Anxious thoughts are one of the main obstacles most anxiety sufferers deal with in their lives. I can speak about this topic with full confidence because I was one of them sufferers who used to be lost and trapped in the prison of their own minds. My intention is not to come off as someone who is completely immune to experiencing anxiety, I’m not. I still get anxious thoughts and sensations from time to time but my relationship towards them has changed. I no longer see them as a threat or as something to escape from and so I don’t fall back into a disorder.
I’ve learnt too much from past experience that making it my daily aim to overcome anxiety including anxious thoughts is completely counter-productive and a massive waste of time. The more we resist anxious thoughts, the easier it is for us to get upset and stressed by them. The easier it is for us to get upset and stressed over our anxious thinking, the easier it is to trigger off more anxiety.
(I’ll write a separate post on “How to Deal With Anxious Sensations”).
If you feel anxious for thinking a thought, then don’t worry because it’s perfectly normal within anxiety. Don’t think that you’re going crazy for having such thoughts because you’re not. You just have an over-sensitised nervous system which is sending confused nerve signals to the brain manifesting as strange thoughts. I had all sorts of bizarre thoughts going on at all times. They were so strange and bizzare that I probably could of turned the contents of my scary and strange thoughts into a book or something.
What causes these anxious thoughts?
A lot of people make the assumption that these thoughts are the cause of our anxiety. While they can and do trigger off more anxiety, they are not the cause. The cause of these thoughts is the anxiety itself. These thoughts are just confused nerve impulses sent backwards and forwards to our mind. Put another way, anxious thoughts are just a manifestation of the disorder. (I can go into what anxiety is in another article.)
Why do we fear anxious thoughts?
What gives anxiety it’s power is fearing our anxious thoughts. Why do we fear our anxious thoughts? Because we think that we will go crazy for having them. We might think that our thoughts are somehow connected to reality. Whenever I had a thought, I would panic over it because I then expected it to happen in real life. Of course, it never did.
We may even think we will act on these thoughts, especially if they are to do with harming ourselves or others. Myself and all of the people I’ve spoken to who have experienced disturbing thoughts during anxiety have never acted on their thoughts. Anxiety sufferers are too scared to carry out these actions. You may think of picking up a knife and stabbing your wife with it after walking past the kitchen unit top, but you’re not going to do it because you are too fearful of the consequences, just like I was.
This is the sort of calculations your brain does when we are dealing with a real threat, we are scanning the environment for anything which we can use to deal with this danger. Our brain doesn’t know that there is no threat as it’s constantly getting the message that it’s under threat, so it still carries out these same calculations.
Thoughts are what give anxiety more energy and sustenance. More accurately, how we respond to our anxious thoughts will determine if we will give more energy to anxiety or not. Most anxiety sufferers respond with fear towards their anxious thoughts. Without understanding why we shouldn’t fear them and learning an approach which lessens their impact on us, this is completely understandable.
How to get over our fear of anxious thoughts?
We tend to take thoughts very seriously when we believe they somehow represent truth. Whatever the content of our thoughts are, they are all confined inside our head and so we are completely safe. It doesn’t matter if you have the thought about stabbing your wife or a thought about being anxious whilst going food shopping. While the content is different, it doesn’t change the fact that it is still ONLY a thought. Thoughts can and never will harm you because they are just confused nerve impulses sent out by an anxious brain. The more importance we give to our thoughts, the more power they have over us.
Don’t run away from them
Most people’s response is to react in fear to such thoughts and then try to run away from them, but this is the big error that we all make. When you run away from your anxious thoughts, they run after you.
One of the many habits I created when going through high anxiety was this constant attempt to mentally run away from my thoughts. Whenever a thought popped up, I would try my best to run the other way. Does this help? No because it’s just a form of avoidance and resistance. Ultimately, all it does is give off the impression that we are afraid so we better react with more anxiety.
Face your anxious thoughts. Welcome every single thought that you are afraid to think. You won’t die or go mad. In fact, you will know the truth. You will grow stronger because you are not hiding away from it’s bluff anymore. This is how you break free from the fear of fear. The worst that can possibly happen is you experience thoughts and thoughts don’t mean anything. They only have power over us because we give them so much importance.
Anxiety isn’t going to hurt you, so why does it matter if you feel anxious? Having this attitude of not caring whether you are feeling anxious or not is helpful. Allow yourself to think these thoughts without fearing them. Nothing is going to happen to you whilst you think these thoughts. You’ve experienced many disturbing thoughts before and you are still alive. All thoughts are a product of an over-active imagination.
Can we think ourselves out of our anxious thoughts?
Not really. I tried for many years and every time I would just fall deeper and deeper into the cycle of anxiety. So, don’t bother with trying to change your thoughts. Give up reasoning and arguing with them. This is preciously what keeps the anxiety in place.
