We call what we think and what we say to ourselves self-talk. It is one way we interpret situations, and those interpretations can determine how we feel and act. You have the capacity to generate many types of self-talk, and each type of self-talk can be helpful, neutral, or unhelpful.
You might be surprised to learn that even anxious self-talk can be helpful at times. For example, imagine you are about to cross the street and just as you step off the curb, you hear the rev of an engine and squealing tires. You instantly generate the self-talk statement “Danger” and your body swings into high alert. Your heart races, you experience a surge of adrenaline, and your reflexes act instantly to avoid danger. You stop and brace yourself. The speeding car narrowly misses you. This example of anxious self-talk is helpful, as it protects you from danger.
A small amount of anxiety is good and helps us survive. But anxious self-talk can also be unhelpful. What if every time you step off a curb you think, “Don’t cross, it’s dangerous,” even when the road is empty and the situation safe? This example of anxious self-talk is unhelpful as the situation is safe or that danger is very unlikely. Unfortunately, anxious teens have way too much unhelpful anxious self-talk which contributes to unnecessary fear and avoidance and lots of anxiety.
Just like there are different genres of music such as rap, reggae, rock-n-roll, or country, with some practice you can begin to see that your anxious thinking come in a variety of styles, too. Some teens have many styles of anxious thinking in their collection whereas other teens have just a few. Some styles are about predicting the future or guessing what others think. Other styles are about playing it safe and staying home, because you believe danger is lurking around every corner. It does not matter whether you have just a few or many styles of anxious thinking. What matters is that you become familiar with the particular styles in your collection. Once you become skilled at identifying and classifying your anxious thinking into a particular style, you can then begin to evaluate and change them into self-talk that will calm your anxious mind. Here are some common styles of anxious thinking.
Book Ends refers to a style of anxious thinking that suggests that there are only two possible consequences—one way or another completely opposite way with no possible outcomes in between. You might think, “I’ll either ace this test or completely flunk it.” However if you have studied, you are more likely to score somewhere in the middle. You do not ace the test, but you do not flunk it either. Most of life is somewhere in the middle. Things are neither horrible nor perfect. If Book Ends is the style of thinking that tends to play most often in your anxious mind, try reaching for a book in the middle of the shelf rather than at either end.
When you look through binoculars at one end, everything looks bigger. But if you look through the other end, everything looks smaller. Binocular Vision is a type of anxious thinking in which you either magnify or shrink the effect of what you fear might happen. When you magnify, you expect the worst to happen or you blow things out of proportion. You might think, “If I get an F on this quiz, I’ll fail the class and I’ll never get into college.” In this example, you take the F and magnify or build it into a more dire consequence. Shrinking, on the other hand, makes everything look smaller. This occurs when you ignore the positives and do not give yourself any credit. You think, “It doesn’t count if I get into other colleges. If I don’t get into Harvard, my life is over.” In this example, you minimize how getting into any college is a good accomplishment and only focus on the importance of getting into one specific college. You shrink it. If your style is Binocular Vision, try looking through regular glasses to prevent magnifying or shrinking
Fortune Telling is a style of anxious thinking that convinces you that you know or can predict the future. This might be terrific if you could actually do it! Although you might be able to predict some things like, “My mom won’t serve us ice cream and cake for dinner tonight,” most of the time you cannot predict things very well. If the Fortune Telling style thinking plays long and loud in your anxious mind, you typically predict one disaster after another. For example, you think, “I’m not going to get the job.” Instead, remind yourself that even if some of your past predictions came true, it is more likely due to chance rather than you actually having a sixth sense.
Believe it or not, some teens think that they can read minds! Well, not really, but they do think they can do it when it comes to something bad happening. If you find yourself guessing what others think, then a Mind Reading style of anxious thinking is playing. Say you are convinced that you know what your boyfriend is thinking. You might think this, “I’m sure he wants to break up with me. He’s just avoiding me to let me down easy.” Instead, remind yourself you are a student not a psychic.
When you take one small thing and use it to draw conclusions about lots of other things, then Overgeneralization thinking style is like thinking you have ruined the cookie batter when you added a teaspoon too much of sugar. Or you might begin to feel anxious when you think that if you miss a single pass in football tryouts the coach will cut you from the team. If the Overgeneralization style plays loud and often, remind yourself that many factors contribute to what happens, not just one small thing. This can help you to keep the situation in perspective.
End of the World!
When the End of the World style of anxious thinking is playing, you are convinced that terrible things are about to happen. You feel anxious most of the time because you are always expecting the next big disaster. Even when your parents tell you that your neighborhood is safe and secure, when you hear a scratching noise outside your bedroom window, you immediately think, “Someone’s breaking in!” Sounds scary, but it might be helpful to know that there have been hundreds of End of the World prophecies and none has ever come true! Also, recall all the situations where you believed the worst would happen. Were you correct? If not, this can be a helpful reality check when this style is playing on repeat mode in your collection .
Shoulds, Musts, Shouldn’ts, Mustn’ts! Should-y/Must-y anxious thinking can beat you down! You think of all the things you should have done or must not do. After a while, you are less confident. You begin to wonder if you can do things, even easy things that you have already done before. Often the shoulds or musts set the bar too high for you, so you begin to worry a lot about whether you will be able to do it. You might think, “I must always get good grades,” or “Everyone should like me at all times.” You work constantly to meet these expectations and your life becomes stressful and not a lot of fun. You might not hang out with friends after school because you think, “I must get good grades.” Your softball games are stressful because you think, “We must win.” Your friends call you a perfectionist and you agree. Shoulds and musts (as well as the shoulds in sheep’s clothing: have tos, need tos, ought tos), put a lot of pressure on you and unnecessarily increase your anxiety. If Should-y/Must-y tracks are playing in your collection, change them into something that seems more doable and reasonable such as, “I would like to…,” “It would be nice if…,” and “I will do my best to…” These new tracks turn the heat down a notch or two. Try shooting for excellence not perfection. You will be surprised how far excellence will take you, and the ride will be a lot easier.
When your anxious mind jumps to conclusions before you have all the facts, the Mind Jumps style of anxious thinking may be playing. Let’s say you overhear friends making plans for the weekend and they stop talking when you walk up. Your anxious mind jumps to the conclusion, “They don’t like me anymore. That’s why they’re not inviting me to hang out.” You become anxious every time you talk to them and wonder what you have done to offend or upset them. If you have the Mind Jumps style , stop jumping and start building. When the situation occurs, try gathering facts and building a conclusion rather than jumping to a conclusion. Once you have gathered all the facts, what you think is happening is more likely to be what is truly happening.
Related Books from Magination Press
My Anxious Mind: A Teen’s Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic
Can you spare 30 minutes to feel less anxious?
Go ahead. Think about how your life would be different if you were less anxious. What would change? Would you try out for the basketball team? Ask someone out on a date? Would you sleep better and feel less tense? Would you feel calmer and happier?
My Anxious Mind outlines a simple and proven plan to help you understand and deal with your anxiety and panic. It is chock full of simple-to-use tools and strategies that easily fit into any teen’s busy routine. (ages 12-18)