How to Outsmart Anxious Thoughts and Reduce Your Suffering

Person wearing casual suit stands in bright workspace looking at project on table with worried expressionWorrisome thoughts can be tricky. Not only are they quite challenging to deal with, at times they can seem convincing, making it difficult to distinguish between something that could merely be a possibility and something evident.

Consider some examples of anxious thoughts:

  • “My boss never responded to the report I sent this morning. I must have done something terribly wrong. Will I be in trouble? Oh, no, I must be.”
  • “I didn’t get invited to go to the concert with the group. What if they don’t really like me? Maybe they’re not my friends after all.”
  • “That guy never answered my text, so I guess he doesn’t like me. What if I never find someone? I’m sure I’ll end up alone!”

Without careful attention, anxious thoughts such as these can persuade the worrier that an imagined catastrophe will happen or that a self-criticizing thought is true. This is how anxiety can be tricky. Almost automatically, a worrisome thought may instantly become accepted as truth. That belief can prompt painful emotions or lead to changes in behaviors, like avoiding a situation, feelings of physiological tension, or becoming distracted. Luckily, there are ways to keep tricky thoughts in check.

The following steps combine mindful acceptance techniques and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) strategies to outsmart anxious thoughts and decrease the potential experience of suffering:

  1. Notice and accept: Nonjudgmentally notice you are having a negative thought or emotion, and accept that sometimes you think about things that could be painful or upsetting. How recently did this thought occur? What prompted the thought? Try not to criticize the fact the thought occurred in the first place.
  2. Look for evidence: Is there any evidence that supports your negative thought? What aspects of the thought seem to be making assumptions? If there isn’t clear evidence, what objective information are you able to gather?
  3. Explore alternatives: Are there other possibilities or outcomes that could exist based on the evidence you’ve collected? Can you choose to believe that any number of options could exist?
  4. Consider trusting your problem-solving abilities: Have you been able to come up with a solution or solve a problem before? Rather than figuring out how to recover from a what-if scenario in your mind that isn’t an actual problem right now, check your resources. Do you have the support and problem-solving skills to come up with a solution if you need to access them?

Here’s how this could look by applying it to the first example. Imagine this thought comes to mind: “My boss never responded to the report I sent this morning. I must have done something terribly wrong. Will I be in trouble? Oh, no, I must be.”

By putting all the steps together, begin the practice of accepting that negative thoughts can occur; believing alternative options could exist; nonjudgmentally noticing the feeling of discomfort while you wait through the uncertainty; and acknowledge your ability to solve problems or find resources (including therapy) to help.

Rather than allowing this worrisome thought to continue to expand into negative territory (like imagining your boss discouragingly confronting you), notice and accept that you are experiencing an unsettling thought. Remember, it’s okay to have thoughts that are uncomfortable. Pause and remind yourself about anything occurring in the present moment. In this case, maybe it’s halfway into the day and you’re sitting at your desk working on a project.

Next, look for evidence that supports or opposes the thought. In this example, there isn’t objective evidence that you did something wrong or are in fact being reprimanded. The only evidence that does exist is a report was sent and you haven’t gotten a response yet.

Now you can explore alternative outcomes. Perhaps your boss hasn’t had a chance to review the report or get back to you on it. Perhaps your boss had other unexpected tasks and is focused on prioritizing something else. The thing is, you aren’t entirely sure why you haven’t gotten a response—you just know it’s been longer than you expected. Waiting it out may feel uncomfortable, but chances are you will eventually get a response. If waiting to know the outcome is challenging for you, remind yourself that this moment (waiting without yet knowing) is temporary and you can handle it.

Lastly, even if an undesirable outcome were to occur in the future, can you trust your problem-solving abilities if you need to respond to the setback and recover from the situation? Have you ever had to discuss a problem with a boss, friend, teacher, or relative and offer solutions? Remind yourself of some examples when you handled a conflict well, asked for help, or decided to make changes to improve a situation. Do you have resources around you like a support network or a trustworthy friend to talk it through in case you need or want to? Is there problem-specific support around you, like a mentor at work who could help? What else do you do to practice relaxation strategies, cope, and take care of yourself when you feel stressed?

Conclusion

By putting all the steps together, begin the practice of accepting that negative thoughts can occur; believing alternative options could exist; nonjudgmentally noticing the feeling of discomfort while you wait through the uncertainty; and acknowledge your ability to solve problems or find resources (including therapy) to help. Like any habit or skill, this technique takes time, patience, effort, and practice. Just as a tendency to worry may have developed gradually, adopting a new approach needs time for progress.

Reference:

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sarah Farris, LCPC, therapist in Chicago, Illinois

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Caroline

    Caroline

    November 2nd, 2017 at 8:36 AM

    The advice about looking for evidence that will support your anxious thoughts is a clever idea to try. I think that not only does it force you too look for something that could justify the reaction that you are feeling, but in some way it could actually keep you busy so that you do not ruminate over what is causing the anxiety anymore. Either way, it might be too simplistic for some, but I know that this can work in some cases.

