How "Should" Statements Contribute to Panic and Anxiety

Should statements can be impacting your struggle with panic, anxiety, and depression. Find out how shoulds, oughts, and musts contribute to panic disorder, and how you can reframe your thoughts in a positive way.

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Why "Should" Statements Cause Anxiety

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Should statements are a common negative thinking pattern, or cognitive distortion, that can contribute to feelings of fear and worry. They also put unreasonable demands and pressure on ourselves, which can make us feel guilty or like we've failed.

According to theory based on cognitive therapy, one’s thinking can play a major role in developing stress and mental health conditions. Many people with depression and anxiety use should statements when describing themselves and their life situations.

This type of faulty thinking typically surfaces in phrases that include the words should, ought, or must. These statements are used by the negative thinker as a way to take on a pessimistic view of their life. People with panic disorder often think with should statements when thinking about their symptoms, which can lead to increased anxiety and avoidance behaviors.

Read through these examples below and notice if you catch your own negative thinking pattern. Then consider ways to rethink and ​reframe this common cognitive distortion.

Examples of Should Statements

Sick woman with nausea in the airplane
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Lori has had a fear of flying since she can remember. However, her job requires her to travel by plane several times a year. When traveling by air, Lori typically finds some relief through relaxation techniques to relieve her panic attacks. Her doctor has also prescribed her a benzodiazepine medication that she only takes when flying due to its tranquilizing effects.

Lori has noticed that her fear of flying has become worse over the years. She now becomes anxious days before her flight and experiences the physical symptoms of panic and anxiety when she just thinks about flying.

Lori has a lot of negative self-talk around this phobia, which often comes out in the form of should statements. Instead of using positive self-affirmations, Lori tells herself, "I must get over this fear.” When at the airport, she says to herself, “I should be able to do this without any fear” and “I am an adult for goodness sake. I ought to be comfortable on a plane!”

Lori’s should statements even continue long after her flight. When back on land, Lori tells herself that she “ought to be more in control of her fears.” She puts herself down, telling herself that she “should have been less nervous.” Lori concludes that she “must get over all of my fear and anxiety without any help or medication.” These thoughts only lead her to experience more stress and disappointment, and put unreasonable pressure and demands on her which can make her feel like a failure because she was so nervous.

Alternatives to Should Statements

Pensive woman looking through window

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Lori is thinking unrealistically by making such self-defeating statements and putting such impractical demands on herself. By being so hard on herself and expecting perfection, she is setting herself up for failure.

Lori can examine the evidence and swap her should, oughts, and musts with more realistic thoughts. Lori may instead say to herself: “I do wish I wasn’t so afraid of flying, but I am trying my best and working toward overcoming my fears. This will take time and in the meantime, I accept myself where I am in this process today.”

Should statements typically only make you feel more hopeless about your situation and further diminish your sense of self-esteem. Become aware of your should, oughts, and musts and try to replace them with more encouraging thoughts.

It may be helpful to write your should statements down whenever you find yourself experiencing this cognitive distortion. Examine the evidence for and against the statement, and then write a new statement that is more realistic and positive. Notice how many should statements you use throughout your day and start replacing them today.

"We all have cognitive distortions, negative thoughts, or unhelpful thoughts," says Rachel Goodman, MFT. "There is nothing wrong with you because you have these thoughts—they are automatic thoughts that we have, but the key is to manage them. Our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all linked, so you don't want one thought to ruin the course of the day."

Remember that no one is expected to be perfect, including yourself. Begin to be compassionate with yourself, accept your shortcomings, and celebrate your strengths.

Supportive vs. Unsupportive Friends

Young Couple Embrace Each Other Lovingly
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Should statements contributing to anxiety are often concocted in our own minds. Yet sometimes these should statements come from others, adding to anxiety and stress. These negative influences, or what might be considered bad relationships, can affect both your emotional and physical health.

As you think about your own thought patterns in order to lessen the shoulds, oughts, and musts, beware as well of comments from others (sometimes referred to as toxic people) such as "you need to," "you should," "you have to..." that can be defeating your peace of mind as well.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Alkozei A, Cooper PJ, Creswell C. Emotional reasoning and anxiety sensitivity: associations with social anxiety disorder in childhood. J Affect Disord. 2014;152-154:219–228. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2013.09.014

  3. Berle D, Moulds M, Starcevic V et al. Does Emotional Reasoning Change During Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Anxiety?. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. 2016; 45(2):123-135. doi:10.1080/16506073.2015.1115892

  4. Jolley S, Thompson C, Hurley J et al. Jumping to the wrong conclusions? An investigation of the mechanisms of reasoning errors in delusionsPsychiatry Res. 2014;219(2):275–282. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2014.05.051

By Katharina Star, PhD
Katharina Star, PhD, is an expert on anxiety and panic disorder. Dr. Star is a professional counselor, and she is trained in creative art therapies and mindfulness.