Do we have to actually do anything about our anxious thoughts?
If you want me to be brutally honest, which is what I do with everything I write/create, then the answer is to do nothing. Now I know that might sound strange considering we are always getting told by well meaning people to do something about our thoughts. Try positive thinking, try journalling, get your anxiety out into the open by talking about it, write down your anxious thoughts, try replacing them with more logical thoughts and so on. Yes, we can try all of these things but do they really make the thoughts go away? No because it’s impossible to make our thoughts go away, especially when we make a conscious effort to get rid of them.
To use a metaphor, imagine your anxious thoughts are like a tornado. When you attempt to interfere with these thoughts, you get swept up and away by the thought storm like a piece of debris. You feel totally out of control as this tornado throws you around and engulfs you. This is exactly what happens when we try to control or change our thinking. We don’t get any closer to alleviating our stormy mind, we actually make things worse.
You don’t have to do anything about your thoughts. The tornado will still be there but from this new approach of doing nothing, you are not getting swept up by it. Let the tornado do it’s thing until it eventually does down. Doing absolutely nothing about our thoughts is easier said than done, especially when the instruction is just “Do Nothing”. Let me explain it to you in a way which will make it easier for you to understand. Doing nothing doesn’t mean forcing yourself into a state of calm as this is in itself a form of resistance. It doesn’t mean physically doing nothing either. All it means is you allow yourself to think whatever you are thinking. You are not trying to change your current thoughts, no matter how scary they are. You are not looking to be in a peaceful state, you are just allowing yourself to be in one you’re in right now. By allowing, you will experience peace.
We have absolutely no control over our thinking. Thoughts are going to appear in our consciousness whether we like it or not. Trying to stop thinking is itself another thought. Our mind is made up by thoughts, it’s a thought generating machine. Trying to stop thoughts from arising is like trying to stop a beating heart or stop the weather from happening. These systems are all happening outside of our conscious control.
The sooner you accept that you have no control over what thoughts will appear, the less stress you will create by trying to control something which cannot be controlled. Giving up control will actually promote feelings of emotional stability because you are not getting caught up and entangled in the noisy mind.
The very attempt to banish our anxious thoughts just gives more energy to the root of the anxiety because this gives off the impression that we are under attack. We are emulating the fight or flight response by trying to fight off our thoughts or by running away from them. We can’t activate the anti-anxiety response by fighting anxiety. Anything we do to try and stop ourselves from thinking anxious thoughts is a form of resistance. As a rule of thumb, resistance is never conducive to healing ourselves from anxiety because whatever we resist persists.
Not only does it create more resistance, trying to do something about our thoughts sends a message to our emotional brain that what we’re experiencing is a threat.
We are making the contents of our own mind into a danger which only results in our mind and body experiencing more anxiety.
Having a routine
When we don’t have a routine, when there is no structure to our day, it’s easy to feel uninspired and unproductive. Having a routine doesn’t have to be anything fancy or big either. It can be just a small series of activities which you find to bring you fulfilment and joy.
How does having a routine help with anxious thoughts?
As you already know, having anxiety is an awful experience. One of the habits you may have picked up is spending a lot of the time dwelling on your anxious thoughts. So, having a routine is important for stopping our mind from wondering all of the time.
Having a sense of purpose through structure and routine is powerful and gives off a productive and fulfilled vibe. When we are focused on things which bring us a sense of joy, productivity, creativity and well-being, we can feel good about ourselves.
It’s healthy to say that our minds need something to focus on, If we don’t focus on things that keep us occupied, then it’s easy for our attention to wonder and then default to the habit of focusing on anxious thoughts.
What’s happened is we’ve just got into the habit of giving all of our attention to our thoughts. When we give all of our attention to our thoughts, we are giving more food to the anxiety to grow. Having other things to focus on is a really effective way to pull our attention away from our thoughts and with continued practice, this will become a healthy habit which will mean we won’t focus so much on the anxious thoughts.
This doesn’t mean that our thoughts will disappear for good. Whenever you experience an anxious thought, remind yourself that it’s okay to have it, allow it to be there and focus your mind back to whatever you were doing. Over time, by allowing your thoughts and engaging your mind with other things, you will lose your fear of them and as a result, they will have a very difficult time showing up on your radar.
If I was to summarise the process of dealing with anxious thoughts, it would look something like this.
We experience an anxious thought
We remind ourselves that thoughts are not facts
Instead of pushing the thought away, we allow it to be there, as it won’t hurt us.
Instead of running away from our thoughts, which promote more fear, we can consciously intend to ask for more thoughts. “Is this all you’ve got?” “Are there any more disturbing thoughts?” This is acting from a place of fearlessness which is just the message you want to be sending to your brain. We reclaim our power by doing this.
I hope this post can help in some way. Let me know if you have any questions or feedback as it is greatly appreciated.
Until next time