Maybe you can’t stop worrying about work. You’re convinced that you are an impostor, and everyone at the office knows it, too.
You’re bound to get fired. Maybe you fear that your partner will abandon you, because you know you’re not enough. Maybe you fear for your family’s safety after your neighbors were killed in a car crash. Maybe you’re worried about your own health after experiencing certain symptoms.
Maybe your thoughts involve a different anxiety. Either way, you carry them wherever you go. They are stubborn. They are persistent.
Maybe you’ve already tried – to no avail – to reduce or eliminate these thoughts? Maybe you’ve tried to distract yourself to cover up the anxiety?
Ryan Howes’s clients have tried moving all day long and then listening to music or watching TV to drown out their thoughts. “They exhaust themselves and collapse into sleep quickly so the thoughts don’t have time to plague them.” But because this doesn’t actually treat or reduce the thoughts, they continue to linger, he said.
Some of Howes’s clients try to combat the thoughts with logic, which sometimes works. But anxiety is adept at finding “loopholes and exceptions.”
Some people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) alternate between different persistent thoughts. “They might become fixated on the idea that they’re going to have a heart attack for a week or two,” said Howes, Ph.D, a psychologist and writer who specializes in anxiety. “Then that changes into a deep anxiety they’re going to lose their job, followed by a preoccupation that one of their children will get hurt, and on and on.” Their anxiety, he said, simply shape-shifts into other concerns.
Persistent anxious thoughts may be rooted in early experiences or deeply emotional experiences where we learned that we are inadequate, unlovable and unsafe, said John A. Lundin, Psy.D, a psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety in adults, teens and children. In fact, he said, most persistent thoughts stem from these questions: “Are people judging me?” “Will people reject me?” “Will I reveal myself to be fundamentally inadequate?” “Will I mess something up if I am myself?” or “Am I safe in the world?”
Overall, Howes believes that persistent thoughts point to a deeper issue, whether it’s an underlying disorder, unresolved trauma or a psychological wound. He gave this example: A person who was physically abused may have a fear of intrusion, conflict and unlocked doors.
Go to the source
According to Howes, our fears are primal. They stem from the older parts of our brain (the limbic system). We also have very active imaginations that create all kinds of terrifying what-ifs and stories. “[T]he images come from the most recently evolved part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex.”
The key is to go to the source, he said, and calm our fear response in the limbic system. Because doing so, “sends an all-clear sign to the rest of the brain, and we don’t need to be in fight or flight.”
This is why Howes suggested practicing deep breathing, which is one way to send the all-clear. “Breathe in deeply and slowly until your belly pushes out, slowly exhale, and repeat several times.”
Another way is progressive muscle relaxation, which eases overall tension and stress. As Howes noted, “Releasing the stress and tension in this physical way can help reduce the fuel that feeds persistent anxious thoughts.” Simply start by flexing your feet for three seconds. Then relax them. Next flex your calves for three seconds, and relax them. Do the same with your thighs, moving up your body, all the way to your face.
He also mentioned these other options: joining an online or in-person support group for trauma survivors; taking a self-defense class; and expressing your thoughts and feelings through art, journaling or talking to friends you trust.
Surround yourself with supportive people
“Spend time with those you love, and who are good at making you feel good about yourself,” Lundin said. Most of our core anxieties, he said, are relational, which is why surrounding ourselves with people who genuinely care about us can help. It “reassures us that we are lovable, and reduces many of our core anxieties.”
Capitalize on your imagination
Take advantage of your active, rich imagination. Visualize a place that is peaceful and makes you happy, Lundin said. Imagine the details: what it looks, smells, sounds, and feels like. When your thoughts inevitably wander, he said, keep returning to this serene place.
For some people, this exercise may not be helpful (no matter how much you practice, your worries keep bombarding you). If it only spikes your anxiety, try something else. Experiment with these techniques, and use the ones that resonate with you.
You may, understandably, feel very frustrated when the same anxious thoughts send you spinning. You might be exhausted. You might want a break. So you start seeing your anxiety as the enemy, as something you must vanquish. And you start getting very angry with yourself. You start feeling ashamed that you’re anxious and can’t control your own thoughts, which are bumping around in your brain.
But berating ourselves only stresses us out even more, amplifying our anxiety. Plus, you don’t deserve it. Instead, Lundin underscored the importance of forgiving ourselves and our “over-taxed brain for still being anxious.” Accept your anxiety. Try to understand its roots. Try different calming techniques.
If you’re still struggling, that’s OK. Seek extra support from a therapist who specializes in anxiety. Because anxiety is highly treatable. You don’t have to suffer.