Anxiety impacts all of us. Even if you’ve never experienced clinical levels of anxiety yourself, chances are high that someone in your circle has. 1 in 4 Americans will experience anxiety at some point in their lives.
When we have a problem (with anxiety or with anything else in life), most of us focus on what we should do about it. In the case of anxiety, we might try exercising, ditching caffeine, taking a break, eating healthier, or going to a yoga class.
While there’s nothing wrong with any of these things, they are band-aid solutions. We need to focus on the root of the problem – our thoughts.
Remember that our circumstances do not cause our emotions. The way that we interpret them does. Brooke Castillo’s self-coaching model looks like this:
Thoughts > Feelings > Actions > Results
Let me be clear – I absolutely believe 100% that mental illness is a real thing and that many of us have genetic predispositions for anxiety disorders (and other mental illnesses). Medication can definitely be useful for some people.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is another tool that can be useful for treating anxiety. That’s what we’ll be focusing on in this blog post – how to change our thoughts.
If you want to try a yoga class or go for a run to deal with your anxiety, go ahead. Exercise is another powerful tool and I certainly don’t minimize the impact endorphins can have on our well-being.
But make sure you aren’t going for a run every time you feel a panic attack coming on. This is counterproductive and it reinforces your desire to run from your anxiety (no pun intended).
Trying to escape from anxiety – even with positive buffers like exercising – will only increase your anxiety over time.
Instead, allow the anxiety to be there. Make space for it. Name it and notice how it feels in your body. Does your throat feel tight? Is your heart beating quickly? Do your muscles feel tense? Is your jaw clenched?
This might be really hard to do at first. That’s okay.
Notice each of these sensations in your body and realize that these feelings are uncomfortable, but they are harmless.
The less you fear them, the less power they will have over you. In time, the feelings will pass if you allow them to be there instead of fighting them or trying to numb them.
THINK ABOUT THINKING
When you’re feeling anxious, notice the thoughts you’re having. Most of us tend to think the same kind of thoughts over and over again. Since they’re so automatic, we don’t even question them.
Think about what you’re thinking. This will be challenging at first when you aren’t used to doing it, but it gets easier with time.
Start with separating the facts from your thoughts. Write down the facts.
An example of a fact could be “I made an error at work today.” A thought you’re having about that fact could be “I’m a failure” or “I’m going to get fired.”
Examine your thoughts. Do not beat yourself for being “too negative” or for “worrying too much”. Beating yourself up isn’t useful. Instead, be curious and compassionate.
Why are you thinking a particular thought? Is this a thought you want to think? What are some other thoughts that might be more useful?
Instead of thinking “I’m a failure”, you could try thinking “I’m human and I make mistakes occasionally just like everyone else does”.
RECOGNIZE COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS
Cognitive distortions are ways that our minds try to convince us of things that simply aren’t true. Here’s a helpful resource that lists 15 different distortions that many of us have. While it may seem obvious that these things aren’t true, it often isn’t so obvious.
When someone has thought a particular thought many times, a neural pathway forms in her brain. The more she thinks this thought, the more solidified the neural pathway becomes. This is why it’s challenging to change our thoughts even if they seem irrational.
It’ll take some time and effort, but as we think a new thought many times, a new neural pathway will form. This is not something that will happen overnight – it requires patience (not my strong suit for sure)!
ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE WRONG
The need to always be right is a surprising trigger of anxiety. Imagine that you are catastrophizing a situation. You’re focusing on the negative, minimizing the positive, and assuming the worst case scenario is inevitable.
Your brain likes to be right. As humans, we are not 100% objective – we have many biases, including confirmation bias. This bias is the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of our beliefs.
We often seek out information that confirms what we already believe, and we ignore or minimize evidence that contradicts our beliefs.
Let’s say that you’re convinced your boss is going to fire you. Maybe you keep receiving evidence to the contrary, but you’re ignoring it. This might not make a lot of sense – wouldn’t it be better to not be worried about being fired?
The issue might be simply that you brain wants to be right, especially if your belief about getting fired is one that you’ve held for a long time. Our brains get some satisfaction from being right…even when we’re right about something that we don’t want to be true.
This is why it can be challenging to break free of confirmation bias while we’re busy catastrophizing.
The next time you find yourself catastrophizing and insisting that you’re right about impending doom, here are some thoughts you might find useful.
- What if I’m completely wrong about this?
- Most of the things I worried about in the past never actually happened.
- What are the facts in this situation? What are merely thoughts?
- It’s okay if I’m wrong.
- It’s okay to not know what’s going to happen. Uncertainty is part of life.
UNDERSTAND CONTROL FALLACIES
Control fallacies occur when someone believes that nothing is within their control and that they are helpless victims in their own lives.
