• Dr. Julia

All or Nothing Thinking in Stress and Anxiety

Updated: Aug 8

Understand the role of all or nothing thinking in stress and anxiety and how to manage it so it stops interfering in your life and goals.


“You’re a terrible mom.”


“You suck at your job”


“I either work out every day or it’s not worth it to get active”


“I didn’t follow my meal plan perfectly at lunch, so forget the whole thing. I’m going to eat these snacks the rest of the day since I already ruined the day."


Do some of these thoughts sound familiar? I’m guessing the answer is probably yes, since these thoughts are part of a common thinking trap, known as all or nothing thinking.


All or nothing thinking is an unhelpful way of thinking about things that increases stress and anxiety and interferes with our health behavior goals.


Understanding all or nothing thinking, how it comes up in stress and anxiety, and what to do about it can help you manage stress, accomplish your goals, and feel great physically and emotionally.



all or nothing thinking

All or Nothing Thinking: What is it?


All or nothing thinking is a common unhelpful thinking style, or cognitive distortion, that tends to come about when we are feeling stressed, anxious, or mentally exhausted.


Mental Exhaustion Symptoms


It is considered an unhelpful thinking style because it is a way of thinking in which the mind distorts information under stress and anxiety. This is a faulty thought pattern since it causes us to come up with unhelpful, negative, and often untrue conclusions that tend to be very black and white.


When thinking in all or nothing ways, we tend to put things in categories, such as good or bad, perfect or a failure, or other black and white categories.


This often involves being overly harsh and critical to ourselves. This is a problem since most things are not so black or white and this style of thinking can lead to biased conclusions.


Under stress and anxiety, these conclusions can feel very real. However, concluding negative and untrue generalizations about ourselves in categories can further increase stress, anxiety, and other mood concerns.


What is Stress and How Does It Impact Us?


This type of thinking not only increases stress and anxiety, but it also decreases confidence and self-esteem. Decreased self-esteem and confidence, coupled with high stress and anxiety, can interfere with focus, energy, and productivity in the workplace.


You may be less likely to take risks or think about yourself as a valuable member of your work team or family.


Not so fun, right?


all or nothing thinking examples

Examples of All or Nothing Thinking


There are many ways that this sneaky and unhelpful thinking style may take hold. Below are some examples:


Scenario 1: You forgot to call your friend on her birthday


Thought: I am a horrible friend. What is wrong with me that I can’t even remember her birthday?


Scenario 2: You yelled at your kids because you were frustrated their toys were everywhere and they were not listening to you.


Thought: I am such a bad mom. My kids probably hate me and will grow up resenting me.


Scenario 3: You do a great job at work. You missed an important meeting because it was not on your calendar for some reason.


Thought: I’m completely irresponsible. I can’t be trusted at all. I’ll probably get fired.


Scenario 4: You had a hard day at work and are exhausted. You are finding it difficult to find the energy to clean up your home and make dinner.


Thought: I can’t even take care of myself. If I can’t take care of myself, how will I ever take care of a family?



all or nothing thinking exercise

How to Manage All or Nothing Thoughts


All or nothing thinking can be very impairing, distracting, and upsetting. The good news is, there are actionable ways to manage this type of thinking so it does not interfere in your thoughts and your life.


Exercises to Stop Negative Thinking


Follow these four steps:


1. Recognize All or Nothing Thinking


The first step to managing this type of thinking is recognizing that it is taking place. The best way to determine that it is taking place is to check in with your thoughts when you are feeling stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed.


Because this type of thinking only comes about when your mood changes in this way, that is the most important time to monitor this type of thinking. The higher the stress and anxiety, the more likely you are to experience this type of thinking.


A. Look out for absolute words and categories. This might include the following words:


· Good or bad

· Perfect or failure

· Always and never

· All of the time

· Completely

· At all

· Any other absolute categories or words


B. It’s also helpful to ask yourself the following questions:


· Am I looking at things in a black or white way?

· Am I putting things in absolute categories?

· Am I looking at things in a very negative and filtered way?



