Cognitive Dissonance Holds Wisdom So Listen to Your Anxiety

Thursday, December 6 2018 Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Cognitive dissonance and anxiety are sources of misery that affect thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Learn how to listen to them to find calm at HealthyPlace.

If you pause to listen to your anxiety, you might find that it has something helpful to say. Something called cognitive dissonance, a conflict within us, is a part of much of our anxiety no matter what type of anxiety we're dealing with. Together, these two forces can shout painfully at us, but behind the shouts is often a whisper of wisdom that, if we listen, we can use to quiet both cognitive dissonance and anxiety.

What Is Cognitive Dissonance, and What Does It Have to Do with Anxiety?

Cognitive dissonance refers to the discomfort, the unsettled feelings, and the troubled thoughts we have when we know that something isn't right with what we're thinking and doing. Often, we don't quite realize that we're experiencing it, but we almost always (if not always) know that we're uncomfortable and unhappy. The following example illustrates cognitive dissonance:

A student needs a high score on an important test. He might need a good grade to pass the course, be eligible for a scholarship, or myriad other reasons. The test is going to be extremely difficult, and the student worries that he can't do it. To achieve the outcome he needs, he cheats. Afterward, he's afraid that he'll be caught. Also, he feels guilty and ashamed. He has never cheated before because he believes it's wrong. It's just that this one was really, really difficult, and a lot was riding on his grade. Maybe his cheating is okay after all. He wouldn't have done it if it hadn't been for a good reason. And he won't do it again. This makes sense to him, but he still doesn't feel quite right. 

This student experienced personal conflict. His inner feelings, that cheating is wrong, clashed with his behavior, the cheating. He reconciled the two by justifying the decision: it's only this time, he wouldn't do it if it weren't so important, and the test was difficult. 

Did you notice the underlying force behind the uncomfortable conflict? It's anxiety. He worried about the test and the outcome. He feared being caught. He felt guilty and ashamed (common effects of anxiety). No matter how much he justified his actions, he still didn't feel right. 

If you are uncomfortably anxious, could you be in conflict with yourself?

Listen to Anxiety and Cognitive Dissonance to Calm them Both

When you're agitated and are experiencing anxious thoughts, feelings, and physical symptoms (being nauseated is common with dissonance, as is having a headache), pause and listen. You might dedicate a special time each day to do this, or you could stop and tune the moment you feel more agitated than usual. Use a journal or a notebook to reflect on what you notice anxiety and cognitive dissonance telling you. For example, 

  • Describe the situation that is bothering you.
  • If you're unsure, brainstorm the things and people in your lives. List them, and consider how much each one is upsetting you.
  • What are your thoughts about it?
  • What are your emotions about it?
  • What are you doing or considering doing?
  • How are your actions causing anxiety and what does that anxiety feel like?
  • What will happen if you ignore your inner conflict and proceed anyway?
  • What will happen if you do something different?

Sometimes, anxiety and cognitive dissonance do us a service even though they feel uncomfortable. They often talk to us, letting us know what is off and what we need to change. When we listen, we find ourselves more comfortable, calmer, and less anxious. 

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps, and five critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges. She speaks nationally about mental health, and she has a curriculum for middle and high schools. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

View all posts by Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC.

Cognitive Dissonance Holds Wisdom So Listen to Your Anxiety

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