All Articles Leadership Development How anxiety traps you and how to break free 

How anxiety traps you and how to break free 

Leaders face many anxiety traps that can hobble their effectiveness, but LaRae Quy offers strategies to free yourself from four common ones.

9 min read


anxiety traps

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At the FBI Academy, new agents like myself spent five months role-playing, alternating between being the bad guy in need of arrest and the good guy whose job it was to take scum off the streets. The role-playing was meant to instill confidence in ourselves when we actually met one of these goons in real life. 

Fast forward to an arrest a few weeks after landing in my first office. I pulled a gun on a guy wanted for extortion and murder. He looked like a ham hock with a face, not a baby-faced agent who complied with FBI rules of defensive tactics training.  The guy, who most recently went by Jethro, was big and ugly. My anxiety was so intense that I held my gun, drawn and fully loaded, close to my body because I didn’t want Jethro or my colleagues to see my hand shaking. 

My brain became a blob of jello. Instead of moving through the anxiety that gripped my gut, my emotions took over, and I found myself quivering in a feedback loop from hell. I worried about how to be brave in my situation, while all the time, I was only becoming more anxious about my anxiety! With my emotions firmly in control, my anxiety morphed into fear as I watched Jethro take a step toward me.  

My colleagues were fast to close in with guns drawn. Jethro backed down once he knew he was outnumbered, but I’ve always wondered how I would have worked through the tension and worry if my fellow agents hadn’t been at my side.

Mental health experts categorize anxiety as an emotion. Anxiety is different for all of us. It’s an unwelcome quirk in our brain that can happen anytime, and we can become anxious for a variety of reasons.

Since our first reaction to any situation is always emotional, we often move into a “fight or flight” mentality when confronted with a stressful situation. From there, it’s easy to fall into the trap of letting negative emotions drive our behavior. 

Our emotions have muscle memory; we subconsciously train ourselves to react to specific situations in the same way. 

Our response can become a bad habit. Anxiety isn’t sparked by what we experience; it’s set off by how our brain interprets the event based on past experiences. If we can break the habit of our conditioned response to anxiety, we can expand the way we think about our situation. This takes a strong mind. 

Identify your anxiety trap

We are afraid of what we don’t understand. We are vulnerable to what we can’t grasp. Let’s distinguish between fear and anxiety.  They are different emotional responses that we experience, often simultaneously. Fear is activated when there’s a present danger to our safety. It’s a natural, instinctual response that can be beneficial in certain situations.

Anxiety is an emotional state that causes worry, whether or not there’s imminent danger. It’s more persistent and can interfere with daily life. 

Experts have identified a number of the most common anxiety traps, and here is how you can break free of the most common ones:

1. Catastrophizing

We catastrophize when we’re uncertain about something because the brain is quick to create a “What if?” mentality. What if Jethro pulled a weapon and lunged at me? What if I couldn’t defend myself because he was bigger and stronger?

What if…

About this time, you build up a nightmare scenario of how everything could turn into a sh*tshow. You have a presentation tomorrow, and your mind starts to worry that you’ll forget essential elements in your talk, make a fool of yourself, and be embarrassed in front of the whole company. 

It’s critical to remember that our brain is always trying to keep us safe from danger. Catastrophizing taps into our negative emotions, and because the brain is trying to protect us, negative emotions are more potent than positive ones. They’re the ones to which we pay attention.

Often, that’s a good thing! But much of our anxiety is an exaggeration of the threat. We jump to conclusions and move from anxiety to fear as we anticipate the worst possible outcome. Even worse, we predict we won’t be able to cope with the outcome. 

The catastrophe loop from hell has three components:

  • Thoughts about the future
  • Focus on negative outcomes
  • Constant replay of negative consequences

How to make it work for you:

Stop the negative thought in its tracks. This is a simple and effective solution. When you say “no” to a negative thought, you disrupt it. Stick with one or two strong words because if you begin a dialogue with a negative thought, you only give it more power. 

