How do you deal with anxious thoughts?
Anxious thoughts can feel powerful
Anxiety comes in many different forms. You might feel anxiety as a physical experience - from a mild tightness in your chest to full-tilt panic. You might see your behavior as anxious; perhaps how you act in social situations feels like anxiety is taking over. For many people, anxiety is about troubling and problematic thoughts that can feel powerful, scary, and overwhelming. You might notice thoughts that keep coming up and feel intrusive. You might find yourself “chewing” on these thoughts over and over in your mind. These thoughts can keep you in a state of distress and overwhelm.
There are a lot of ways to address anxious thoughts. Noticing and labeling your anxious thoughts as thoughts can be really helpful. So can soothing your nervous system with your breath or other means.
But is there anything you can do to make thoughts less sticky and persistent, less powerful? This is especially true for thoughts that you’ve had for a long time, the really troubling ones that can get in the way of you living your life.
Question your thoughts
Often when you get stuck in your thoughts, you take them at face value, automatically believing them and being influenced by them. You might struggle with them as well - trying not to think about them or push them out of your head. Or you may try to distract yourself by thinking about other things - but the thoughts keep coming back.
One really useful strategy for dealing with anxious thoughts can be to question them. Next time you notice an anxious thought try asking yourself some questions about the thought. See if you notice your experience of the thought changing as you begin to question it.
Here are some questions to try:
How old is this thought?
How long have you had this thought? For a few days? Months? Years? As long as you can remember? You can often notice themes around the thought you’re having. You may have been having some version of it for years. Do these thoughts point to any underlying beliefs that don’t make sense to you or that don’t work for you?
What is the function of this thought?
What does this thought do for you? Is this thought trying to protect you from something or prevent something bad from happening? What function does this thought serve?
How well is the thought working?
Once you’ve considered the function of the thought, consider how well it has worked for you. Has the thought helped to keep you safe? Has it prevented you from feeling something painful or having to deal with something hard? Or are you still struggling with the same things that you were hoping to prevent by having the thought? If you think about the function of the thought has it actually worked?
Are you willing to have this thought and still do what matters?
Let’s say you can’t make the thought go away. Are you willing to have it? What would you do with your time? How would you live your life if you struggled less with the thought? What might happen if you were willing to have a thought and still do what matters to you?
Lessening the influence and reducing the struggle
While these four questions won’t work for everyone, for persistent and problematic thoughts I think it can be really helpful to consider their function and if they are really helping you. If you notice that they aren’t actually helping you, can you be willing to have them and still do what matters?
Thoughts can seem really powerful and have a big influence on our mood and our behavior. While I don’t think it is possible to stop having a thought or to make a thought get away, I do think we can change how we relate to it. Labeling a thought as a thought or questioning it using the questions above can help you reduce some of the struggle and spend more of your time living your life.