All of us have negative thoughts. And we have “lots of them,” writes professor Mark Reinecke, Ph.D, in his book Little Ways to Keep Calm and Carry On: Twenty Lessons for Managing Worry, Anxiety and Fear.
And all of us worry about the same things, everything from work and school to health and relationships. What separates an anxious person from a calm one isn’t the content of their thoughts, it’s the connotation.
According to Reinecke, “The types of intrusive, negative thoughts that anxious, worried people experience differ little, however, from the thoughts of nonanxious people. The difference is in the meaning given to the thoughts.”
If you’re a worrywart, or especially anxious, you might think, “This thought is awful. I shouldn’t be thinking this; I have to make it stop,” says Reinecke, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and chief of the division of psychology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
But, as he points out, the more we try to squelch a thought, the bigger and bothersome it becomes. So how can you deal with these kinds of intrusive, troublesome thoughts?
In his book, Reinecke provides a collection of effective tools and strategies. Here are eight tips.
1. Understand that a thought is just a thought.
Instead of dwelling on your thoughts or trying to make them stop, disengage from them. “You can think of them as you would junk mail, telemarketers, or Internet pop-up ads – they’re annoying but unimportant.”
Accept these thoughts, letting them float by, he writes.
Secondary thoughts – such as “I shouldn’t be thinking this” – should be challenged. Write these thoughts down, evaluate them and determine if they’re accurate and helpful. If not, he says, disregard them.
2. Engage in activities that give you a sense of accomplishment.
No amount of worrying or ruminating will lead to a positive result. It only escalates your anxiety. Beating yourself up about having negative thoughts does the same.
Instead, Reinecke suggests engaging in activities that refuel your brain, such as doing something constructive that gives you a sense of mastery. What activities give you a sense of “flow”?
3. Spend time with loved ones.
When they’re worried, many people tend to withdraw. But spending time with a sympathetic support system not only makes you feel better, but it also offers fresh perspectives and ideas, according to Reinecke.
4. Keep the faith.
“Spiritual experience, through prayer or meditation, can provide solace from life’s tribulations,” Reinecke writes. Here’s a list of tips on how to start meditating.
5. Worry productively.
Productive worry, Reinecke writes, helps you solve problems. Unproductive worry leads to solution-less rumination.
Here’s how to make your worrying productive: Carve out a specific time each day that you’ll worry, such as 8:00 to 8:30 p.m., he says. Write down all your worries and concerns. Now feel free to ruminate.
Then, at the end of your session, write down your response to this question: What is the solution or solutions?
Next, engage in a relaxing or enjoyable activity. “Come back to your problems tomorrow at the same time.” Of course, some problems may not have solutions. If there’s nothing you can do, “disengage from it and let the worrisome thoughts float away.”
“It’s very hard to be tense, anxious, or worried when you are physically relaxed,” Reinecke writes. To relax, he suggests trying the rag doll yoga pose:
- Stand with your legs slightly apart and knees bent.
- Slowly breathe in, drop your chin, and bend at the waist. Now slowly roll your body down.
- Let your arms dangle. Let them gently sway from side to side. Perhaps shake them a bit. Let your neck and torso relax.
- After a few seconds, slowly roll back up to a standing position.
Other calming options include: running, walking, swimming, dancing, taking a hot bath and practicing deep breathing.
7. Examine your worrisome thoughts.
One important point we tend to forget: Our thoughts are not facts. Reinecke suggests readers treat their thoughts like objects to be examined.
For instance, explore your worry thoughts by answering these questions: “What’s the thing I most fear will happen? If this happened, what awful thing would it mean about me or my life? Why would this be so terrible?”
Write down your responses verbatim. Then define each term. For instance, you might include words like “lost” or “failure.” What do these mean to you? (They likely mean different things to different people.)
If you’re not sure about your core worries, try an exercise called the “downward arrow.” On a piece of paper, draw an arrow on the left side. At the top of the page, write down your most distressing thought. Then ask yourself: “And this would be a terrible thing because it means what?”
Write down your response. Then ask the same exact question. Keep asking this question (and writing down your thoughts) until a theme emerges.
8. Revise the worry thought.
Anxiety – and worrisome thoughts – can make us feel very small. But the empowering thing is that we can change these distressing thoughts. Here’s how:
- Write down the “evidence for” and the “evidence against” your thought. Try to be objective.
- Is there another perspective? Usually, Reinecke writes, the evidence will be mixed. But is there a sliver lining? A lesson to be learned? An opportunity?
- If your fear is true or if it does occur, would it be a problem in a year or in five years? “It’s important to keep problems, losses, and setbacks in perspective. Don’t magnify their significance.”
- What action can you take to resolve the issue? Make a specific, concrete plan. Write the steps you’ll take to avoid the problem or manage it. Reinecke suggests considering questions such as when you’ll start and how you’ll navigate potential obstacles, if any.
Worry thoughts can dampen the joy in our days. They can amplify our anxiety and spike our stress. Fortunately, we have many tools to help us step off the hamster wheel of swirling worries, and solve our problems, relax and enjoy life.