Dealing with Anxious Thoughts
Oh, what do I do with anxious thoughts?
First, notice the thoughts that are triggering your anxiety.
- The plane will crash!
- I will be humiliated!
- Panic attacks are dangerous to experience!
Is Your Thought a Belief…or Just an Automatic Thought?
Do you truly believe what your anxiety is telling you or is it simply scary noise, like watching a horror movie on TV?
A belief is something that you accept as true. The sky is blue, the grass is green, and I’ll never find love. It doesn’t mean that it IS true, but that you believe it to be so.
Automatic thoughts, however, are just brain noise—they may get your attention, but you wouldn’t bet a million dollars that they are true. You might feel they are true, at least at times, but when you stop to think logically about them, you have your doubts.
Dealing with Anxiety Beliefs
Logical arguments are those that would hold up in a court of law. If anxiety is making the case that flying is dangerous because it feels dangerous…
…but the “opposing counsel” is providing the facts, “flying is the safest form of transportation,” a fair judge would rule that anxiety is incorrect.
Other examples of logic:
Belief: I’ll never find love!
Logic: That’s fortune-telling. No one knows the future. I can take steps to meet my goals.
Belief: Panic attacks will hurt me!
Logic: Even though panic attacks are scary, they are safe.
Belief: (OCD) No one else has such thoughts!
Logic: With OCD, it is the reaction to the thoughts that are the problem. Not the content.
Why not add some kindness to your logic?
Compassion involves the acknowledgment that life can be hard and a general wish for yourself or others to find peace.
Belief: It’s bad to be awkward!
Compassion: Everyone is awkward sometimes. I don’t have to beat myself up for it.
Belief: What a loser I am for being afraid of ______________!
Compassion: My fear is not my fault—everyone is afraid of something. I can takes steps towards overcoming my fear.
Belief: I should always get an “A” on everything or I am a failure!
Compassion: While I might prefer an “A” I don’t have to put such pressure on myself. I can be okay with myself no matter what grade I get.
When exploring your anxiety beliefs, sometimes the belief IS accurate. When that is the case, problem-solving might be the tool to utilize.
Belief that can benefit from problem-solving:
- I have no friends
- I do not know where to meet dating partners
- I am unemployed and would like a job
Problem-solving involves the following steps:
- Define the problem
- Brainstorm possible solutions
- Select one or more solutions
- Evaluate outcome
- Go back to step one if needed
Limits to changing beliefs:
Even if you modify a belief, it does not mean that your automatic thoughts will go away. For example, you may believe that flying is dangerous. You can then read up on the safety statistics and learn that flying, in fact, is the safest form of transportation. Despite that, when your flight hits turbulence your brain may shout at you, “The plane’s going down!!!” despite your modified belief.
So what do you do about this automatic brain noise?
Dealing with Anxiety Automatic Thoughts
Automatic thoughts are simply noise of the mind…and it never stops. You are no more responsible for your automatic thoughts then the outcome of a random Google search.
Problems arise, however, when you have a maladaptive relationship with this brain noise.
If your airplane hits turbulence and your mind yells, “The plane is going down!!!” and then you proceed to white-knuckle the arm rests and struggle to become he back-seat plane safety monitor you have “fused” with your thought—and you suffer.
Here are some tools to help you suffer less when your brain throws scary automatic thoughts your way:
Automatic anxiety thoughts are a fact of life. You can hate them and suffer. You can fight them and they get LOUDER. Or, you can accept that brains are noisy places and learn to more peacefully co-exist.
The goal of “Defusion” is to learn to observe your anxiety thoughts rather than becoming your anxiety thoughts.
Anxiety Thought: The plane is going down!!!
Defusion: I’m aware of the thought “the plane is going down.”
Your anxiety thoughts get louder and more frequent when you don’t want them at all, so…
…why not welcome them in?
Anxiety Thought: The plane is going down!!!
Paradox: Is that the best you can come up with, anxiety? I want more thoughts! Make them really scary this time! I can take it!
Note: For paradox to work you have to really be willing to bring the thoughts on!
- Thought ERP
Thought Exposure with Response Prevention (ERP) involves facing the thoughts over and over…until they are just not so interesting anymore.
Depending on the thought, you might get bored in three minutes or three hours.
Try this experiment:
- Think of a word that has some emotional punch. Maybe it is a swear word or perhaps a slang word for a part of the human body.
- Either say it out loud repeatedly or write it or type it over and over for the next five minutes without stopping or focusing on anything else.
- What did you notice? If it still holds some power, try twenty minutes or an hour.
- Notice what happens to its emotional punch?
Have you noticed all of the mentions of “mindfulness” in the news these days?
It is not just some fad. People have been practicing mindfulness for literally thousands of years in order to deal with uncomfortable automatic thoughts.
There are many apps, websites, and YouTube videos that can walk you through the steps of learning mindfulness.
In my experience, most people who practice mindfulness are less beaten up by their brains automatic thoughts. Might just be worth giving it a try.