Where do anxiety-causing thoughts come from?

As someone who’s studied anxiety for the past 8 years to eliminate my own triggers, I believe we can answer this question with reason: Some of you may have had times when you thought of doing something and immediately felt physically anxious. The anxiety may have been paired with thoughts like, “What if I don’t do it, what if they hate me, what if I get anxious.” In the evidence-based cognitive therapy model, those are called automatic thoughts. Where did these automatic thoughts come from? Unless you believe they came from nowhere, they had to have come from somewhere specific right? They likely came from the brain since the brain is responsible for cognition and they automatically popped up. Doesn’t that suggest that the brain used the situation at hand and did some kind of search/operation and pulled out those thoughts? These automatic thoughts are, in a way, stored thoughts. What does the brain use to process the world and situations we find ourselves in? Beliefs[1]. Is it then not possible and even likely that situation-dependent automatic thoughts are from or at least influenced by our beliefs? Aaron Beck, a clinical psychologist seen as the father of cognitive therapy, an evidence-based tool for anxiety and depression documented from his research that automatic thoughts were generated by beliefs[2]. Beliefs = things we think are true about ourselves, the world, etc.

How did these thoughts get stored?

Remember that we have the conscious ability to “store” information in our brains. The whole concept of learning demonstrates this. If we analyze the automatic thoughts that bubble up when we’re physically anxious, we sometimes think those thoughts contain valid concerns. This observation suggests that we find at least some of these automatic thoughts useful whenever they pop up. If we find some of these thoughts useful does it not make sense that we told the brain to store some of these thoughts at some point in the past? Behind these thoughts is an assumption that it’s bad or unacceptable to be or get anxious. Does it then not make sense that we would store thoughts in our brain that will help us avoid being anxious? Therefore, automatic thoughts like “What if XYZ happens” pop up because you would get anxious if those possibilities came to fruition. Note that you’d have your personal reasons why those events make you anxious. The prevailing view is that our brain is a self-preserving machine. If so, does all of this not make sense? Because you think getting anxious is bad or unacceptable your brain is doing everything it can to help you avoid getting anxious in the future. If you instead shift to seeing anxiety as a personal growth tool–although not the most pleasant one–the nature of your automatic thoughts would likely be different.

In summary, what appears certain is that we can change how we feel and the automatic thoughts we have by changing our beliefs. Realizing this is key to eliminating anxiety.

The Solution

To uncover beliefs you didn’t know you had and change them so you can eliminate anxiety triggers and change the nature of your automatic thoughts check out my short book Fight-or-Flight: Eliminate Anxiety Triggers w/ the Option Method. I’ve read two of Dr. Burn’s books on addressing anxiety and believe my book delivers the solution for eliminating anxiety triggers in a faster (400 vs 10 pages) and cheaper way. My book is based on battle-tested and evidence-based philosophies and contains unique insights I used and still use to eliminate anxiety triggers that pop up in my life. It can be completed in less than 30 minutes.

[1] Rüdiger J. Seitz, Hans-Ferdinand Angel, Belief formation – A driving force for brain evolution, Brain and Cognition, Volume 140, 2020, 105548, ISSN 0278-2626, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bandc.2020.105548. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278262619303860)
[2] Allen, J. P. (2003). An overview of Beck’s cognitive theory of depression in contemporary literature. Retrieved September, 5, 2014.
[3] Kaczkurkin, A. N., & Foa, E. B. (2015). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders: an update on the empirical evidence. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 17(3), 337–346.
[4] Video is a clip from a Video called “What Causes Anxiety and Depression” answered by Dr David Burns

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