(A blog about a key strategy in reducing anxiety)
Almost 20% of the North American population suffers from some type of anxiety making it the the most common mental health condition in North America. According to the DSM-IV anxiety disorders include, Specific Phobias, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Social Anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and even Mixed Anxiety and Depression. There are also many people who suffer some degree of anxiety that affects their lives and may not fully meet the criteria for a diagnosable DSM disorder.
For many people with anxiety issues, worry and anxiousness can significantly affect the enjoyment and satisfaction in their lives, keeping them from living life the way they would really like to live — instead, they often feel like they are living in a state of worry, fear, self-recrimination and feeling “less than”.
When we are dealing with excessive anxiety our brain focuses again and again on thoughts and feelings of fear, anxiety and trouble. These worried anxious thoughts and fears can be about many different things for different people.
A common key element or symptom in anxiety is the presence of recurring, intrusive and automatic thoughts. These thoughts come unwarranted and often without any provocation. For some people, they can pop up over and over again in a flurry of anxious worried thinking.
They can often be something like the following “thoughts”:
“I haven’t heard from my husband all day. I hope he’s OK”
“I have so much work to do, I’m going to fail and risk my job”
“Things are not going to work out.”
“The world is a scary and dangerous place”
“What if something bad happens to my child?”
“Why is my partner taking so long to text me? Did I do something wrong?” Are they mad at me?”
“If I go to that event, I am going to embarrass myself”
“My friends really don’t like me, and think I’m foolish”
“Everyone thinks I acted silly at work yesterday and they’re going to hold it against me”
“People don’t like me because I am nervous”
Worries about forgetting to do something important.
“Did I pay that bill?”
“Did I lock the door when I left home?”
“I feel like I’m forgetting something super important today”
Sometimes people with anxiety even have anxious thoughts about being anxious!
“I have anxiety about having an anxiety disorder! Why am I so very anxious all the time? What’s wrong with me” I have no reason to be so anxious. I have a pretty good life. Why can’t I fix this myself I must be flawed/broken/weak Why can’t I be normal?
Anxiety’s faulty wiring
Anxiety thoughts like these often come automatically and can be repetitive and very, very frustrating. The types of intrusive thoughts like we listed above can be frightening thoughts about what might happen to you or someone you love; they feel catastrophic and overwhelming, and oh so very real. They seem to come from outside of your control, and they feel like real & tangible threats coming from the outside world, when, in reality, they are just thoughts!!!
People with more severe anxiety may even experience excessive and even debilitating worrying thoughts that they feel deeply and emotionally (as fear, apprehension, a sense of impending doom). Sometimes their anxiety is often even felt physically (increased heart rate, muscle tension, rapid breathing, headache, stomach upset, etc.)
The problem with anxiety thoughts is that even though they may be real to some degree, our overactive brain exaggerates their level of threat. Our brain fools us into thinking there is a dire and immediate threat — when in fact, the actual risk to us may be minimal or something that is just an ordinary, daily problem of life for most people. We can see the anxious thinking as being caused by faulty brain wiring — our brain (trying to protect us from bad things in our environment) takes small worries and exaggerates them into something bigger and more malicious.
Luckily we can actually rewire our brain to stop this anxious thinking process through the practice of becoming aware of and consciously changing how we think. With effort, we can take those anxious thoughts, deflate their hold on us and feel calmer and more at peace.
Anxiety tries to fool us into thinking that we are in actually in physical and even mortal danger. Worse yet, it pushes, cajoles and even drives us to avoid the source of the anxiety –– the result can be that we may avoid people, situations, challenges, places and even avoid opportunities that might better our life in some way – like avoiding a job interview, not applying to university, or even not asking that really interesting attractive person out on a date.
The problem with avoiding anxiety-provoking situations is that this often keeps us from growing into the full and complete people we want to be. Life by its very nature has significant challenges and avoiding them leaves us living in a compromised way. Anxiety can truly hobble us in our drive to live a full life.
Looking through a glass clearly
In “The Anxiety Book” Jonathan Davidson states:
Negative thoughts breed negative emotional states. To quote from Corinthians in the New Testament, when we see the world “through a glass darkly” meaning that we always expect the worst, we’re going to feel perennially anxious. When our worldview is clouded by fear, we’re prone to anxiety. The simple but powerful solution: change the negative thoughts that breed anxiety and you start the process of healing your anxiety.
By making a pro-active choice and really trying to “look through a glass clearly”, we can start to challenge our negative anxious thoughts from a more balanced, rational and logical perspective. Obviously, this is easier said than done when every bit of our fibre is telling us that there is something truly horrible and scary to be frightened about. But it can be done and in my psychology practice, I have seen many people with anxiety do exactly that! I have seen many change their anxious thinking to a more balanced and calm kind of thinking.
Through effort and practice people with even the highest anxiety can lower their levels of anxious thinking by attempting to use more balanced and realistic thinking. It’s really all about making an attempt and practising. A pile of psychology research shows that through effort, repetition and practice we can actually retrain our brain to be less anxious over time!
How exactly do we do that? We do that in four steps by accepting, examining, relabeling and challenging the negative anxiety thoughts.
