How To Overcome Anxious Thoughts
Now that we know the different kinds of anxious thoughts (if you haven’t read Part I, you can read it here!), what do we do about them? I am genuinely not exaggerating when I say that for me, out of any of the other things that I did, learning to control my anxious thoughts was the most crucial in my battle against anxiety. We can remove ourselves from anxiety inducing situations, create distance from people that stress us out, cut out foods and substances that cause us to feel overwhelmed, but we’re always going to be with our minds. It’s not something that we can ever get rid of, so instead of constantly trying to battle with our thoughts, we have to take them back.
The first step in overcoming anxious or irrational thoughts is to decide if your worry is truly irrational or rational. Sometimes we get so used to fighting off feelings of unnecessary anxiety that we forgot that in some circumstances, anxiety is actually there to alert us of something. Let’s say you start feeling stressed about a test you have tomorrow that you didn’t study for; could you potentially study to relieve some of that stress? Or, if you are concerned with a confrontation that happened at work yesterday, could you ask the person to meet to try and resolve the issues? Both are examples of situations that we have control over and can take an active step in solving. Now let’s say you are worried or even obsessing about things that are outside of your control like health anxiety, people’s perception of you, future incidents – the typical topics anxiety likes to latch onto – we can start identifying ways to keep these unproductive thoughts from stealing our attention.
The number one thing that all of these techniques are going to have in common is starving out the anxious thoughts. They are hungry for our attention, but when we don’t give into them, they start to become less frequent and less intense. Something my therapist always said to me about anxious thoughts that I will never forget is this, “neurons that fire together, wire together.”
Our thoughts are essentially groups of neurons firing from one place to another in our brain. If we give one particular thought more attention than the others, additional neurons are going to identify it as important and want to join the neuron clique. Pretty soon we have a thought that our brain has identified as incredibly important, and it will now not allow us to escape thinking about it. On the other hand, if we consistently deprive that thought of attention, we now identify it as unimportant and our brain is less likely to try and focus on it.
Remember, anxious thoughts are absolutely not useful to us. Although our brains want us to think they are, they aren’t protecting us from anything or keeping us safe. They are only stealing away our time and our happiness. With that being said, here are some of the most effective ways to help control anxious thoughts.
Starve Them Out – The number one thing that all of these suggestions are going to have in common is starving out the anxious thoughts. They are hungry for our attention, but when we don’t give into them, they start to become less frequent and less intense. This is a technique that takes time and practice but will be incredibly beneficial in the long run.
Redirect – Your anxiety is like a misbehaved child. It is desperate for attention and even bad attention is some sort of attention. Just like a teacher in class, redirect the anxious thought to something else. At first notice of “…but what if” popping into your head, immediately identify the thought as unnecessary, and redirect into a mantra, a task, or even something creative. Anything that will not allow you to give the thought the attention it so desperately craves.
Turn The Page – This suggestions comes from one of my favorite books dealing with OCD (although only one chapter) The Brain That Changes Itself. In the book, Doidge compares obsessive or anxious thoughts to a page in a book. When give the thought too much attention, it is like continuing to read the same page over and over, and thus the story never moves forward. Sometimes when I get stuck focusing on one thing that is causing me stress, I picture myself turning the page on that thought and physically get up and move around. It is as if I’m forcing the story to move forward so that I can keep the narrative going.
Take Physical Action – Although working out is great, you don’t need a full on Crossfit session every time your anxiety acts up. When you notice your anxious thoughts kicking in, get up and do some sort of physical activity until the thought passes. Jumping jacks, running in place, pushups, whatever works. When you are doing something of at least moderate physical intensity, you often don’t have the capacity to focus on anything else but the task at hand, leaving the anxious thought without any attention.
Become present – When we are obsessing about anxious thoughts, we are usually somewhere else – in a hypothetical situation, worrying about the future, etc. Where we usually aren’t, is in the present moment. When you notice yourself focusing on a particular thought that is causing you stress, start a narrative of what you see around you. You can describe the room you’re sitting in down to the detail, describe the colors that you see, or different scents that you smell. Focus on what is actually happening in front of you, where you are at in that exact moment.
Now, I know this all sounds like a lot of distraction, and it is. However, with anxious thoughts we aren’t dealing with are anything rational, so we’re not going to win trying to have an factual argument. We have to show our brain that we will not allow the thoughts to have power over us. That we stand in our own power. Studies show that anxious ruminations can start to disappear in as little as one minute after we start starving them out. So remember, once that upsetting, obsessive, nagging thought (that you’ve identified as having no control over) starts popping into your head, don’t give it any attention. It is essentially a bully, and we don’t take crap from bullies around here.
You’ve got this,