Thoughts and feelings are separate things. However, they can influence one another.
Negative thoughts exacerbate anxiety. Changing your thought process can reduce anxiety.
Humans are very language-oriented. We think in words. We speak in words. The words that we use, including those we let run loose inside of our own minds, greatly impact the way that we feel. If you want to reduce your anxiety, it’s crucial that you become aware of the words that you’re using, particularly in regards to negative self-talk.
Oftentimes, we tell ourselves things that aren’t true but they seem very accurate anyway. These are cognitive distortions. There are many different types of cognitive distortions (learn more here). Think of it this way: your mind is convinced that what it is saying is true and it’s using common methods to trick you into believing it.
Here are some of the most common cognitive distortions that worsen anxiety and how to change your thinking:
Catastrophic Black-or-White Thinking
This is a combination of two types of cognitive distortion:
- Over-catastrophizing, in which you assume that the worst-case scenario is true and exaggerate the situation.
- Black-or-white thinking, also called “all or nothing” thinking, in which you see no subtleties or shades of gray.
For example, let’s say that your friend invites you to a party. You aren’t sure if you want to go, but you say that you will. When the day comes, you feel too anxious. You don’t go. In your mind, this is catastrophic. You assume things like, “my friend will never forgive me” and “this is the end of our entire friendship.” Furthermore, you see the situation (and yourself) in black-or-white. For example, you tell yourself, “I am a terrible friend” or “I don’t deserve friendship because I always flake out on people.”
The truth of the matter is more likely to be that sometimes you don’t do what you say you’re going to do but you also have a lot of terrific qualities that make you a wonderful friend.
Your friend might be upset that you didn’t come to the party, but a conversation explaining your anxiety will likely resolve the issue.
Identifying your thoughts for what they are, particularly when cognitive distortions are at play, can help you manage your anxiety. Ask yourself, “am I exaggerating the problem?” and “what is really true here?”
Fortune Telling or Futuretripping
This is a cognitive distortion in which you predict a negative future scenario without reason. One of the most common ways we see this is when someone has just gone through a bad breakup and they are certain that they will never love again. Objectively, we can see from the outside that this isn’t true, but it’s a pervasive cognitive distortion.
When you assume that your future is going to be negative, naturally you worsen your anxiety.
After all, anxiety is worry about the future and you’ve already decided that it’s going to be bad. “I will never find a job that I like” or “I will never have enough money” can become anxiety about going to work or coping with bills. This can take over your life, as you react to the negative thought instead of exploring what’s actually going on in the present moment.
Combat this cognitive distortion by using mindfulness techniques to bring yourself into the present moment. Use journaling to explore different, more positive scenarios that could play out in the future. Get sound advice from someone in your support system about whether or not your negative predictions have any validity.
If you believe that things “should” be a certain way, and especially that you “should” be a certain way, then you’re going to feel anxious every time the expectation isn’t met. For example, during the coronavirus pandemic, many people who are still employed tell themselves, “I should be grateful that I even have a job.” Every time you don’t feel grateful, you feel bad about yourself.
When you are upset that you don’t feel the way that you “should” then you aren’t aware of what you actually feel. When you don’t address your real feelings, instead “shoulding on yourself” then you worsen your own anxiety.
You might also “should” on other people. You get worried that your partner hasn’t called because, “they should know to call me after work.” People don’t behave the way you expect, and you get angry and anxious. These are surface feelings that allow you to avoid the deeper feelings underneath.
Stop saying should. A simple language change can be the beginning of a big shift here. Every time that you catch yourself saying, “should” try changing the word to “could” or “might” or “have the option.” For example:
- I could work harder.
- I have the option not to be upset about this.
- I might try to eat healthier.
Compare how that feels to “I should work more. I shouldn’t be upset about this. I should eat right.” The latter probably gives you a lot of anxiety, since you immediately feel like you’re not doing what you “should.” In contrast, the former gives you options and choices, which is calming.
What If Thinking
Anxiety is never about what’s happening in the present moment. Sometimes it’s about the past. Most often, it’s about the future. Therefore, you’re probably very familiar with “what if” thinking. You worry about what could happen and that gives you anxiety.
It’s natural for your brain to try to predict the future. However, it can’t do so accurately. Therefore, you can benefit from learning to recognize and alter “what if” thinking.