Four steps to help reduce anxiety’s hold
Carl Jung said, “What we resist persists”, meaning that when it comes to conquering our anxieties and worries, we must first accept that they are there, a reality in our mind; we need to take a non-judgemental and unemotional approach to accepting that we are having negative anxious thoughts. To conquer anxious thoughts is to first accept that they are happening and not go into “avoidance mode” — where we push them away, fight against them or even ignore them and deny their existence. If we don’t become aware and accept our anxious thoughts they may continue to grow in size and influence over time, really throwing a shadow over our happiness and fulfilment. Jung noticed that people who resisted aspects of themselves would have those things persist or actually even grow larger. People who deny the reality of their anxiety can use a lot of their energy in a vicious cycle of denial and resistance: Problem –> resistance –> more problem –> more resistance –> even more problem. This first step of acceptance can be very hard for many people who prefer to be in denial about how their anxiety is really affecting their feelings and how they live their life. It can also be hard for people who fight tooth and nail against their anxious thoughts and feelings; they can feel that acceptance is like giving in. In reality, accepting our anxious thoughts and feelings for what they are can help disarm them and reduce the power they have over us.
Secondly, once we’ve accepted that we are having repetitive, anxious thoughts we can examine them. The goal is to examine our thoughts in the cold clear light of day. Really look at what our inner voice (the little automatic voice in our mind that everyone has) is telling us. What are the exact thoughts that are causing us to feel anxiety? Writing them down on paper can help too. Writing things down can often allow us to see things more clearly and in a more evenhanded way. The purpose of this stage is to learn to accept our anxious thoughts without creating an opinion about them and to really look at them from a non-judgemental place.
The next step is to relabel those anxious thoughts. More accurately we need to stop seeing them as tangible, “real” fears and instead call them what they really are, anxious thoughts. This is a super important step! If we continue to see them as and call them “fears” it gives them a validity and “realness” they really don’t deserve! Instead, re-labelling them as “anxiety or worry thoughts” allows us to realise they may not really have much power over us! It’s about accepting that even though our feelings and emotions are real and valid, they are possibly based in “faulty thinking” that we can often challenge and then relabel!
99 times out of 100 the anxiety thoughts we have are just exaggerated and not real concrete things to fear. Our human mind is a powerful machine very affected by language; changing the words and labels we use is a powerful way to start laying the groundwork for more balanced and less anxious thinking.
How to challenge and “debunk” the anxious thoughts.
The last step is to be brave and actually challenge and expose the anxious thoughts as exaggerated and inaccurate. By taking an anxious thought and debunking it, we can decrease the power it has over us to some degree.
Here are some great questions to debunk our faulty anxious thinking in the style of David Burns:
Do some reality testing
- What evidence supports my anxious thought?
- Are my thoughts based in facts or is my interpretation of the situation biased towards being anxious?
- Am I jumping to negative and worrisome conclusions without ALL of the evidence?
- How can I find out if my worried thoughts are true? Can I ask a friend, my therapist or can I examine these thoughts on a deeper level myself
Getting a wider perspective
- Is this thought truly as anxiety provoking as I’m making out to be? Is my inner voice exaggerating?
- What’s truly the worst thing that could happen?
- What’s an alternative neutral or even a good thing that could happen instead?
- Will this worry even matter in five years?
Am I jumping to conclusions?
- Am I drawing negative conclusions from little (if any) evidence?
Am I disqualifying the positive?
- Am I deemphasizing, or “shooting down the possibility that the thing I am worrying about is going to work out OK?
Am I fortune telling?
- Am I exaggerating and/or assuming how things will turn out before they actually happen?
Am I catastrophizing/magnifying?
- Am I imagining the worst case scenario? Am I focusing on the worst possible outcomes, even if they are really highly unlikely. Am I thinking that a situation is unbearable or impossible when it is really just uncomfortable or temporary? Am I always expecting disaster to strike, no matter what?
Am I using emotional rather than logical reasoning?
- Am I assuming that because I feel a specific “emotional” way, that that feeling must be the truth or reality? The emotions we’re feeling are just emotions. They aren’t necessarily the reality of a situation.
Being inundated with anxious thinking on a regular or frequent basis is not easy for many people. The first step to reducing their emotional toll is through realising that anxious, worried, fear based thoughts are often being magnified and exaggerated by our faulty brain wiring. The feelings, emotions and physical symptoms of anxiety are real and for some people even debilitating — however, once we accept that we may actually have some degree of control of what we can do with these thoughts and feelings, we can begin to regain control. By going through the steps of accepting, examining, relabelling and challenging faulty anxious thinking, we can begin to rewire our brain to construct a more balanced, logical and fair way of seeing the world.
Here’s a great page with more information about how to change from anxious and worried thinking to more balanced and realistic thinking style:
And here’s page with a great strategy to calm our anxiety feelings:
This blog is not intended as medical advice, treatment or diagnosis and should in no way replace consultation with a mental health professional.
Burns, D. D. (1999). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York, NY: Avon Books.
JONATHAN DAVIDSON HENRY DREHER (2004) The Anxiety Book DEVELOPING STRENGTH IN THE FACE OF FEAR PENGUIN.