Focus on breathing. This one often gets tangled up in a bunch of psycho-babble, but research has shown that a neural circuit in the brainstem plays a crucial role in the breathing-brain connection. The circuit is called the “breathing pacemaker” because it influences emotional states. Simple controlled breathing exercises like the 4-7-8 method (breathe in for 4 seconds, hold breath for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds) help to regulate the circuit. When you do, you calm negative emotions and allow the thinking brain to take over.

2. Black-and-white thinking

As I looked at Jethro, two outcomes seemed viable — either he complied or resisted arrest. My black-and-white thinking allowed for only those two outcomes.

The all-or-nothing approach means we consider situations as good or bad without considering the gray areas. Think of religious zealots who label everything as good or evil without considering that many interpretations are possible. This limited viewpoint can lead to behavior that is rigid and unproductive because we refuse to move beyond the confines of those two options. 

Anxiety, worry and stress can lead to impaired thinking. If we practice a more balanced way of analyzing outcomes daily, it helps to dial down our level of anxiety when confronted with a more threatening situation. 

I’ve always relied on myself to get out of a tight spot, but black-and-white thinking created tunnel vision and prevented me from being aware of the full range of possibilities available to me with Jethro. This limitation created an either/or approach without considering other options. 

How to make it work for you: Practice shifting from black-and-white thinking throughout the day so it becomes a habit.

Ask yourself:

  • Have you been in a similar situation before? If so, focus on how you could have moved out of the anxiety trap.
  • Do you know how to shift to logic when you’re emotional? Tip: if you like math, add numbers. If you like history, recall essential dates in civilization. The bottom line is practicing ways to move out of your emotional brain state.

3. Overgeneralizing

I became anxious when I pulled a gun on Jethro. It worked out in the end, and no one was hurt. However, I could have easily overgeneralized my reaction and automatically assumed that I would always be anxious whenever I made an arrest. 

You may never have to arrest someone as mean and ugly as Jethro, but you may give a poor speech and think to yourself, “I always screw up speeches. I can’t speak in public.” 

When we overgeneralize, we assume the same outcome even if the circumstances differ. We start to use languages like “never,” “always,” and “everybody” to describe our reactions.

For example, you are “always” the last to get picked for a project, or you “never” get the help you need. These self-limiting overgeneralizations happen when your negative thoughts prevent you from meeting your potential.

How to make it work for you

  • Be more mindful of your thoughts. Write them down in a journal if it helps.
  • Recognize when you think negatively about your abilities or avoid activities because you think you will fail.
  • Reframe negative thoughts with positive ones. Instead of saying to yourself, “I always screw up speeches,” replace that thought with, “I’ll be more prepared and ready to give a great talk.”

4. Mind reading

As I stood in front of Jethro, I assumed he knew I was anxious. I also figured he looked at me as a 98-pound weakling he could take out with one swift punch. OK, maybe the shaking gun was a clue, and he did weigh over 300 pounds, but the point is that when I imagined what Jethro was thinking, I also assumed he was thinking the worst of me.

Mind reading becomes anxiety when we let our negative emotions spiral out of control. We say, “Even though she said she’s not upset, I know she’s mad at me because the report is late.” Mind reading is usually negative and assumes we know what others are thinking about us even when we have no evidence to prove that it is true.

How to make it work for you

Ask yourself these questions:

  • In what circumstances do I try to manage the thoughts and emotions of others instead of my own?
  • When do I accept another’s definition of a good person instead of creating my own?
  • How can I interrupt my tendency to mind-read and focus on my beliefs and thoughts?

Create new habits to counter your emotional reaction. Define a couple of situations in which you’d like to react with more calm or courage. Don’t start with the toughest ones; begin with the small ones because your brain needs evidence you can succeed. The more you practice, the better you get until the new behavior becomes automatic. And thus, a new habit is formed.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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