26 Oct How to Reduce Anxiety by Shifting Your Thoughts
Have you ever been told that you’re a “worry wart”? Do you often find yourself thinking about all the “what if’s” or “worst case scenarios” before entering a situation? Would you describe yourself or be described by others as an anxious or nervous individual? If you answered “yes” to these questions, keep reading. . .
As humans, we are constantly engaged in an unending dialogue with ourselves. We are continually describing, labeling and interpreting everything happening to us and around us. Everything we see, taste, hear, smell and touch is given meaning by our own words. The tricky thing is, this internal dialogue often goes unnoticed and is an automatic, unconscious process that has a very significant and direct impact on how we feel. Therefore, in order to reduce anxiety and worry, we need to target our automatic thoughts.
My guess is you’re thinking, “Okay great, so how do I do that?”
Here are a few quick strategies to begin noticing, challenging and shifting thought patterns that may be regularly driving negative emotions:
1. Keep a Thought Log
Tracking your thoughts and connected emotions is the first step to bringing your automatic thoughts into awareness. The log should be readily accessible so that you can record in the moment. It can be on a piece of paper or in the notes section on your phone.
When you notice that you are feeling anxious or worried, record the situation (who, what, when, where), your feelings and to what intensity (0-100), and your automatic thoughts. After several days of tracking, see if you notice any patterns.
Do you tend to have worry thoughts in similar situations? Do the worry thoughts tend to be an overgeneralization? Are they commonly catastrophizing the present situation? Do the thoughts typically include words like “should,” “ought” or “must”? Are the thoughts assumptions about how others may be feeling or what they may be thinking?
Recognizing patterns will help you know when to use this next step.
2. Ask Yourself Thought-Challenging Questions
Asking yourself the questions below will help you begin to counter some of these recurring automatic thought patterns. This will then support with being able to generate alternative and replacement thoughts. The goal is to eventually be able to use these questions in the moment.
- What is the evidence/what are the facts that this thought is true?
- Have I confused thought with fact?
- What would I tell a friend who had this thought?
- Would someone else have the same or a different thought in this situation?
- What is the probability or likelihood of ______ happening?
- What is the worst that could happen?
- Is the thought a worst case scenario?
- Is the thought based on feeling?
- Is the thought based on fact or habit?
3. Identify a More Balanced or Accurate Thought
Are your original automatic thoughts the ONLY way to think about the situation?
Based on your answers to the thought-challenging questions above, you should be able to start generating alternative thoughts to replace the original thoughts that triggered the worry and anxiety.
Replacement thoughts should be more balanced or neutral. They must be believable and should not be unrealistically or inaccurately positive. When you are able to identify new thoughts, notice how your emotions or the intensity of your emotions change.
As with becoming skilled or good at anything, whether it be a sport, playing an instrument or learning another language, practicing is crucial. You are working on re-training your brain to automatically think through a different lens. The more consistent and persistent you are with practicing these steps, the more seamless the process of shifting and restructuring thought patterns will become.
The end goal is that your internal dialogue will eventually become unconsciously and reflexively more adaptive, triggering more positive and/or less intense negative emotions.
Practice, practice, practice!
Having more control over your thoughts and thought patterns is without a doubt challenging, but it is also possible. Practice these few steps and you are on your way towards a less anxious and worry-filled life.
Authored by: Jessica Oppenheimer, LCSW