How we think encourages and, usually, generates what we feel. We often make choices based on how we think and feel. But what if how we think is based more on error than reality? This is called a cognitive distortion. Cognitive distortions can be incredibly limiting in our lives. They can also be incredibly damaging.
There are many cognitive distortions that anxiety sufferers engage in that not only create more anxiety, but also maintain it. As you can probably gather, cognitive distortions are errors in thinking or false beliefs. Our attitude and approach to life is based on how we think and what we believe about ourselves and the world.
One extremely common form of cognitive distortion that many, but especially people with anxiety, practice is called overgeneralization.
Due to the hectic demands of life and the overwhelming data our brains must process on a daily basis, most of us generalize once in awhile. In fact, it can be helpful when learning new information, as it allows us to save time and brain effort in drawing conclusions. One good example is of Jean Piaget, the psychologist famous for his theories on child development. He used his own children to generalize about the development of all children in certain respects!
As far as my own personal example of generalizing, I remember first hearing a Canadian pronounce certain words differently than Americans. Words like "sorry", "process" and "about". I remember assuming that all Canadians pronounced them in this different manner. Generalizing helped me learn this. Of course, after several trips to Canada, I also learned not all Canadians pronounced these terms in this manner and that it was more based on region and even generation. So, my generalizing was soon proven false. This then clarified the negative aspect of generalizing, which often includes exaggeration.
And generalizing does tend to be negative. For example, racism is often based on generalizing. Racists assume because an individual was observed behaving in a certain manner, their whole race behaves this way. Sexism is another example. Many people assume women are "all this way" or men are "all that way". In the writing world, generalizing is often called a hasty generalization, which means drawing a conclusion based on insufficent data. These are one in the same.
Overgeneralization, as you might have guessed, is a more extreme form of generalizing. To define overgeneralization, we must consider it a larger and more internal process than generalization. Therefore, the best description and, maybe, the best definition of overgeneralization is an extreme, unsound perspective based on forming a false conclusion from only one or two experiences, events or examples. This perspective is usually negative, taken for a fact and considered permanent. For those with anxiety, it is usually a perspective that attacks the self and encourages anxiety symptoms. When an anxious person overgeneralizes, they are often mistakenly taking an isolated experience and assuming that all similar experiences moving forward will be the same.
Examples of Overgeneralization:
Indicators, statements or thoughts that point to an overgeneralization tend to include these words: always, every time, all the time, never, can't, incapable, unable, born that way, my personality.
When it comes to those struggling with anxiety, there are many ways in which individuals overgeneralize:
1.) Panic Attacks: An individual has a panic attack and has automatic thoughts that now panic attacks will occur in the same environment everytime they visit it. This overgeneralizaiton can then lead to avoidance of that environment or experience. This avoidance only increases the hold fear of panic can create, usually leading to the development of panic disorder.
2.) Social Anxiety: An individual has trouble making small talk in a conversation at a party. If this person overgeneralizes, he or she now falsely believes they are not good at small talk or can't do it altogether! They may start avoiding parties or get anxious over the mere thought of a party, based on this overgeneralization. This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
3.) Agoraphobia: An individual gets anxious in traffic or has a panic attack, so now falsely believes they can't handle traffic at all and that they'll always feel trapped. This is an overgeneralization that can lead to panic disorder with agoraphobia. Agoraphobia can grow through avoidance of experiences in which one feels trapped in a place they can't quickly escape.
4.) Fear of Driving: An individual suddenly get anxious merging on the freeway and now overgeneralizes by practicing the thought that they can't handle merging or driving on the freeway at all.
5.) Fear of Flying: An individual has a bad in-flight experience with an unruly passenger and now believes they can't tolerate flying and this struggle will happen every time they take a flight. This overgeneralization could lead to not flying at all, which could lead to a very limited life.
And so on and so on . . .
Why Overgeneralization is Problematic:
You can see in the above examples why overgeneralizing can be so debilitating. It can shut down a life based on one example or a limited experience through the creation of a feedback loop and avoidance. Avoidance based on fear only reinforces more fear. The more one avoids the more they teach their brain that there is something to fear. Hence, every time they face the experience, their brain now floods their system with adrenaline. Because this is uncomfortable for those who haven't learned how to respond properly to this adrenaline surge, they now choose to avoid the situation further. Before they know it, there are now many places or experiences they believe they can't handle. If this conclusion or perspective is based on limited experience, it is a very sad, unreasonable occurrence!
In other words, basing decisions and responses on faulty logic and false belief leads to negative and, usually, unwanted results. This then adds more conflict to our life and limits our development and growth. When we overgeneralize, we lead a life that is narrow and limited based on nothing more than inaccurate data processing!
CBT and Overgeneralization:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is essential to overcome overgeneralization. CBT is an evidence based form of treatment and the only proven method to effectively relieve anxiety.
