One of the characteristics of worry and anxiety is how easily and frequently we spin off, spiraling down through layers and layers of ever-increasing terrors. Here’s how it works:
We hear a news item about the Dow Jones falling 500 points today. Some pundit then goes on to tell us how the economy is overdue for a major correction and this is likely just the beginning. They dig up and recycle stories from 1929, 1987, 2008 and every other time the stock exchange has taken a dive. “Experts” are interviewed about what this means to the average investor and how this is likely to hit the ‘regular Joe’s’ 401(k) accounts, mutual funds and retirement savings.
This doom and gloom has you in a panic about your own investments and you begin to imagine your savings being flushed down one gigantic toilet bowl. Your throat tightens and your pulse rate goes up as you think about having to work three jobs for the next ten years to recover these losses. No, wait, you’re too old! It will be impossible to recover them! Now you’re imagining retirement in a rusty old single-wide trailer, parked outside some nowhere town as you wander the streets looking for bottles and cans to turn in for a few bucks at the recycling center while hoping to scrounge enough for the cans of cat food that will have to serve as your dinner.
24-hours later, you hear another news item that the Dow recovered yesterday’s losses and went on to a record close.
So much for the self-administered nightmare.
Thoughts aren’t always reliable
As rational and intelligent human beings we put a great deal of stock and faith in our ability to think. We register informational input, we process it, we reach conclusions and we make decisions.
But what if our thoughts weren’t always trustworthy? What if they aren’t always as reliable as we like to believe they are? The fact is, there are limits to rationale and reason. And even when those limits are very high, there are also, occasionally, very real obstacles that prevent them from functioning properly and reliably.
Many things affect our ability to think accurately and reliably. Have you ever had a few glasses of wine and found yourself saying or doing things that, in the clear light of the next morning, might not have been so wise? Have you ever been overcome with emotion, perhaps anger, jealousy, or even joy, and found yourself entertaining thoughts or making judgments – either negative or positive – that later seemed a little unreasonable?
Anxiety impairs thinking
Aside from true cognitive impairment brought on by disease or aging, there are many things in daily life that can and do impair our ability to think clearly. Fear, anxiety and worry are high on the list. Your ability to concentrate is one of the many functions that is hampered when you’re worried. And studies have also shown that anxiety can affect perception, attention, learning and executive functions, which are the processes that have to do with mental control and self-regulation.
Conclusions we reach and decisions we make in the midst of anxiety or worry are at high risk of being unreliable. And yet, caught up in the whirlwind of worry, they seem logical, inevitable and terrifying. So the next time you’re deep into your own worry-fest or it feels like you’re overcome with anxiety, step outside yourself for a moment and remember that the conclusions and decisions you’re making in those moments should probably not be trusted.