Anxious thoughts keep showing up? Here's how you can deal with them.

Anxious thoughts keep showing up? Here's how you can deal with them.


Everyone gets anxious thoughts from time to time. In fact, these thoughts often start off innocently enough as an attempt at problem solving. You realize there is nothing to eat at home, a feeling of anxiety kicks in, and you begin to problem solve. Should I stop and pick up something on the way home from work? Maybe I should just cook something when I get home? Are there leftovers? I don't think there is anything to eat. Maybe I should just pick up something. But I've been slacking on my eating habits lately, so I shouldn't eat anything unhealthy. And on and on and on...

Problem solving thoughts vs. anxious thoughts.

Sometimes thoughts go beyond problem solving and become more problematic. These are the thoughts that put you in a tailspin, or make you feel like you are losing control, or bring up the urge to stay in bed and avoid your life. It could be thoughts about your past (I can't believe that came out of my mouth - I'll never get the job after blowing the interview like that!) or thoughts about your future (what if I my new boss hates me - I'll get fired for sure!). These thoughts are very powerful and they lead to feelings of anxiety and problematic behaviors like avoiding important situations or running over the thoughts over and over in your mind to a point of exhaustion.

What can you do when you have anxious or negative thoughts?

When you have anxious or negative thoughts that seem to take over there are a number of things that can help. First, I think it is important to notice that they are just thoughts. You can label them as thoughts (I'm having the thought that...) as a way to see them for what they are - just thoughts that your brain is serving up (more about how to do this here).

Second, If you feel caught up in the thoughts or you feel like you are stuck going over a thought in your head, taking a moment to get back into the present can be helpful. Stopping to take some deep breaths is a great way to move out of your head.

I also want to offer a way of addressing the thoughts that I think can be really helpful. The strategy is to use your rational and logical brain to make sense of these thoughts. A lot of research points to how using this technique can make a thought much less powerful and less influential.

How to question an anxious thought.

When you have an anxious thought, here are some questions that you can ask about it. See if you notice that the thought changes for you, or if you find yourself feeling less overwhelmed and affected by it.

1. When you think about the thought, what is the worst thing that could happen? What is the likelihood that it will happen?

Let's say that you have a big vacation planned and the closer you get to the start date the more anxious you become that bad things will happen. Perhaps you notice thoughts like "what if I break my leg the day before the trip?" or "what if I get in an accident on the way to the airport?" Consider what it is that you are most afraid of about this. Often when we really think through the anxious thought it can lose some of its power and influence over us. We realize by thinking it through (or saying it out loud or writing it down) that our anxiety is most likely unfounded. Now using evidence you have from past experiences of traveling and going on vacation, consider how likely it is that your feared scenario will occur. Exactly how many times has this happened to you before? This can help the thought feel less overwhelming. 

2. When you think this thought, how many times have you made this prediction and how often has it come true?

So let's assume that you've taken numerous vacations before. How often have you feared something bad will prevent you from taking the vacation and how often has it actually happened? This can be helpful as you realize that in your life experience, the anxious thought has made the possibility seem more likely that it really is.

3. What is the worst case scenario, the best case scenario and the most likely scenario?

You already identified the worst case scenario in #1 above. So what is the best thing that could happen? Can you give that some consideration as well? And what, in your experience, is the most likely thing that will happen? Our minds are very good at going to extremes and especially to the negative side of extremes. With our example, the best case scenario is that you arrive on vacation unharmed and have an amazing trip, and the most likely scenario could be that you will not break your leg, you might get stuck in a really long airport security line, you'll make your flight just fine, and you'll still have an amazing trip.

4. If the worst did happen, how would you deal with it?

Often when we worry, we stop the scenario at the scariest scene but we don't go further. Chances are that if something bad happened we would find ways to cope with it and make the best of the situation. It can be very helpful to think what would happen next after your worrisome thought and how you might take care of yourself. if you got into an accident on the way to the airport, you might call the airline and reschedule your flight, or you might rebook for the next day, or reschedule the trip altogether for when you could take it. As you do this you might begin to see that you have effective ways to deal with what you fear.

5. What are the costs and benefits of worrying about this?

This goes back to the problem solving I mentioned above. If there are things in your control, you can do those. But often there is nothing that we can do to control the situation. Perhaps one thing in your control is to budget plenty of time to head to the airport so that you are not in a rush and you are a more cautious driver. But you still cannot predict or control whether or not you get in an accident. Worrying about it any further gives you no added benefit. This is probably a good time to try some of the other techniques mentioned above, such as some relaxation breathing or moving back into the present moment.

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