The cognitive side of CBT is focused on addressing cognitive distortions, which includes correcting false thinking patterns. In order to treat overgeneralization, one must identify these faulty beliefs and hasty generalizations. And then start practicing new reality-based beliefs. This is called cognitive restructuring. They then must engage in experimentation in the world to challenge this tendency to overgeneralize. In therapy, challenging overgenerlizations and cognitive distorttions through behavioral assignments provides real-life data that eventually leads to a shift to this more reality-based and healthy perspective.
How To Stop Overgeneralizing:
First and foremost, put energy into identifying your thoughts and beliefs when faced with challenging situations. This can help you label your self-defeating attitudes and thinking patterns being perpetuated by overgeneralization. To accomplish this, seek data. Ask yourself if your commonly held beliefs are true. And ask others what they believe in these situations you experience as challenging. Seek cold, hard facts. Not assumptions. This is not an easy task because it's hard to look at ourselves objectively. This is where a therapist can be incredibly helpful.
To further clarify how to prevent overgeneralizing, let's return to the aforementioned anxiety examples. This time with ways to respond. :
1.) Panic Attacks: Identify all the environments and experiences in which you have not had a panic attack. This can help you restore a more realistic awareness of when you panic and remind you of the fact that you don't panic all the time.
Also, with the help of CBT therapy, start facing the settings and experiences in which you do panic so that you can overcome your fear and resolve your struggle with panic attacks or panic disorder. Avoidance often leads to overgeneralizing because we lose sight of the specifics of a given environment and experiences in it because we tend to forget and the paniful memories can merge creating a broad consideration of that very setting or experience.
2.) Social Anxiety: Start paying attention to those times when you engage with someone, anyone, where you're not anxious. Remind yourself that if you are capable of having a conversation with a family member then you're certainly capable of conversing with a stranger or someone at a party. And rather than overgeneralizing that you can't make small talk it all based on your difficulties just start building that skill to prove to yourself that you can. This doesn't mean you have to become an extrovert. However, you can practice and improve, so that small talk or connecting with someone isn't such a difficulty.
3.) Agoraphobia: Consider all those moments and experiences you have on a daily basis where you don't feel trapped or feel a need to escape. This will help you identify triggers to your anxiety, While also maintaining a reality-based perspective. And then seek help with facing those settings that do make you feel trapped, so that you can overcome this fear.
4.) Fear of Driving: remind yourself that you know how to drive! People with this fear often overgeneralize two point that they now believe that they're terrible drivers or that they somehow forgotten how to drive. Meanwhile, most people with driving anxiety continue to drive side streets and drive to places they've identified as within their safe zone. This proves they still know how to drive! Practice the thought practice that if you can drive anywhere you can drive everywhere, Then get expert help to overcome fear of driving.
5.) Fear of Flying: Try to remember a time where you didn't fear flying, if able. Or try to remember a time where you felt calmer on a flight as compared to more difficult moments.
Also, remind yourself of flights where there was little to no turbulence or where most people seemed calm and relaxed. This can help restore a more realistic perspective, so that you are reminded of the number of routine flights daily where there is no trouble at all. Then seek an anxiety specialist to overcome your flying phobia (aviophobia).
Overgeneralizing is a common, though ineffective and sometimes destructive, thinking pattern that can trap many. Those with anxiety tend to engage in this pattern with even greater frequency.
Questions to Ask Yourself to Determine if You Might Have an Overgeneralization Habit:
After answering these, consider all that you've read above and the impact these traits, behaviors and/or tendencies have on your life. This should help you clarify any habitual overgeneralization patterns. Try to answer as honestly as you can. If you answer "yes" to more than 3, you probably tend to overgeneralize.
1.) Am I opinionated? Do people tell me I have very strong opinions?
2.) Do I tend to be stubborn? Have others told me so?
3.) Do I frequently engage in black and white, all or nothing thinking? Habitually exhibiting other cognitive distortion tendencies makes you a prime candidate for overgeneralizing.
4.) Do I have limited contact with people from many different walks of life? Engaging with people who fit your mold one hundred percent of the time tends to reinforce and maintain thinking patterns. It also doesn't lead to considering new perspectives and gathering new data about people.
5.) Do I get uncomfortable, stressed or frustrated when someone has a different viewpoint?
6.) Do I tend to rush to judgement before all the facts are in?
7.) Do I pay attention to gossip?
8.) Do people tell me I exaggerate?
9.) Do I tend to make a lot of assumptions?
10.) Am I often close minded?
11.) Am I often inflexible in my thinking or routines?
12.) Am I often impatient?
13.) Do I tend to focus on the negative aspects of a person or a situation?
14.) Am I often moody?
15.) Am I forgiving of my mistakes?
If you frequently overgeneralize, it most likely interferes with a calmer, healthier and enjoyable life. For help, seek a therapist who specializes in CBT that can assist you in modifying these thoughts and thinking habits today!