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A Simple, Powerful Step to Begin Controlling Anxiety Thoughts

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Negative thoughts aren’t just an issue for people with anxiety. Nearly everyone experiences negative irrational thoughts.

Here’s an example of how thoughts affect our feelings and behaviors:

1. It usually starts with an activating event, which is the situation that causes the automatic thought. For example, let’s say the activating event is that your friend isn’t texting you back.

2. Next is the automatic thought. Perhaps you get stuck in the common “mind reading” thinking trap, and so you think to yourself, “they’re mad at me.”

3. Then comes the feeling. What do people usually feel when they think to themselves that a friend is mad at them? Probably worry, panic, fear, sadness or anger.

4. After the feeling hits, then comes the behavior. This is the one that tends to really differ from person to person, but there are common behaviors associated with various feelings. For instance, if you’re feeling worried and sad, you may be a person who tends to isolate in your room. Or perhaps you tend to distract yourself by reaching out to other friends. The behavior associated with the feeling can be a healthy behavior or an unhealthy behavior.  Remember — thoughts and feelings aren’t inherently bad.

If you struggle with negative, automatic thoughts and find yourself getting stuck in irrational thinking traps, you’re not alone. Having negative thoughts is completely normal. You are normal. If you experience anxiety, you may have noticed by now that this frustrating pattern tends to repeat itself over and over throughout the day.

So what’s the key to conquering negative thoughts? Awareness. 

What? Awareness? That sounds too easy, but hear me out.

The thing with negative thoughts is that they trick us into believing our thoughts are reality. And we don’t usually question reality. If we assume something to be true, we don’t have a reason to challenge it, right? We just go along with it. Simply being aware that not all of our thoughts are fact is a powerful first step to breaking this anxiety-provoking cycle.

In fact, it’s usually the first step we take in therapy when we begin tackling anxiety. Without recognizing that these thoughts are even occurring in the first place, it’s hard to challenge them and replace them. Challenging and replacing negative thoughts is one of the keys to feeling less anxious.

Let’s go over the previous example again, but this time, with awareness.

1. The activating event is the same – your friend isn’t texting you back.

2. The thought is the same – “they’re mad at me.” This time, however, you’ve been working on becoming aware of your automatic thoughts. You “catch” this thought and remind yourself that perhaps this isn’t the case. You consider alternative reasons for why your friend isn’t texting you back: “They could be at work, or maybe they’re asleep or busy with their family.”

3. You feel neutral. You might still feel a little worried and sad, but to a much lesser extent and for a much shorter time than if you were to just assume that your friend is mad at you.

4. If you’re feeling neutral, your behavior will likely also be neutral. Perhaps you just continue to carry on with your day, rather than isolate in your room, which is a more common behavioral response when feeling worried and sad.

Something I want to mention is that automatic thoughts are completely normal and human. The goal here isn’t to 100 percent eliminate negative thoughts, but rather, to “catch” our negative thoughts so they aren’t controlling our lives.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that if you struggle with negative thoughts and experience heightened worry due to negative thoughts, that’s OK. There are things you can do in response to unpleasant feelings — coping skills that can help you ride the wave of anxiety, or whichever unpleasant emotions you are experiencing. It just might take some time and practice find the coping skills that work for you.

Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash

Originally published: March 28, 2019
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