But they aren’t.
In fact, we have a choice. After our brains spit out an automatic thought, we have a choice in whether we actually believe it. This is especially important when it comes to anxiety, because our thoughts play a powerful role in perpetuating anxiety.
In the valuable book Retrain Your Anxious Brain: Practical and Effective Tools to Conquer Anxiety John Tsilimparis, MFT, with writer Daylle Deanna Schwartz, discusses three mindsets that are particularly problematic.
Below are insights from their book, along with tips on challenging these anxious thoughts.
Consensus reality is “a narrow and limiting way of looking at life that accepts, sometimes with fervor, that a single, unified reality in the world for everything exists, and that you must abide by it,” writes Tsilimparis, a therapist and anxiety expert with a private practice in Brentwood, Calif.
These thoughts can include the words “should,” “shouldn’t,” “must,” “never,” “always,” “everyone,” and “everything.”
Here are some examples:
- There is only one way to do things.
- I should never disappoint my family.
- I must have a prestigious career so my parents are proud of me.
- I should be married by now.
- I’m supposed to be happy.
- I’ll never meet the right person.
- I’ll never have a family.
According to Tsilimparis, to reduce anxiety, it’s important to notice when these thoughts arise, and then reframe them.
For instance, he suggests reframing the thought “I should be more productive/creative/ambitious” to:
“I would prefer to be more productive/creative/ambitious in my life. But first I have to figure out what ‘more productive/creative/ambitious’ actually means for me. I will contemplate how I, myself, can measure that goal and see what steps I can take to gradually reach it.”
Reframing your thoughts in this way empowers you (instead of paralyzes, which “shoulds” often do). You decide what works best for you based on your needs and abilities. You are the author of your life.
A dualistic mind thinks in extremes. You’re either right or wrong. You’re strong or weak. You’re a success or a failure. Like consensus reality, this all-or-nothing mentality narrows your vision and produces rigidity.
Here are some examples:
- If I’m not making a certain amount of money, I’m a loser.
- If I go to therapy or ask for help, it means I’m weak. It means I can’t handle my own problems.
- If I don’t go to the gym daily, it means I’m lazy. I know I have to exercise every day, even though some days I’m too tired.
- If I make any mistake, I’m irresponsible or a failure.
Tsilimparis suggests reframing the thought, “If I make a wrong decision about anything I do, it means I am stupid” to:
“Life is actually filled with subtle balance and varying degrees. There will be times when decisions I make won’t work out for me but it doesn’t change who I am. In the future, I hope to make decisions in my life that are compatible with what I believe to be appropriate for me and my best interests and know that I am doing my best.”
The reframed thought actually inspires action. That’s in contrast to the previous thought: No one can be correct about anything all the time. It also reminds us that life is filled with shades of gray.
Illusion of Control
“Most of us live with the illusion that we can somehow control critical facets of lives in varying degrees,” writes Tsilimparis. We try to control everything from traffic to the people in our lives. This makes us feel safe and secure.
But really it just backfires and spikes anxiety and panic, because controlling everything is impossible. As Tsilimparis writes, it’s like trying to “catch the wind.”
Here are examples:
- I am responsible for fixing other people’s problems.
- I have to make sure everyone I love is safe and healthy. I need to check on everyone regularly. I get worried if I can’t reach them.
- In order to feel safe, I need to be certain about everything.
- In order to feel safe, I need to micromanage everything.
- If someone rejects me, it means I’m worthless.
People who struggle with anxiety have a really hard time relinquishing control. They worry that letting go will lead to bad things.
Tsilimparis shares this reframe:
“Trying to achieve control of everything is an illusion. I will instead assess the things I do have control over in my life and focus on them. I accept that letting go of control in certain important areas of my life will be scary. But in the long run, it will reduce my anxiety, which is good.”
Tsilimparis suggests keeping a record of your anxious thoughts and the situations that sparked them. Then spend five minutes reflecting on and reframing each thought.
When we don’t challenge our negative thoughts, they can amplify anxiety, Tsilimparis writes. But each anxious thought can actually become an opportunity and a tool when you reframe it, he writes.
This takes practice, so try to be patient and gentle with yourself. Start by reframing one anxious thought into an empowering thought that inspires healthy action. And keep going.