When I make a mistake it’s not just some harmless incident. It’s monumental; it’s life changing. It’s like I’ve taken all of my progress, all of the time I spent learning to forgive myself, and wiped it all away. Clean slate. Back to the beginning.
Sometimes when I try to explain this, people don’t understand. “It’s okay!” they exclaim, “We all make mistakes, why do you care so much?”
The reason is, anxiety and depression can make even the smallest mistakes feel like the end of the world. I overthink, I overanalyze, and I put way too much focus on the little things. Often times this leads to sleepless nights, or in the worse cases, panic attacks. In the field of psychology, there is a term for this distorted pattern of thinking: magnification. As the name suggests, you take one incident and blow it way out of proportion. Soon enough, it’s the only thing on your mind.
Oddly enough, I started to notice how often I fell into magnification when I began making progress with my own general and social anxiety. I realized that I would stress myself out over everything, even if it’s something that has no real effect on my future. It got to the point where I kept a running tally in my mind all day. There would be times where I felt like I was in the clear. Then I would make a mistake and have to start all over again.
I forgot to open the door for that kind old man this morning.
I took too long to take the change out of my wallet. People stared.
I was late to my second class of the day. Why can’t I do anything right?
I didn’t score high enough on that test.
I forgot to put my blinkers on when I was making that turn.
I think I said the wrong thing to my friend. Are they mad at me? They’re mad at me. Are they judging me?
The little things that wouldn’t even cross someone’s mind linger on my mind long after, like nagging flies that won’t go away. My mind was never at peace. I would add all of my mistakes up and come up with a grand total- the total I would use to determine how worthy I was of forgiving myself. The more mistakes I made, the less worth I had, and the harder I would have to fight to redeem myself.
It sounds extreme, I know, but anxiety and depression can be consuming.
When I talk with people about anxiety and depression, magnification or absolutist thinking appear to be a pretty common occurrence. We’re overly critical of ourselves without ever acknowledging our accomplishments. When I began writing this post I grew curious, so I found an article on Very Well Mind called “Cognitive Distortions of Magnification and Minimization” that helped broaden my knowledge on the subject.
I wanted to share a strategy I find very helpful in overcoming this distorted thinking pattern called a panic journal, or what I call ‘journaling through anxiety’.
I’ve made a lot of progress in my own social anxiety and how I view my own mistakes. It’s taken a lot of self reflection and hard work, but I’ve found that I’m rarely consumed by these self defeating thoughts lately. It all begins by learning to look at the bigger picture. (Before I continue sharing, I want to remind readers that this is based on my personal experience! Recovery is never a one size fits all)
It’s important to remember that when you magnify things, the world appears a lot smaller than it really is. That’s why your mistakes feel monumental. When your field of view is centered only on what you’ve done wrong, you aren’t giving yourself the room to reflect on all that you have done right.
I began to remind myself of this daily, and developed a habit of writing down what I was worried about, down to the last detail. During overwhelming episodes of anxiety, having a panic journal became a huge relief for me.
For example, I wrote about what happened during a job interview that lead me to a panic attack later that night. I had gotten through the majority of the interview just fine, that is until the end, where I found myself stumbling on my words. I couldn’t think clearly afterwards. The rest of the day that was the only thing on my mind and I went into a downward spiral. At the end of the night I concluded “The interviewer hated what you had to say. You clearly didn’t get the job.” This created a snowball effect of worries in my mind. Those small mistakes I made during the interview that day had me convinced that I would be unemployed and hopeless.
So, I wrote down all of my thoughts without a filter, without stopping to analyze a single thing. I went to bed that night feeling a little better, because at least I had gotten my feelings out.
A few days later when I got a phone call that I did receive the job, I looked back at my journal entry. My anxiety convinced me that I failed, all because I was so focused on the few mistakes I made, without taking into consideration any other aspects of the interview.
It helped in many other situations, no matter what the source of my troubles were. I came to realize that in most cases, I went into panic mode before I could fully process the events of the day. My thoughts were simply irrational because they were a results of the mind tricks anxiety played on me. In a few cases, my concerns were realistic and writing down my worries was a useful way to sort out my thoughts.
Take any sort of journal, whether it’s on paper or on your phone, and write down everything that’s on your mind. Give yourself time to go through the emotions and just let your stress out. Later, once you’ve had enough time to calm down, reread what you wrote. Does it make sense, or do your thoughts look like the result of your anxiety? Can you pinpoint areas where your thoughts look irrational or magnified? Or, are these problems that you truly do need to address? Releasing your emotions then reflecting on them may give you the clarity you need to work your way through it.
If you’re looking for tools to aid you in your recovery, I highly recommend trying this out. Journaling isn’t only effective, but it’s easy and accessible for those who can’t afford to speak to a professional for whatever reason. Using a panic journal may not work for everyone, but it’s worth a shot if you’re recovering from an anxiety disorder.
(Thank you for reading, I hope you find this helpful! Best of luck on your journey.)