already set your mood (and your filters!) for the event and you’ll look for any sign to prove that you were right –even the most minute detail. And remember that people respond to the energy you bring and the way you behave.

Wouldn’t you be better off letting the future unfold without trying to guess how it will turn out? After all, even if you didn’t enjoy the last party, this is a different event, with different people, on a different day –what if you enjoy yourself?

Think about all the times you have done something you were anxious about, only to find that the actual event didn’t turn out to be the disaster you had expected. It happens a lot, huh? Probably because you and I are not blessed with the supernatural ability to see into the future –not even with a crystal ball!

You never really know how good something will be until you try it. Is it worth missing an opportunity because of a story you’re making up? You can step away from the crystal ball now…

Mind-reading

When we’re mind-reading, we’re making assumptions about how another person is thinking or feeling, without checking it out.

Someone you know is walking towards you on the street when they look the other way. You just ‘know’ that the person hates you and thinks you are mind-numbingly boring and not worth their time. For the rest of the day, you’re thinking about all the reasons you’re not worth talking to and feeling miserable.

But how do you know what people are thinking? Do you have access to special knowledge of the thoughts and intentions of others? Thought not 😉

Could what you imagine to be going on in other people’s minds be more of a reflection of what’s going on in your own head? After all, we tend to jump to these conclusions because we have a belief that everyone thinks and feels in the same way – if you were in their shoes, you know how you think you would be thinking, so they must be thinking in that way too, right? What does this mean? Mind-reading isn’t truly seeing yourself the way the other person sees you; mind-reading is seeing yourself the way that you see you.

Do you still think you know what other people are thinking?

You might assume people are thinking negatively of you, or that they have bad intentions. And you might imagine that an event will turn out to be a bad experience. But the truth is, you can never be certain. Take your guesses with a pinch of salt (unless your thoughts are really more trustworthy than the thoughts of everyone else on this planet that is?) 

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