How Overgeneralizations Can Lead to Anxious Thinking

Health Writer

Overgeneralization - we’ve all been guilty of it at some time or another. Something bad happens and we transfer that feeling to other situations. These situations might have some similarities but are still separate and unique. Take for example, a job interview. Suppose you go for an interview. You are well suited for the job but are nervous; you stumble through a few of the interviewer’s questions but overall the interview goes well. Even so, you aren’t offered the job. Instead of seeing this as one interview, you immediately think, “I am terrible at interviews. I will never get a job.” You have overgeneralized - taking one experience and spreading it out over many different experiences. You now look with dread at every future interview, knowing they will all end up the same way - with you not getting the job.

Overgeneralizations usually include words like “always” or “never.” You don’t differentiate situations and see them as individual incidents instead you see a pattern in your behavior, or the behavior in others, even when there isn’t one. If a situation caused you to stress or become anxious, every similar situation in the future will bring those feeling back.

There is research to back up the idea that people with anxiety often overgeneralize. A study published in Nature Neuroscience in 2012 refers to this as pattern separation. When you have difficulty with pattern separation, you lump similar situations or places together. If you went to a dentist and it was painful, you assume all dentist visits will cause you pain. If you have an argument with a friend and then run into another friend, who happens to be rushed and hurries on her way, you assume she is also angry with you. When you don’t differentiate situations, places and people, you use the same emotion on all of them, even when there are differences.

A more recent study, completed in the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. In this study, researchers found that people with anxiety disorders had a difficult time differentiating between “safe” and “unsafe” situations. When they experienced an “unsafe” situation, they were more likely to view further similar situations as “unsafe” rather than judging each situation as a separate and unique experience. The reaction wasn’t just emotional - researchers found that people with anxiety had different brain responses than those without anxiety.

With anxiety, overgeneralization causes you to become anxious in situations that are not necessarily anxiety producing, but are similar to situations where you previously experienced anxiety. Job interviews are one example, but suppose you went to a crowded mall and became anxious. Will you now avoid every area that is crowded? Or suppose you drove through a tunnel and felt uncomfortable and nervous. Should you now avoid all routes where you must go through a tunnel?

When you overgeneralize, you often see life as as a never ending series of setbacks or failures. You become fearful of many different situations rather than focusing on the one situation that caused fear. You use a small sample to make a generalization about a large group.

To help change your overgeneralizations:

Start paying attention to your thoughts, especially those that include words such as “always” and “never.”

Ask yourself, “Is this always/never true?” Or “Are there exceptions to this?” If you find there are exceptions, times when this same outcome did not happen, reword your thought to “This sometimes happens but it does not always happen.” Once you see that there is no hard and fast rule, you can change your approach. Using the example of not getting a job, instead of saying, “I am not good at interviews, I will never get a job,” you might say, “I was very nervous at that interview. I know I can do better because I have been offered jobs in the past. With some practice I will do better.”

For more information on managing anxiety symptoms:

8 Tips for Fighting Your Fears

Apps for Self-Monitoring Anxiety

Learning to Accept Uncertainty

4 Mindfulness Exercises to Reduce Anxiety