How to manage anxious thoughts is what I’d like to talk about this week because absolutely no one is immune from them. There is nothing abnormal about having negative or critical thoughts occasionally. But anxiety can lead you to think this way all the time. The tricky thing is, when you’re trapped in a negative thought loop, it can be challenging to recognize your successes. How we think influences how we feel, and how we feel impacts our actions. It’s a concept called the Cognitive Triangle, and it’s at the core of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
The cognitive triangle looks like this:
The idea is that our thoughts influence our emotions, which in turn influence our actions. So, if we can change how we think, we can change how we feel and what we do. One of the goals of CBT is to help us learn how to manage anxious thoughts.
The first step towards changing your mind is to understand that they aren’t facts: they’re stories we can choose to believe or not… Unfortunately, most of these stories are full of flaws. They can be referred to as ‘thinking errors.’ Here are some of the most common types:
- All-or-nothing thinking: You see things in black and white, without any shades of gray. For example, you might tell yourself, “I’m a failure because I didn’t get an A on my test.”
- Overgeneralization: You take one negative event and assume it will always be true. For example, you might tell yourself, “I can’t do anything right.”
- Mental filter: You only see the negative aspects of a situation while filtering out the positive. For example, you might tell yourself, “That party was terrible. I’m never going to another one again.”
- Disqualifying the positive: You convince yourself that your positive experiences don’t count. For example, you might tell yourself, “I only did well on that test because it was easy.”
- Jumping to conclusions: You make assumptions without having all of the facts. For example, you might tell yourself, “She’s looking at me funny. She must think I’m stupid.”
You make a “big deal” out of things that are actually “small things.”
- Magnification (also called catastrophizing): You make a “big deal” out of things that are actually “small things.” For example, you might tell yourself, “I can’t believe I made that mistake. I’m such an idiot.”
- Emotional reasoning: You assume that your emotions are always accurate. For example, you might tell yourself, “I feel like a terrible person. Therefore, I must be a terrible person.”
- Should statements: You put pressure on yourself with shoulds, ought to’s, and musts. For example, you might tell yourself, “I should be able to handle this. I shouldn’t be feeling so anxious.”
- Labelling: You label yourself based on your mistakes. For example, you might tell yourself, “I’m a failure.”
- Personalization: You blame yourself for things that aren’t your fault. For example, you might tell yourself, “It’s my fault that she’s upset. I should have known better.”
These thinking errors can keep you trapped in a negative thought loop, feeling bad about yourself and your abilities.
How to manage anxious thoughts
If we can learn to notice when our anxiety is about to grab hold and remind ourselves that we are not our thoughts, that it’s just a thought – we have a better chance of keeping it in check. Because we hear our negativity so frequently, we start to accept it, believe it, and don’t stop and check in with ourselves to see if it’s true. If we can learn to catch our thoughts before they snowball into anxiety, we can prevent it from taking over.
One of the first steps in managing our anxiety is to train ourselves to question our thinking.
One of the first steps in managing our anxiety is to train ourselves to question our thinking by pulling on past experiences that have had positive results. Catch it, Check it, Change it.
For example, if we’re about to have an important meeting and our mind starts telling us “you’re going to screw this up,” we can ask ourselves “Has that ever happened before? What usually happens in meetings?” If we can remember times when we’ve done well in the past, it can help to remind us that our thoughts might not be accurate.
We can also try to catch our anxiety early by paying attention to our physical symptoms. For many of us, anxiety manifests itself in physical symptoms like a tight chest, increased heart rate, or butterflies in our stomach. If we can notice these symptoms early, it can be a sign that our anxiety is starting to take over and we can take steps to bring it back under control.
I realize the world of anxiety is more complicated than that, but with the help of a CBT therapist, trauma specialist, or whatever trained professional you chose to work with, you can learn how to manage anxious thoughts. If you’re struggling with anxiety, I encourage you to seek out a therapist who uses CBT. It’s an evidence-based treatment that has shown to be effective in treating anxiety and other mental health conditions.
If you’d like to read more about anxiety relief click here.