Conversely, someone may believe that everything that goes wrong is their fault.
Neither of these beliefs are useful and both can elicit anxiety.
The reality is that you are in control of your own thoughts, emotions, actions and results…and that’s it.
*Side note: this assumes that your brain is functioning properly. Someone with a severe mental illness, physical health condition, or cognitive disability may not have complete control (or any control) over their thoughts and behaviors.
You are not responsible for the rest of the world – you cannot control what other people think, say, or do. Thank God for that! What a burden that would be.
ELIMINATE “SHOULD” AND “HAVE TO”
Brooke Castillo says that we all have a “manual” for how other people should behave. The “manual” is a list of unwritten rules that we want those around us to follow.
When they don’t follow these rules (which typically were never communicated to them), we become frustrated, angry, or resentful.
We also have ideas about what we “should” do ourselves or things we “have to” do. These thoughts aren’t useful.
Repeatedly telling ourselves that we “should” do things a certain way or that we “have to” do things we don’t want to do can create unnecessary stress, overwhelm, and anxiety.
When you find yourself thinking “I have to” or I “should”, question that. Could you try thinking “I’m doing this because I WANT to” instead? It’s a subtle shift that can make a big difference in how you feel.
If you don’t want to do the thing, perhaps you could try simply releasing the “should”. Why do you think you “should” do that? Because other people think you should? Or because you genuinely want to?
Natalie Bacon always says, “Do whatever you want, but make sure you like your reason.”
CHANGE “WHAT IF” TO “EVEN IF”
Perhaps the biggest anxiety inducing thought is “what if”? It’s easy to see this during a pandemic.
What if I get sick? What if someone I love gets really sick or dies? What if I lose my job and can’t support my family? What if we run out of toilet paper? What if I don’t have childcare? What if I have to homeschool my kids? What if this pandemic never ends?
On and on the list goes.
Often, when we find ourselves thinking these types of thoughts, we try to bury them because they’re scary and difficult to think about. This is the exact opposite of what we should do.
Avoiding anxiety is like pouring gasoline on a fire.
“What we fight, we strengthen, and what we resist, persists.” – Eckart Tolle.
Instead of hiding from anxiety, try playing the script out in your mind. What if the worst case scenario actually does happen? Then, change “what if” to “even if”.
Even if the worst case scenario happens, you’ll get through it.
You are so much stronger than you realize and you can handle anything this crazy world throws at you.
How do I know this about you?
Because you’ve made it this far.
For most us, the worst case scenario we can imagine is dying or losing someone that we love.
As a Christian, I believe that death is not the end. My belief in Heaven is something that I can lean on when I’m feeling afraid of death.
I believe that no matter what happens on this Earth and how much pain I experience here, there is a better life to come.
Nothing can separate me from the most important thing in my life – my relationship with God.
This brings me so much peace.
Replace “what if” with “even if”.
AVOID THOUGHT STOPPING OR REPLACING
As we work on changing our thoughts, I want to emphasize that this takes time. We examine our thoughts with curiosity and compassion, we reflect on them, and we consider changing them.
When we decide that we want to change a thought, we work on changing it slowly over time. Neural pathways don’t change overnight.
When we notice a negative thought, we examine it and question but we do not try to change it instantly. “Thought stopping” is the practice of insisting that a thought must be eliminated the second you notice it.
The problem with this is that when you try to avoid or suppress anxiety-producing thoughts, the more they will appear.
Hiding from our emotions doesn’t work and neither does hiding from our thoughts.
Another problematic technique is “thought replacing” or trying to immediately “replace” every “bad” thought with a “good” one.
This might relieve some anxiety in the moment, but that’s simply because it’s a compulsive behavior. Using compulsions to reduce anxiety is the definition of obsessive compulsive disorder.
Be careful not to indulge in thought stopping or thought replacing. That’s not the purpose of this practice and it will likely worsen your anxiety.
The goal here is not to be afraid of our thoughts or to change them immediately. Instead, we allow our thoughts and emotions, we notice them, and we decide if we want to change them…slowly, over time.
The next time you catch yourself thinking anxiety-inducing thoughts, notice them. Allow the discomfort of the anxiety. Experience it and describe it. Don’t fight it or try to escape from it. Allow it to be there, and get comfortable being uncomfortable.
Being uncomfortable is unpleasant, but it won’t harm you.
Be curious and compassionate with yourself as you examine your thoughts. Are these thoughts serving you? What emotions are your thoughts generating?
Do you genuinely believe these thoughts?
What are some thoughts that might be more useful?
Be patient with yourself. If you’re in a hurry, you’re doing it wrong.
You won’t instantly change all of your anxiety-producing thoughts.
This is an ongoing process…
and that’s okay.