Anxious thoughts are par for the course for having an anxious experience. As such, it’s easy to get trapped in an endless thought trap of “What ifs” and “I shouldn’t haves”. When it occurs, you may think this is your new normal. But like everything, anxious thoughts have a shelf life and do not last forever. You can learn how to challenge anxious thoughts and receive a sense of control from the chatter. From cognitive tools to mindfulness techniques, this article is your guide to calming your nervous system and ending the rumination.
How to Challenge Anxious Thoughts and Worries
1. Check-in with yourself
When your anxiety strikes, take a moment to check in with yourself. It may feel impossible, but it will help activate your parasympathetic nervous system. To start, ask yourself three questions, “Where am I?’. Asking this question can break the disassociation and ground you in the here and now. Then, ask, “How am I feeling in my body?” Sweaty palms, rapid heart rate, headache, etc. Lastly, ask, “How do I feel?” Label the emotion. Scared, upset, angry, sad? These questions allow you to refocus your attention on the present sensations and experiences.
2. Look for evidence
‘Examining the evidence’ is a cognitive behavioral therapy tool that employs realistic and logical thinking to calm irrational thoughts. Let’s say you went out with your friends, perhaps you said something, and your friend looked at you weirdly. Your automatic anxious thought might be, “She hates me”. This thought then compels you to look for other signs that she doesn’t like you. But instead, examine the evidence.
- Maybe your friend is going through a personal matter, and your statement and her facial expression are unrelated
- Perhaps she also has social anxiety and feels nervous in groups
- Believe you are enough as you are, and that your friends love you
Rather than following the anxious cues, find a more non-catastrophic explanation.
3. Shift to solution-focused thinking
Anxiety often creates a desire to avoid uncomfortable things. For example, you may worry about confronting your partner about something with excuses like “I don’t want to create more stress” or “What if he breaks up with me? I’d rather deal with the situation”. However, when these anxious thoughts occur, instead of avoiding them, take small steps toward your fears. Perhaps there is something else you’re avoiding. Maybe you want to apply for a new job but fear rejection. So, write a cover letter or spend an hour applying for the job. Choosing an alternative source of anxiety to face will help you build confidence toward confronting other sources.
4. Ask yourself these questions
Freeze the endless chatter through a set of questions. Indeed, asking yourself questions allows you to uncover the thought patterns causing your anxiety. Here are a few.
- Why am I anxious? It may seem obvious, but we often layer multiple sources of anxiety together without addressing each problem individually. So, take a step back, and focus on unraveling one at a time.
- What is the probability my fear will come true? This question is a catastrophic thinking strategy that encourages you to find the gray area between your worst-case scenarios.
- How can I lower the probability? Begin thinking about the action you can take to gain back control.
5. Employ cognitive defusion
Most of the time, we go about our day without paying attention to the act of thinking. And when we’re stuck in a thought trap, we’re entangled by our thoughts, i.e. cognitive fusion. But cognitive defusion, a goal of acceptance and commitment therapy, helps us see our thoughts as they are: Simply thoughts and not predictors of our worst-imagined fears. The first step to learning how to challenge anxious thoughts is to notice.
- Imagine a box, a beginner breathing exercise for anxiety, and breathe in and out of it
- Then pay attention to your thoughts. What are they saying?
- Don’t get caught up in the context. Just observe them
Practicing cognitive defusion decreases the power our thoughts have on us and allows us to shift to solutions.
6. Don’t fight it
Sometimes the best strategy to gain reprieve is through acceptance. However, acceptance doesn’t mean giving up. Instead, it means acknowledging that your anxious thoughts and feelings are present. We often think that somehow through endless ruminating, we’ll find our solution. But anxiety doesn’t work like that. It will keep connecting to more internal bits, creating a cycle of ongoing stress. So, employ another cognitive defusion tool by saying, “I’m having the thought that…(Insert a thought you have often)”. This exercise redirects your attention, labels the repetitive thought pattern, and activates your parasympathetic nervous system: Triple win.
7. Soothe the anxiety
As mentioned earlier, it’s normal to think anxiety will last forever. But it won’t. It will eventually end, no matter its intensity. So, try this three-part process to soothe your anxious mind:
- Repeat, “This is temporary“. Although anxiety feels like the worst possible emotion to experience, there are ways to manage it, and its state isn’t permanent
- Connect to your body. After repeating the first step, begin scanning your body, focus on sending yourself love to the tension you feel, and continue scanning
- Lastly, choose your favorite way to de-stress. Take a hot bath, watch a funny movie, make a homemade tea remedy, etc.
8. Write it out
If your anxious thoughts are keeping you up at night or you experience intense worry right before bed, grab your trusted journal and vent. Indeed, journaling is one of the best ways to improve your mood. It helps you set time aside to reflect on what’s causing your anxiety, and if you recognize your triggers, you can employ ways to control them. It also provides a safe and healthy way to release your anxious thoughts rather than allowing them to fester.
9. Connect to the present moment
A Buddhist teacher once said, “Don’t do anything that takes you out of your body”. Mindfulness is one of the best ways to end rumination and bring you back to the here and now. Here are a few to explore:
- Use your five senses: Refocus your attention to sounds you hear, any shapes or colors you see, what you feel in your body, your breathing, etc.
- Take a walk in nature and connect with the reality around you
- Practice rain meditation to manage anxiety
Following these cognitive tools and mindfulness techniques will certainly help you learn how to challenge anxious thoughts. But if your anxiety is affecting areas of your life and you find it too challenging to manage, please speak with a mental health professional. They will help you discover your triggers and root cause and help you get back on track.
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