Negative, worry-filled thoughts perpetuate our anxiety. They also paralyze us from taking action and can prevent us from leading a fulfilling life.
Sometimes, we mistakenly assume worry helps us circumvent potential catastrophes: If we aren’t worried, something terrible will happen.
But as licensed psychologist and anxiety expert Tamar E. Chansky, Ph.D, writes in her book Freeing Yourself From Anxiety: 4 Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create The Life You Want, “When did you last say, ‘Thank goodness I wasted, I mean, spent the last three hours freaking out about that job interview. The worry was so helpful and I feel much better now’?”
Many of us might even realize the futility of worrying. But we can’t seem to stop worrying about our relationship, our job, our kids and ourselves. And, often, we mistake these worrisome, anxious thoughts for the truth.
“If only anxious and negative thoughts showed up on the caller ID in the mind’s eye – ‘1-800-Unreliable and Unrealistic,’ ‘Exaggerations-R-Us,’ or more to the point, ‘Knee-Jerk Reactions, to go’ — life would be much easier,” Chansky writes.
“The good news is that you don’t have to stop anxious or negative thoughts from calling, you just need to know how to handle the calls.”
In other words, you don’t need to banish or eliminate these thoughts. You just need to find healthy ways to navigate them. Here are several suggestions from Chansky’s excellent book.
1. Relabel your thoughts.
We assume our catastrophic cognitions are cold, hard facts and doing so can cause us a lot of heartache (especially considering these thoughts are inaccurate). What’s more helpful is to pause and relabel a thought as unreliable or as coming from a questionable source.
We actually already know how to relabel. In fact, it’s something we do naturally.
Chansky uses the example of coming home from work at 6 p.m. and noticing the clock says 12:00. We don’t act like it’s noon or midnight, she writes. Instead, we relabel the situation with “power outage.” We change the clocks to the correct time and go about our business.
You can do the same with worry thoughts. When you relabel your thoughts, you give yourself the space not to absorb them, and you’re able to dismiss them more easily.
Chansky includes the following exercise: Create characters or narrators that help you separate maladaptive thoughts from reasonable thoughts.
On a piece of paper draw two boxes: In one box write different names for the negative thoughts, such as “The Magnifier,” “Misery Man” or “The Alarmist.” In the second box list the names for your logical thoughts, such as “Logic Woman,” “Einstein” or “Voice of Reason.”
Next, take one worry and see how the narrators in each box tell the story. Then notice how you feel listening to each one.
As Chansky writes, “When we say, That’s my anxiety, that’s an amygdala surge, that’s my inner pessimist pecking away at me, or even just simply, That’s grossly premature, we begin to have a choice in how we narrate the events of our life.”
2. Turn automatic thoughts into questions.
Anxious thoughts are very convincing. They convince us that we can’t do something or we can’t live without something, and so we get stuck in a very limited line of thinking.
However, Chansky reminds us that we do have options, and there are many possibilities. We just haven’t considered them yet.
“Fear narrows our perspective; it literally narrows our field of vision. Taking the time to look at different interpretations, information and ideas that exist just outside the quandary we perceive is boxing us in allows us to stretch outside the box.”
One way to be more flexible is to transform automatic statements into questions. Then you can explore these questions by gathering information online, talking to knowledgeable people and creating a specific plan. Chansky shares these examples:
- “I’m never going to get a job in marketing” can become “How do I best get a job in marketing?”
- “I’ll never be able to afford my own house” can become “What are the different ways I could afford my own house?”
- “I’m never going to be a good enough mother” can become “Is there something I want to be doing as a mother that I’m not doing now?”
A similar strategy is to turn assumptions into questions. For instance, do you assume that you’re not the kind of person who could ever do X, Y or Z? Or maybe you convince yourself that you can’t live without something that’s actually unhealthy?
Before you dismiss a potential opportunity, explore it.
As Chansky writes, think of this as browsing at the mall: “There’s no cost to try things on, and you may be surprised to find that outlandish things fit better than you thought.”
Here are several examples: “If I were the kind of person who could do X, what would it look like for me?” or “If I could live without that, what would I do instead?”
3. Pinpoint the specific problem.
Worry has a way of not only magnifying problems but of obscuring them, as well. It transforms a small problem into a cluttered pile of calamities. We get so overwhelmed we don’t know what to do or where to start.
According to Chansky, “When you’re upset or worried about one thing, the equivalent of a neurological flash-mob instantly assembles, creating a cascade of many possible things to worry about. Suddenly, it’s not clear what the problem is and isn’t, especially when every dreadful thought sounds so compelling and important.”
So you’re not stuck in a sea of worries, Chansky suggests getting specific. One exercise is to narrow down your problems through a series of boxes, starting from the biggest box and scaling down to the smallest. This way you move from a catastrophic concern to an issue that’s specific and manageable.
Chansky gives this example: The biggest box starts with “My life is totally out of control.” A smaller box says, “I can’t find anything I need.” The next box, which is smaller than the second, says: “I need to spend a few weekends organizing my office.” And, lastly, the smallest box says: “I need to start with my desk.”
Worry can keep us overwhelmed, paralyzed and hyper-focused on a narrow line of thinking. But the good news is that we can apply various strategies to deal with our negative automatic thoughts and move forward.