  • Sarah

    Sarah

    November 3rd, 2017 at 9:43 AM

    Thanks for your thoughts, Caroline! I like your points on how seeking evidence can also help shift attention in a way that gives the individual something to focus on. Thanks for reading.

  • Tyler

    Tyler

    November 2nd, 2017 at 2:17 PM

    A prequel to this is that your pain may not be from a thought at all. It may be an emotion long before you could form words. Your anxiety (fear) may be from your infant brain responding to no care or even hostility when your were powerless. It is still a part of you whether you like it or not. During a quiet time stare it down. Describe it to yourself. It can’t kill you. In fact it is just your six year old self trying to help you. Tell it you love it for trying to help but you are an adult and can handle this better. But never stop listening. Often six year olds see the truth.

  • Sarah

    Sarah

    November 3rd, 2017 at 9:47 AM

    Great points, Tyler. The patterns we develop in our youth can attach themselves to our present lives in many ways we don’t realize.

  • Michelle

    Michelle

    November 4th, 2017 at 6:07 AM

    Just out of curiosity- I want to know why so many people believe that they are entitled to a life without any negativity? I mean, I have always thought that with the ups you get the downs and vice versa. But there are other people who go into a tizzy when they come across anything negative in their lives and for some reason they have no capability at all to deal with that. Who is responsible? Is it the parents? Is it society as a whole? Have we set up an entire generation who doesn’t believe that they should ever have to go through anything that is bad and if they do, then they totally shut down from their inability to handle one obstacle?

  • Sarah

    Sarah

    November 4th, 2017 at 10:32 AM

    Great points and questions, Michelle. I think there may not be one right answer to your curiosities as there are likely complex circumstances that can contribute. I also notice people experiencing pain that could be based on an unrealistic expectation, like the belief that they should be happy all the time and there’s something wrong with them if they aren’t. I agree that we should allow for natural fluctuations of life’s highs and lows and build up our resources and resiliency. About 80% of the work I do is in treating individuals with diagnosable anxiety disorders, such as Panic Disorder, OCD, Agoraphobia, Generalized Anxiety disorder, etc. In these cases, the lives of these individuals become quite difficult to manage their experience of emotional pain and they may even struggle with their ability function regularly. Going to work, avoiding situations like going into an elevator, or maintaining strong relationships can be effected by the anxiety they experience. While the information I offer in this blog post is brief and a bit simplistic, I utilize a similar approach in how I would work with someone who may have high levels of anxiety that impedes on their functioning. A little nervousness here and there is a pretty common human experience, but I hope the information I provide could be useful to those who feel they don’t quite have a hold on it.

  • Tyler

    Tyler

    November 4th, 2017 at 10:58 AM

    Since this is a therapy blog I’ll assume you’re referring to people who seek therapy to overcome emotional pain.
    You are making an assumption and a negative judgment about people in pain who seek relief from that pain by labeling them “entitled.” If you have a severe and chronic headache and seek help from a doctor that doesn’t make you entitled it makes you healthy and smart. It’s nobody else’s business to judge how severe your headache is and how much stress it is causing you.
    People do have different reactions to emotional pain depending on a number of factors which include parenting, culture and individual make-up. But dismissing other people’s reaction to pain by labeling it “going into tizzy” and “no capability to deal” is presumptive, dismissive and just plain cruel. If you believe you have superior abilities in these areas then why not reach out and help people who suffer.
    Dismissing an entire generation as having any particular quality is prejudicial and plainly biased. Every generation going back thousands of years possesses the entire spectrum of human qualities. But if by “have we set [you] up” you mean you are disappointed in your particular children then you only need to walk over to the mirror so see where the fault lies. A thoughtful and kind parent will admit their mistakes and work to remedy them by helping their adult children adjust in the areas where they failed them. Ridiculing them will only exacerbate your failings as a parent by further pushing them down the road of maladjustment.
    Most emotional unhappiness and cognitive distortions come directly from parenting. Children learn in the deepest part of their minds beginning in infancy. So, yes, it’s the parents. Who else was there when they were children?
    The first role of therapy is to relieve the person of the burden of self-blame when their parents were clearly to blame. Once the person in therapy learns to exercise some self-compassion the second role is to overcome those failings and take compassionate responsibility for their own lives. Many people find it very freeing to be driven by desire rather than guilt.
    Sometimes people get very angry when pointed out areas in the difficult job of parenting where they failed. But facing constructive criticism and then taking action on it is the sure sign of an emotionally healthy adult.
    Lastly it could just be that the kids are alright and have adjusted to the world as it is not the world when you were their age. This always on, always connected world serves only enlarge teenage angst, cruelties and insecurities. Kids could really use emotional help in that regard.
    Or, the kids could be alright and it’s you that is unhappy. Perhaps you could have used an attentive parent and a little true affection now and then. Sometimes you need to look deep inside to see whom you are really angry at.

  • jack

    jack

    November 6th, 2017 at 10:41 AM

    I guess I’m just a little too carefree to let this kind of anxiety weigh me down.
    After reading some other stories here I feel very fortunate in that respect.

  • Sarah

    Sarah

    November 8th, 2017 at 5:12 AM

    Thanks for reading, Jack!

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