We know that four in ten autistic people are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, but many more are regularly affected by symptoms of anxiety. This article explains how all humans use thinking styles that can sometimes be unhelpful and can add to anxiety. It is possible to change those thinking styles.

Our brains are constantly trying to make sense of the world around us so that we can understand what’s happening and make decisions about how to respond to it. Sometimes our brains can take ‘short cuts’ and create an understanding that isn’t entirely accurate. These are called cognitive distortions and they can create bias or distortions in how we think about and interpret the world. Cognitive distortions happen automatically, so we may not even notice when they happen, but they can be very unhelpful.

Psychologists have developed descriptions of common cognitive distortions that are unhelpful thinking styles that many of us use. Once we know about these unhelpful thinking styles, it can be easier to notice when we’re using them and challenge them.


Unhelpful thinking styles

We have described some of the most common unhelpful thinking styles here:

All-or-nothing thinking or black-and-white thinking

This refers to the tendency to categorise things or people as all good or all bad, all right or all wrong, or. Rather than being able to notice the possibilities in between (or the shades of grey between black and white).

Jumping to conclusions

There tends to be two types of thinking we do when we jump to conclusions. Fortune telling is when we think that we can tell what is going to happen. Mind reading is when we think we know what other people are thinking. No matter how real it feels, we cannot know what others are thinking (unless they tell us) or what is going to happen!

Emotional reasoning

This type of thinking is when we make judgements based on how we are feeling. We assume that because we feel a certain way, then it must be true and related to the situation. For example, “I feel really anxious, it must be dangerous” or “I feel very bad, this must be really awful.”

Magnification & minimisation

This is when we tend towards exaggerating the negatives or the risks of situations and minimising the positives. We can do this about ourselves too, minimising our strengths and focussing on our flaws.

Catastrophising

Imagining or believing that the worst possible outcome will be the one that happens. This is when we react to any disappointment or mistake as a huge failure and interpret it as much worse than it is.

Shoulds & musts

Saying to ourselves or thinking ‘I should’ or ‘I must’ a lot of the time can add a lot of pressure. Using these kinds of critical words with ourselves can make us feel guilty or like we have failed. We need to check that we aren’t setting up unrealistic expectations for ourselves by thinking this way.

Personalisation

This happens when we think we are more in control of outcomes than we actually are. This results in us blaming ourselves for something that was not necessarily our fault or is not completely our fault.

Positive beliefs about worry

Thinking that worrying is positive can affect our ability to monitor and attempt to change. For example, we might think “If I don’t worry about this, I might not be able to stop it happening.”

Mental filter

Once we have made a judgement or a decision, we might apply a mental filter to the information that we process. We only notice what the filter wants or allows us to notice. We ignore information that does not fit with the judgement or filter.

Judgements

Rather than describing and evaluating the information we have to see what we have evidence for, our brains like to make judgements about events, others or ourselves.
Rather than use the evidence that we have in a situation to describe and evaluate information our brains like to make judgements about events, others or ourselves.

Memories

Memories are really powerful. Strong memories can evoke strong emotional responses, they can make us feel like the event or danger is happening currently rather than in the past.

What do we do?

The key here is to slow down our thinking and ask ourselves:

  • Have I got all the information?
  • Is there another way of looking at this?
  • Is there a simple explanation?
  • Am I falling into one of the negative thinking traps above?

You can find more tips like this in our Molehill Mountain App. It's is designed to help autistic people understand more about their anxiety. The app is based on Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) approaches adapted for autistic people and developed from a paper toolkit focused on psychoeducation, created and evaluated by Professor Emily Simonoff.


Supported by Fujitsu.

Official Sponsor of Autistica’s World Autism Awareness Campaign 2021