Overcoming anxious thinking
Overcoming anxious thinking
Anxiety is a normal human emotion that we need to alert us to fear and threat. But sometimes anxiety can become a debilitating and life-limiting condition and counselling can help us gain our life back from the grip of anxious thinking. Various different approaches work really well to combat anxiety. Narrative therapy helps us understand the anxiety inducing stories we have received about ourselves, the anxious stories we tell ourselves and the anxiety-informed stories we are living. CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) describes the interactive process between our anxious thoughts, feelings, physical responses and safety behaviours and how this sets up a negatively reinforcing anxiety loop. Mindfulness can help us stay in the present and still our minds when racing thoughts will often take us forwards or backwards in time and torment us with ‘what if’s’.
For instance, imagine you are invited to a party (the trigger).
- You may then have the negative intrusive thought that ‘no one there will like me’ (thought)
- This thought is likely to generate an emotion of fear/anxiety (feeling)
- This feeling will cause your brain to produce chemicals such as cortisol – the stress hormone that increases heart rate, makes breathing become shallow and produces sweat such as on the palms (physical)
- So based on this you may decide not to go to the party (the safety behaviour.
This is the loop completed because you have reinforced rather than challenged the thought that no-one will like you. So next time you have the same thought you are more rather than less vulnerable to believing it. Safety behaviours may provide relief in the sort term, but long term they reinforce anxiety. So this is how anxiety escalates and is the pattern we need to break if we want to recover and life a fuller and less anxious life.
So here are some alternative thoughts to meditate upon.
1. You are not your thoughts. Thoughts are just thoughts.
Your thoughts don’t tell you anything about who you are although they may tell you something about what you long for, fear or feel vulnerable about and counselling can be useful in working through these fears and vulnerabilities. Thoughts are just thoughts in the same way that a twinge in your leg doesn’t tell you anything about you as a person but can be used about information about your vulnerability - maybe a previous ‘injury’. Thoughts need to be challenged to see if they have evidence to support them.
2. You can’t control what thoughts come into your mind.
You are powerless over the thoughts that come into your mind and in fact the more you try to control them the more power you are giving them and often the result is they become stronger. Thoughts come and go, like cars driving past your window. Sometimes they come thick and fast and other times they are quiet and few. Intrusive thoughts are the ones that come along loud and noisy with the aim of spoiling your day – they may turn into your driveway and hoot their horn and hope you open your front door to them.
3. Your power is that you can choose how you respond to negative thoughts.
Often we feel powerless over negative thinking, but we have more power than we realise to choose how we respond to negative, life-limiting thoughts. Take the thought that you might have on a cold, dark winter morning that you don’t want to get out of bed. As soon as this thought comes into your mind you make a choice about whether to engage with the thought as ‘friend’ or ‘foe’. If you ignore that thought as 'foe' and get up and get on with your day then the thought goes away and loses all its power – you get on to live your life and the thought loses. But if you lie in bed listening to the thought then it gets louder and more powerful, often bringing other thoughts with it to increase it’s power, such as ‘you deserve a lie in’ and ‘they won’t mind if you get to work late’ and ‘I don’t have much to do anyway’. It becomes harder to resist. But the story we listen to becomes the story we live. If we give in to this negative thought then it is likely that we will be late for work, miss a deadline or have a less fulfilled day. This can leave us feeling bad about ourselves. The story told becomes the story lived.
4. Think about negative thoughts in the way you would a bully.
Negative thoughts bully us - they want to undermine us, reduce our confidence, play on our weaknesses and reduce our ability to live a full and engaged life. They are bullies. They are often the internalised voice of previous bullies in our life who have sown seeds of doubt about ourselves and so they often fall on fertile ground. The important thing is to learn not to nurture these bullying thoughts. Would you talk to anyone else the way your negative thoughts talk to you? What would it be like if other people could hear you verbalising these thoughts out loud to yourself? How would you advise a friend who had the same negative thoughts that you do? See if you can use this insight to change the way you think about these thoughts.
5. Thoughts are either life-giving or life-depleting. Learn to recognise the difference.
There is a great skill in learning to recognise whether thoughts are friend or foe - to help or hinder you, to bring life or death. Counselling can help you learn how to welcome life-giving thoughts, learn how to challenge the negative thoughts and let them go if they are life-limiting. This is hard, especially if you’ve had a long history of anxiety, but it becomes easier as you practice and with help.
6. Learn how to let your thoughts drift away or send them packing with a sharp response.
Rebuke negative thoughts that are life-depleting and send them packing. They’ll try coming back (like the thought of wanting chocolate when you’re on a diet) but they lose their power when they are ignored. Just like a bully.
Counselling can be really helpful in working through the fears and vulnerabilities that underlie our negative thoughts and to help us break negative patterns of avoidance. Narrative therapy and CBT are both very useful approaches to counselling that can be really helpful in managing anxiety and learning to regain power over negative thoughts.
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About Priscilla Short
Priscilla Short is a psychotherapist, relationship therapist and family counsellor working in London and Norfolk. Having a strong background in research, Priscilla is passionate about informed, ethical practice and writes widely on a range of topics relevant to our individual, couple and family relationships.