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