Examples of What If Thinking
- Ruminating without resolving an issue. For example, constantly worrying that you’re a terrible parent without ever finding solutions or resolutions. Oftentimes, this type of what if thinking is linked with the past. For example, you had a bad childhood, so you tell yourself that you’re just like your own parents. You ruminate about them and about your flaws. The “what if” here is essentially “what if I’m as bad of a parent as my parents were?” or “what if I’m ruining my child’s life?”
- Constant thoughts about what you need to get done, causing anxiety about how you’ll ever do it all. If you regularly find yourself overwhelmed by your responsibilities or to do list then you’re thinking, “what if I don’t get things done?” Here are five tips to stop overthinking.
- Fear of danger at work or at home. For example, “what if I left the oven on?”
- Fear of physical illness or death; hypchondria. This may be heightened by what’s going on in the world around you. For example, during the coronavirus pandemic, many people who experience a small symptom such as a cough or fatigue immediately think, “what if I have COVID-19?”
How to Change What If Thinking to Reduce Anxiety
Remember, your language can change your thoughts which can in turn change your feelings. You can reduce anxiety by noticing your “what if” thoughts and intentionally addressing / altering them.
For example, the person worried about being a terrible parent can remind themselves, “my child is healthy, and happy. I am caring and involved. I want to be better than my parents were, and there are steps I can take to do that.”
The person who fears that their fatigue is COVID-19 can ask themselves a series of practical questions. When did this fatigue begin? Are there any other explanations for it? Do I have any other coronavirus symptoms? What do I need to do in order to find out what my fatigue is from?
Don’t let what if thinking take over your brain.
Practice mindfulness so that you can stay in the present moment. Challenge your what if and worst-case scenarios. Use affirmations and positive language to see things in a new light.
A Feeling Is Just a Feeling
Try not to attach thoughts to your feelings. Instead, let the feeling pass. Here are some good reminders:
- Embarrassment is just a feeling. If you have social anxiety, remember that someone noticing you doesn’t mean they will reject you.
- Dread is just a feeling. It can happen when nothing is wrong. Remind yourself that nothing is wrong in this moment.
- Panic is unpleasant but it won’t kill you and it will come to an end. Learn more about panic attacks here.
You can cope with feelings by:
- Identify your thoughts and reframe them in a positive way.
- Ask yourself where the feeling is located in your body. Breathe into that space.
- Practice diaphragmatic breathing or progressive muscle relaxation.
- Distract yourself with a soothing activity.
If you have a history of trauma, work with a therapist to explore the impact of that trauma on your ability to cope with anxiety.
Accepting Unpleasantness Instead of Avoiding It
It is important to be able to self-soothe and distract yourself in the midst of great anxiety. However, you don’t want to avoid anxiety and uncomfortable feelings altogether.
Many people avoid their anxiety triggers, shrinking their own world, ultimately causing more anxiety. In contrast, make a concentrated effort to accept that parts of life are unpleasant and to remember that you can cope with those feelings and experience.
Unpleasantness may be external (something uncomfortable happens when you go somewhere or interact with someone) or internal (you have thoughts or feelings that are uncomfortable.) It may also be both.
Exercise: Label Unpleasant Sensations to Overcome Anxiety
- Sit comfortably in a chair, placing your feet flat on the floor. (Adjust this position as necessary based on your own ability.)
- Close your eyes and allow your breath to become even and regular.
- Notice if you experience any sensation in your body. Don’t judge it if you do, just notice.
- If you don’t immediately notice a sensation, slowly move your attention through your body – head, throat, shoulders, arms, fingers, chest, solar plexus, abdomen, back, legs, and feet. Pause at each spot and ask yourself if you feel a sensation. Tune in to your body.
- Label each sensation with a physical description (tingling, shaking, fluttering, tightening, stabbing, etc.) Don’t give it an emotional word (scared, troubled, upset). Don’t add a judgment (it’s not a good or bad sensation, it just is.) You’ll know you’ve got the right label when your body goes, ‘that’s it!” If you don’t get that response, continue noticing until you find a word that fits.
- Once you’ve got the right label, let your attention move away from the sensation. At this point, you can think about what it implies. You can note it for future thought, you can use the information to make a decision or you can return to the task at hand.
By labeling sensations, you can become familiar with them. They don’t demand action; they just provide information. Awareness of them is enough. Sitting with the feeling and naming it without judging it will help you tolerate anxiety over time.
Familiarize yourself with a wide vocabulary list related to feelings, thoughts, and needs.
The more language you have to understand yourself, the more power you will have to turn negative thoughts into neutral or positive ones in order to reduce the way they contribute to anxiety.