Editor’s note: The suggestions in this piece are techniques best used with an experienced therapist. The writer is not a licensed therapist, but has drawn these suggestions from her own experience and from expert sources as an aid to dealing with anxious thinking. If you might be suffering from anxiety, seek diagnosis and treatment from a professional.
Did you know stress can be positive or negative? Stress is a natural reaction to an external trigger, motivating you to meet that work deadline or get your to-do list done before a trip. As the saying goes, pressure makes diamonds.
Stress that runs rampant, however, can wreak havoc on your mental state and turn into negative and anxious thinking that can completely ruin your day whenever it takes over. Anxious thoughts that creep in and stay too long can seriously impair your ability to concentrate, perform daily tasks, sleep, and even hurt your self-esteem.
Anxious thoughts, however, are different from an anxiety disorder, which is diagnosed by a doctor based on severity and uncontrollable intrusiveness of anxious thoughts. But a core component of anxiety, no matter how mild or severe, is anxious thinking. There are ways we can de-escalate stress and anxious thoughts before they get out of hand. Here are four ways to reduce anxious thought patterns and reclaim your day.
Identify negative self-talk
Sometimes we find our minds racing and our heart rates increasing without realizing exactly how we got there. Before we know it, we’re spiraling in negative thoughts that feed into feelings of stress or anxiety.
Similar to physical habits (think of biting your nails, hair twirling, nervous throat clearing), we have mental habits, too. Thoughts like, “I’ll never succeed,” “Why can’t I do anything right?” “I’m so stupid,” “I’m ugly,” “Nobody cares about me,” are what psychologists call cognitive distortions. The term refers to habitual negative self-talk that massively impacts the way we feel.
Think of it like this: When someone else says something mean to you, their words are simply their opinion and don’t have to have any power over you. Saying something mean to yourself, however, can be very damaging because you actually believe the insult, or train yourself to believe it. Naturally, this results in feeling pretty rotten and hopeless because our opinion of ourselves really does matter.
In order to stop negative self-talk, take note of the things you say to yourself that begin the downward spiral. When you start to feel panic rising and bad feelings heightening, what are the actual words going through your mind? Once you pinpoint them, look objectively at the negative words and recognize that they’re triggering spiraling.
As soon as you catch yourself in negative self-talk, interrupt the thought by saying something kind to yourself. Even if you really don’t want to say something kind to yourself, say it anyway. Positive thoughts stop the bad ones — they break the habit of negative self-talk and put a wrench in getting carried away by stress and anxiety.
Don’t play fortune-teller
Do you ever worry endlessly about the worst-case scenario of future events? When we mix playing fortune-teller with pre-existing stress, we begin catastrophizing. It looks something like this: “My boss emailed me to come into his office. I must have done something wrong. I’m going to lose my job.” Or, “Last night’s date didn’t go well. I’ll never get a girlfriend. I’m going to be alone forever.” Basically, our minds jump to the most negative outcome we can imagine.
More often than not, though, the worst case scenario never even happens and those thoughts just cause you to lose sleep and become a ball of stress. Catastrophizing can be a method of self-defense. We anticipate our greatest fears happening so we don’t get disappointed by hoping for a positive outcome. We think we are preparing ourselves to successfully handle the worst case scenario, but usually, it’s a slippery slope into anxiety.
When you start looking into your crystal ball to imagine the future, stop and recognize that you only have control over this moment, today. Ask yourself what concrete actions you can do in this moment to achieve your goals and then let it be. Which leads us to our next point…
Recognize when thoughts don’t actually help
Sometimes a little dose of nerves can give us a push to get things done. When tackling a stressful scenario, being motivated to come up with actual solutions is healthy. If you’re stressed about failing school, study as much as you’re able and rest knowing you did all you could. If you got into an argument with your significant other, make amends and then stop revisiting the conflict in your mind.
After you’ve done all you can in a stressful situation, ask yourself, “Am I benefitting from this worrying?” If your thoughts aren’t leading to concrete actions to ultimately stop stress, then do your best to recognize that they don’t deserve a place in your mind.
Give your stress a time limit
It’s impossible to completely avoid stress in life, but you can give your stress a daily time limit. If you’re thinking about a work deadline, a paper that’s due, a trip that’s coming up, or trouble in your relationships, give your anxious thoughts a cut-off point. Telling yourself, “Okay, I have up until 6 p.m. to think about these things and then I’m off for the night,” allows you to have time to think up concrete solutions during the day, but trains you to not let stress seep into every aspect of your life.
We all know what it’s like to lay in bed, tossing and turning and thinking about everything we need to do the next day, that week, and in life. Night stress is the most frustrating because there’s nothing you can do about it at that hour and losing sleep just makes matters worse.
When night comes, be firm with yourself about having the night off from negative thoughts. Imagine your mind as a cluttered table, full of papers, knick-knacks, cups, and trash. Now, imagine taking your hands and completely swiping that table clean. Don’t let the table become re-cluttered — give yourself the freedom of a clear mind for the next eight to 10 hours.