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Moving Beyond Anxiety: Mastering Mental Balance


December 12, 2023


Prior to working in private practice, I worked with groups of gifted and talented middle school students who were highly anxious. Some of the students were unproductive, often worrying about whether their work would meet their perfectionist standards. When challenged to put forth effort and dive into unfamiliar territory, it was easier not to try at all. Additional daily challenges resulted from the students’ argumentativeness and intolerance of ideas that did not mirror their own. Ah, where to begin…


I pulled materials from a Cognitive Behavior Therapy workbook called "Starving the Anxiety Gremlin" by Kate Collins-Donnelly. The premise of this book is that if we starve our anxiety monster, it will shrink and shrivel away. Students each drew their anxiety monster as a method of separating themselves from this perceived intrinsic component. By looking at it and naming it something different, we could begin not letting our fears and worries define us.


Part of helping students (and adults) shrink their anxiety is by identifying thinking errors we make. Thinking errors make our anxiety monsters stronger. I don’t mean to imply that some anxiety isn’t helpful. When we are attempting to cross a busy street, we should feel a healthy amount of anxiety to remain alert. When one is traveling to an unfamiliar destination, it is helpful to be vigilant about one’s surroundings, conditions, and people. Our heightened alertness may help us remain safe.


Thinking Errors


Unlike situations that result in a healthy, rational sense of anxiety, thinking errors are illogical in nature. While most of us are likely to think unreasonably sometimes, it is important to recognize when we do so to participate in healthier problem-solving:


All-or-Nothing Thinking (Black-and-White Thinking): Perceiving things in extremes without recognizing the middle ground. For example, my students believed that if they could not complete a task perfectly, then they had somehow failed.


Overgeneralization: Making broad conclusions based on limited evidence. Students who say that they are never going to be good at math, for example, may overgeneralize when they don’t understand one concept introduced.


Filtering (Selective Abstraction): Focusing exclusively on negative details while ignoring positive aspects. Many of us spend our energies focused on one minor criticism rather than the praise received for a final project.


Mind Reading: Assuming you know what others are thinking without any evidence. Anxiety increases when we believe that someone may dislike us with no concrete proof or insinuating communication.


Catastrophizing (Magnification or Minimization): Expecting the worst possible outcome without considering more likely, positive outcomes. Thinking a small mistake will lead to ruin. This goes along with “What if..” thinking when we imagine the worst-case scenario as a likely outcome.


Personalization: Taking responsibility for external events that are beyond your control. Sometimes called “magical thinking” because we believe that our behavior affects the outcome of something beyond our control (“Every time I go to a Browns game, they lose. My attendance is why they lost.”)


Should Statements: Having rigid rules and unrealistic expectations for yourself and others. This is a big thinking error for students who expect unrealistic goals for themselves. Thinking, “I should get A’s on every test in every subject,” is not typically realistic or emotionally helpful.


Labeling and Mislabeling: Assigning global and negative labels to oneself or others based on specific behavior. For example, stating “I’m a complete failure” instead of acknowledging a specific error.


Discounting the Positive: Downplaying positive experiences by insisting they "don't count." Students who do not perform well in one subject area but achieve well in others often employ this thinking error.


Emotional Reasoning: Believing that because you feel a certain way, it must be true. For example, a socially anxious person may believe that they should not attend a social event, thinking something “bad” will happen, with no evidence or support for their feelings.


Anxiety Monsters Unmasked and Defeated


Parents are often good at identifying the types of errors that their child or adolescent makes after reviewing this list. How can you help to change thinking from irrational to rational? After helping your child or adolescent identify the negative thought pattern that is “feeding” their anxiety monster, see if your child or adolescent can figure out in what way their thinking is unhelpful and distorted. It is important to ask them the question rather than tell them the answer. By asking an open-ended question, such as, “Why might this thought be unhelpful?” or “How might this thought be untrue?” the child or adolescent can begin to problem solve with greater independence. Finding evidence or contrary facts that negate a thought error is very important in the process of reshaping counter-productive thinking.


Adolescents may wish to keep a “thought journal” where they can record negative thoughts and those situations that trigger their unhelpful thinking. In this journal, a column can be devoted to identifying more balanced, productive thoughts, titled “Challenging Thoughts.” This column is devoted to finding more realistic and productive thinking.


Using positive self-talk is another strategy to replace hurtful things we say to ourselves with affirming, forward-thinking ideas. Rather than saying to myself, “Nobody likes me,” I could say, “There are people that like me, but not everyone will. I need to remember to be kind and accept myself.” Along with rational self-statements, we need to encourage our youth to engage in activities that bring joy or a sense of accomplishment. While we all have personal shortfalls, we also have skills of value. These skills may contribute to positive interpersonal relationships, such as adaptability, teamwork, and cooperation.


In order to improve or practice new skills, children and adolescents should be encouraged to set realistic, achievable, and developmentally-appropriate goals. When my older son was in kindergarten, he was frustrated when his cartoon drawing did not match what he saw in a Disney illustration. Feeling defeated, he blurted, “I can’t draw.” In truth, he could draw, but not at the level of a trained professional. In order to assist him, I validated his feelings first and then helped to clarify that the artist with whom he compared himself had the gift of time, practice, and study. He could continue to practice and likely improve, but it would take time and effort. Goals may need to be broken down into smaller, manageable steps to build a sense of accomplishment.


Emphasize the importance of seeking support from friends, family, or other trusted adults when the child or adolescent becomes mentally “stuck.” At times, we cannot stop or change our thinking without talking out loud and gaining feedback from those who know us best. Encourage communication and do not dismiss the feelings of the youngster asking for guidance; our perceptions guide our realities, and we are entitled to our feelings. After acknowledging or validating one’s feelings, the next step is to engage in a positive problem-solving approach. Parents can model healthy thinking patterns by expressing their own challenges, how they cope, and discussing ways to move forward.


These strategies are practical and can be incorporated into daily life to promote a more positive and balanced mindset for children and adolescents. Remember, consistency and patience are key when implementing new practices. In the event that your child or adolescent requires additional support to contain their anxiety monster, Cogmotion Learning strategies can help.

 

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