Are anxiety and mind-wandering related?

Anxious thoughts fall into a specific category of mind-wandering. In fact, you can utilize anxious mind-wandering thoughts as a way to enhance mindfulness practice, providing you don’t over-connect with these thoughts as facts.

In writing this post I will identify how to use knowledge of anxious thinking and it’s various styles to highlight how you can overcome worry using mindfulness practices.

Mind wandering can be better understood as ‘stimulus-independent thought’. For example, you can be sat waiting in a queue of traffic thinking about what to eat for dinner, in other words, you are thinking about something completely unrelated to what you are doing and the current situation you are in, despite the stimuli that these situations provide you with. Mind-wandering can take you to the past, future or sometimes to hypothetical scenarios or problems that are not necessarily related to the past or future, for example, you may find yourself asking ‘how do I spell antidisestablishmentarianism’.

A trademark of anxious mind-wandering is forecasting that things will go drastically wrong in the future. This is also referred to as anticipatory catastrophization or awfulizing. From an evolutionary perspective, anxiety is our natural drive to avoid threat, however, when this is over amplified it can become a disorder and increasingly challenging. Anxious mind-wandering has a number of methodical tendencies that can be noticed within mindfulness practice. If we look at the number one fear, public speaking, we can illustrate how mind-wandering may present itself in the anxious mind before, during and after the anxiety-provoking event.

BEFORE THE SPEECH… CATASTROPHIZATION

Exaggerated (overestimated) likelihood of something bad happening “I’ll definitely fail when I make that public speech”
Exaggerated (overestimated) likelihood of the seriousness of the consequences “Everyone will then reject me”
Minimized (underestimated) likelihood of coping “I can’t do public speaking”
Anticipatory rehearsal of hypothetical conversations “If they ask me this…then I plan to say that”

DURING THE SPEECH… SELF HYPER-AWARENESS

Attentional biases mean that mind-wandering may thematically focus on the self and bodily sensations and it may be hard to find an external focus of attention. “everyone’s staring at me…The only thing I can feel is my stomach and my heart racing… I can’t focus externally on what people are telling me”

AFTER THE SPEECH…NEGATIVE EVALUATION

After an anxiety-provoking event, social anxiety manifests in retrospective negative evaluations:

Discounting all positive feedback from others and being hypersensitive to negative feedback “most people said the speech went well, but I can’t have done well because one guy said he couldn’t hear what I was saying.”

In conclusion, you can think of mental manifestations of anxiety as specific forms of mind-wandering, i.e. nature’s way of protecting us from threat, although, in excess these anxious thoughts can get in the way of life. Mindfulness can be used as a tool to identify key indications of an overly-anxious mind. As in any mindfulness practice, note mind-wandering without placing judgment, whether anxiety related or not. With insight, excessive anxiety will loose its grip on you as your recognition and tolerance of it improves. Over time, meta-worry (worrying about worry) tends to fade away and the worries you notice will rebalance themselves: excessive disproportionate worry will transition towards more helpful levels of anxiety.

I do hope this information will help you to identify anxious thinking that may take you away to future places of hypothetical catastrophe and that it can ground you back in the present. Feel free to try our Meditation App for free.

Dr Tom 🙂

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