Living with an anxious mind is like living with a bully and a fortune teller who are always putting their negative spin on things. Anxious thoughts that endlessly repeat can make us miserable, interrupt our sleep, and drive us towards unhealthy habits such as nail-biting, smoking, or overeating. We may start to avoid other people and find it difficult to relax at all. An anxious mind is distracted, which increases stress and our chances of getting sick.
If you've read my blog post about changing unhealthy thoughts, than you know that when we repeat any thought over and over again, it starts to seem like a fact. Our brain doesn't care if it's true or not - it just makes things automatic after repetition. Anxious minds tend towards specific types of false beliefs, otherwise known as cognitive distortions. So take a step back, take a deep breath, tune into your own thinking and ask yourself if any of these seem familiar.
1 - All or Nothing
If things don't go exactly as you've planned, is the whole thing ruined? If you have one spot on your shirt, or one hair out of place, do you feel as if you can't go out? Do you think others are either "good" or "bad"? Trustworthy or untrustworthy? Reliable or unreliable? Most things are on a spectrum and it can be harmful to generalize one way or the other. The red-flag words here are "either" and "or". If you recognize this kind of black-and-white thinking, look for the grey areas.
2 - Fortune-Telling and Catastrophizing
Do you find yourself thinking that you know what will happen? You have all the evidence you need, to know that this is unreliable. Think about times you predicted a terrible thing would happen, and it didn't . No matter what the outcome, it isn't helpful to feel certain about things that may or may not occur. Sometimes people think they have to worry or else disaster will strike. You can be thoughtful and cautious without the worry. In fact, you can counteract these thoughts by considering possible neutral or positive outcomes, and telling yourself you will do the best you can with whatever happens.
3 - Mind-Reading
Do you find yourself thinking that others are having negative thoughts about you? Do you assume that you know what other people are thinking or feeling based on their facial expressions or behaviors? Evidence that an anxious mind is doing this can sound like, "Are you mad at me?" We project our own beliefs onto others, and we're often wrong. For example, if you're thinking that something you've done is not up to par, chances are you believe others have this same negative opinion. Truth is, we can't read each others' minds. As with other mental mistakes, we may be entirely wrong or right, or the truth may be somewhere in the middle.
4 - Magnification
Do you find yourself feeling anxious when others around you have the same facts, but are calmer? If this is the case, you may be seeing a problem through a magnifying lens. An anxious mind tends to see things as much worse than they are, which is unhealthy and unhelpful. When you become distressed about something, ask yourself if you can look at it any differently. (The answer to this is always, "yes".)
5 - Filtering
Our mind typically takes in what it already believes. This means that when there is evidence to challenge distortions such as fortune-telling and mind-reading, our brain will likely filter it out or make us actively reject offers of reassurance or positivity from others. Furthermore, we will magnify evidence that supports the anxious thought.
If you find yourself collecting evidence that supports your anxious negativity, be like a detective, and search for clues that disprove your anxious thoughts instead. Be persistent and keep looking because your anxious mind will be sneaky and try to hide them from you. Look for facts, and look for positive interpretations of those facts. What do you have to lose? (Answer: anxiety.)
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is very effective for decreasing anxious thoughts. Read more about CBT here.
Marsha Mandel, LMHC is a therapist with a private practice in Cornwall, New York. www.mandelcounseling.com
1 - It has no filter for false or unhealthy thoughts.
You can be 100% certain of something and be 100% wrong. The upsetting thoughts that you’re going to fail at something, that you can’t recover, that something bad will happen, or that others are judging or angry with you, can be entirely false. So can the related thoughts that you wouldn't be able to stand it if your worry was even partially true.
2 - You are inadvertently brainwashing yourself.
Accepting thoughts as facts without questioning them allows them to grow and spread, and they will. Thoughts are like seeds in a garden; whether they are weeds or flowers, given the fertile space to grow, they will thrive.
3 - Self-talk is going on whether you are aware of it or not.
Most of your brain activity is completely beneath your level of awareness. All of the knowledge you are carrying around with you which includes how to walk, talk, write, drive, and a million other things, also includes any other thoughts you have repeated – healthy, unhealthy, true, or false – your brain doesn’t care. If thoughts are repeated, they become deeply rooted and automatic.
4 - Your brain will reject ideas that conflict with whatever it already believes.
This means that even if your brain is given indisputable facts, it will seek to find a way to filter out and reject them with those deeply rooted automatic thoughts.
5 - Your brain can hijack itself with emotions.
Powerful emotions can take over your thinking and your behavior. Your brain is built for survival – sense danger, take action, and think about it later. When you experience intense fear or anger, self-protection kicks in within 20 milliseconds. The problem is that these emotions can generate false or unhealthy thoughts that that remain after the danger has passed, taking root and becoming part of your belief system.
6 - Images can be worth much more than a thousand words.
The images you carry with you hold immeasurable knowledge and beliefs. You may be certain of however you see yourself, others, the world, or the past and future in your mind, and yet these images and views may be entirely unhealthy and false, just like any other thoughts.
7 - You have the ability to make purposeful changes in your brain.
You can learn from mistakes, you can change your mind, change your thoughts, change your habits, and change your life. You can refocus and reimagine the images you carry with you. The thoughts, “I can’t change,” or “This is just the way I am,” are both false and unhealthy. The indisputable fact is that you can make changes. Question the thoughts that pop into your mind or that have been with you for a long time because the thought, "I just know I'm right," can actually be partially or completely wrong. Use self-talk to purposefully tend to your thinking, to consciously brainwash yourself with true and healthy thoughts that you have carefully developed and that you can believe. This may feel unnatural, which just means it’s different from how you're used to thinking. With focused effort and repetition, the new, healthier thoughts will become habitual and will start to feel natural.
8 - These changes are an inside job that only you can do, however there are two forms of therapy that can quickly and effectively help you do this. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help you identify false and unhealthy thoughts and to develop healthier ways of thinking. Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART) can help change distressing images and views that you may feel stuck with. When the images are changed, your brain will shift to healthier perspectives of the facts. ART helps you let go of the distressing images, emotions, and body sensations, which you really don't need to hold onto. This can profoundly and quickly improve your quality of life. See more about ART at www.acceleratedresolutiontherapy.com.
Marsha Mandel is a therapist with a private practice in Cornwall, New York. www.mandelcounseling.com