Anxiety Thinking Patterns – Cognitive Distortions

“Let us be of good cheer, remembering that the misfortunes hardest to bear are those which will never happen.”  
~James Russel Lowell


What you hold most firmly and consistently in your mind, you create and become. So keep your thoughts focused on moving toward the desirable, enjoyable and fulfilling things.

There are a few predictable thinking patterns that when combined have the big official name of cognitive distortions.  When I am working with kids we call them “Stinking Thinking.”

Once I was working with a young 10 year old girl about “What to do when Little Miss Anxiety comes to visit”.  She was experiencing anxiety in most social situations.  Any activity that required judgement caused anxiety.  Her anxiety around things that could cause pain was also extremely high.  She missed school often.  She usually called in the middle of the night to have mom and dad come and get her if she was on a sleep over.

She began having anxiety about playing games with friends.  Recess brought anxiety.  Home work brought anxiety.  Changing her ear rings brought anxiety.  One day we were doing a puppet show together where I was teaching some of the anxiety management skills that I teach adults but with kids I work on them in stories or in games.  She chose a skunk to be who we named “Little Miss Anxiety.”

Her character was a little frog.  The frog was telling the skunk (who represented “Little Miss Anxiety”) that she didn’t like her kind of thinking.  She said with great disgust ” You have “stink’n think’n’” because you are a skunk.”  She didn’t know it but she had given the cognitive distortions that come with anxiety and depression the perfect name.

From there forward I have called the thinking patterns that accompany anxiety and depression” stink’n think’n” because it fits so well.

In Empowered Life Solutions we are going to discuss the top three thinking patterns that get in the way of empowered living.


Top Three Thinking Patterns Preventing Empowered Living:

1. Personalization

2. All or nothing thinking

3. Catastrophizing


Personalization is making an event personal that is really not about you at all.  Feelings of being helpless or in the victim role follow.  This increases your anxiety by life feeling out of control.

Children believe they are the center of the universe but when we think that way as adults it gets in the way of healthy living and supports our depression and anxiety.


The ego will seek to make everything personal.  Doing this gives your power away to becoming a victim.  

Once I was explaining “stinkin’ thinkin’” to a young college student.  At the end of the very session where we had been talking about personalization this young man said, “Before we end today I’ve got to tell you what happened to me this week.”  He then proceeded to tell me his story without any awareness that it was the perfect example of what I had just been trying to teach him.

The smoothie shop he worked at closed at 10:00 pm.  At 9:40 pm there were no customers so he cleaned up and got all ready to close for the night so he could go home and study for his math test first thing the next morning.  His plan was working out great.  He got very animated as he told his sad tale of what happened next.

At 9:59 pm a large group of kids came into the shop.  They all ordered a smoothie.  They sat at a table laughing and joking for over an hour.  He exclaimed with complete disgust about how these kids were laughing at him.

In despair, he exclaimed, “They knew I had a test and they thought it was so funny that they were making me fail my test.”  Then he lamented about how he got home after midnight too tired to study.  The result was he failed the test.

In his own thinking pattern he took an event that had nothing to do with him personally and made it about him.

Personalization makes you feel completely like a victim.  You feel helpless.  This gets the mind chatter (ego) really going on how to protect you from being helpless or in the victim position again.  Anxiety producing thinking is the result.

You are only helpless and victimized because of how you think about the situation.  He ended this story with another common “stinkin’ thinkin’”.  Things like that “always” happen to me.


 “You are today where your thoughts have brought you; you will be tomorrow where your thoughts take you.” ~ James Allen

All or Nothing Thinking

All or nothing thinking is when we take the experiences in our lives and put them into an all or nothing category.  The young man in the smoothie shop saying, “Things like that “always” happen to me is an example of all or nothing thinking.  Sometimes people come in at the last minute but not “always.”



Anxiety thinking takes an event and turns it into a disaster in your mind.  One week a client came into therapy grinning because she had observed her anxiety thoughts and made the connection between her thinking and her anxiety.

The week before we had discussed the common anxiety thinking patterns of personalization, all or nothing thinking, and catastrophizing. She had a situation happen that made her laugh out loud as she recognized herself doing the very thinking patterns we had just discussed.

As a department store clerk she had made an error of a few cents in return change she had given.  She could feel her anxiety growing within her.  She stopped and noticed what she was thinking as she had learned in therapy.

She was thinking along the lines of “Great, these kinds of things “always” happen to me. Now I am going to get fired.  I won’t be able to afford rent.  I will have to move back home with mom and dad.  Now I will never get married.”   Her anxiety thinking had made a catastrophe of giving a few cents extra in change.  Her anxiety took it to her deepest fear of not getting married.

Observe your thoughts as discussed in articles “Anxious Thinking” and “Is My Anxiety in my Mind?”.   If you recognize personalization, all or nothing thinking, or catastrophizing, you can make a choice.  You can choose to believe the thoughts or you can ask yourself if there is another way to look at it.

For example, you could say, “Sometimes I make a mistake but most of the time I do pretty well” instead of “I always mess things up”.   Once the young sales clerk really looked at the thoughts driving the anxiety she could see they weren’t logical.  But when the mind chatter is just going in your head they seem very logical and realistic. She came to therapy the next week having had a successful experience managing her anxiety simply by seeing her “stinkin’ thinkin’” and choosing to let the thoughts go.

Join Empowered Life Solutions Today!

Cindy Lee, LCSW, RPT-S; Clinical Director at Empowered Life Solutions

“Every life has a purpose our mission is to help you find yours.”

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