2. Label the Unhelpful Thinking Style


Once you have identified the presence of this type of thinking, it’s helpful to identify it and label it. By labeling it, you are reminding yourself that this is an unhelpful and distorted way of looking at the situation.


Example: “Oh, there goes that all or nothing thinking again. I’m thinking this way because I am stressed. I know that this is not helpful and probably not a very realistic way of looking at the situation.


How to Stop Overthinking and Relax


3. Question the Thought

all-or-nothing thinking pdf

Once you have identified and labeled the thought as all or nothing thinking, it’s helpful to start to question the thought for accuracy.


Ask yourself the following questions and journal your responses:


· Are there shades of gray in this situation?


· Is this somewhere else on the spectrum rather than the extremes?


· Is there a more accurate conclusion in this situation?


· What would be a more realistic interpretation of this situation?


· Are there other explanations to what happened that do not involve these extremes?


Journaling for Beginners to Relieve Stress


4. Reframe the Thought


Once you have labeled it and questioned it, we want to reframe our thought and replace it with a healthier, more realistic thought.


Note, this does not need to be an overly positive replacement, but rather a neutral and more realistic one.


Below are the examples previously shared with the addition of a neutral reframe (all or nothing key words are also highlighted):


Scenario 1: You forgot to call your friend on her birthday


Thought: I am a horrible friend. What is wrong with me that I can’t even remember her birthday?


Reframe: I’m disappointed in myself that I forgot to call my friend. That doesn’t make me a bad friend overall, it means I forgot her birthday. I will make a note in my calendar to remember next year.



Scenario 2: You yelled at your kids because you were frustrated that they didn’t clean up their toys and were not listening.


Thought: I am such a bad mom. My kids probably hate me and will grow up resenting me.


Reframe: I’m not happy I yelled at my kids, and I want to work on this. However, this doesn’t mean that I am a bad mom. It means I am human, and I get frustrated sometimes. My kids love me, and I love them.



Scenario 3: You do a great job at work. You missed an important meeting because it was not on your calendar for some reason.


Thought: I’m completely irresponsible. I can’t be trusted at all. I’ll probably get fired.


Reframe: It’s not true that I am completely irresponsible and can’t be trusted at all. I am trusted with many things and do well in my job overall. I’m not happy I missed this meeting, and I need to make sure that doesn’t happen again.



Scenario 4: You had a hard day at work and are exhausted. You are finding it difficult to find the energy to clean up your home and make dinner.


Thought: I can’t even take care of myself. If I can’t take care of myself at all, how will I ever take care of a family?


Reframe: I take care of myself every day. Right now, I am feeling tired and having more difficulty in this moment doing things like cooking and cleaning. However, these are things I do regularly and not doing them today doesn’t mean I can’t take care of myself or a family.



As you can see, the reframes are not overly positive, but rather neutral statements that better describe the situation at hand.



all-or-nothing thinking words

Summary


All or nothing thoughts decrease our mood, increase stress, lower our self-esteem and confidence, and interfere with focus and productivity.


Now that you understand how these thoughts come up when feeling stressed or anxious, use the strategies listed above to manage them so they are not getting your way.

 

All or nothing thoughts and other negative thoughts getting in your way? My Master Stress Method 1:1 coaching program will help you prevent and manage stress thoughts getting in your way and much more.


Book a discovery call if you're ready to take charge of your life and stop stress from getting in your way.




------About Dr. Julia


Hi! I'm Dr. Julia. Health psychologist, stress and sleep expert, and creator of the Master Stress Method.


I have worked with thousands of individuals in major hospitals, university medical centers, and primary care settings to improve their stress levels, sleep, and overall emotional and physical well being.


My current focus is helping busy professionals prevent and manage the high stress that is getting in the way of their productivity, mood, sleep, and their ability to reach their full potential.


My 8-week, 1:1 coaching program has helped hundreds of stressed out, overwhelmed, and burned out clients significantly reduce their stress and anxiety, improve their sleep, and maximize their productivity, in just 8 short weeks.


I can't wait to help you stop the struggle with stress, for good. Let's chat :)