Many people struggle with anxiety – whether it’s about making the right decision, how they’re viewed by others, or if they measure up. Anxiety is a feeling of apprehension and fear that can range from mild (motivating performance) to increasingly severe (impeding performance). It can be felt in our bodies as a sensation of tension and agitation. Anxiety can also show up cognitively as rumination and obsessive worry — finding expression in our minds in the form of compulsive, repetitive dialogues with ourselves and imagined others.

An ill-fated but common problem is failing to recognize rumination as a sign of anxiety, and confusing it with thinking things through. If we’re not aware that our feelings have hijacked our thought processes, we can unwittingly indulge a symptom that feeds on itself like quicksand and has no end. By recognizing the difference between symptoms and productive mental states, we can learn to influence the direction of our thoughts, feelings, and frame of mind.

Chronic, heightened states of anxiety, and vulnerability to anxiety, can be the result of childhood trauma, for example, excessive fear or threat, sudden loss, emotional neglect, and physical or sexual abuse. Genetic predisposition, temperament, adult trauma and difficulties with self-regulation also can contribute to elevated anxiety.

Anxiety can be re-experienced in situations that are not objectively anxiety-producing, but which may be unconsciously associated with situations from the past that once felt threatening. For example, if we were criticized or shamed growing up, situations later on in which we might be exposed or judged can create anxiety — even though the stakes are no longer high as they had been when we were children relying on our parents for security and validation.

When anxiety is free-floating, and in situations where we don’t realize we’re re-experiencing something from the past, anxiety can act as a magnet. Attaching itself to current life issues and thoughts, a snowball effect can occur, setting up an environment ripe for rumination. Here, the left brain perceives anxiety and creates confabulated explanations to explain it, based on the available evidence. This happens via the left (language) hemisphere of the brain, whose job it is to interpret our perceptions and visceral experience and find patterns that fit into a cohesive story.

Anxious rumination can pull us in and take on a life of its own, providing a superstitious feeling of security and control. Further, when we buy into believing that we’re problem-solving (when, in fact, we are ruminating and obsessing), it’s easy to surrender to it.

Higher mind states, suited for problem-solving, are adaptive and involve the brain’s higher cortical/executive functions. These states are characterized by perspective, the ability to regulate mood, plan, and be creative. In contrast, rumination and panic involves primitive, fear-based parts of the brain (amygdala) and survival instincts. These reactions typically were once adaptive, but later resurface as an exaggerated reaction, or symptom, that gets in the way of healthy coping.

Telltale Signs of Anxious Rumination

  • You feel worse instead of better.
  • Compulsive need to think and say the same things repeatedly.
  • Inertia, inability to take action.
  • Feeling of urgency and paralyzing high stakes.
  • “Catastrophizing,” feeling of fear and dread.
  • Thinking is expansive and unfocused -multiplying rather than reducing your anxiety.
  • Thinking is continuous and pressured, without a beginning and end, and without leading to solutions or resolution.
  • Feeling of depressive anxiety, defeat, roadblocks.
  • Feeling overwhelmed and needing to solve everything at once.
  • Need for constant reassurance.
  • Friends and family are impatient and want to avoid talking to you.

Signs of Actual Problem-Solving

  • Ability to generate a range of ideas and solutions.
  • Ability to take some action.
  • Feeling of momentum or progress, hope.
  • Flexibility, variability of thoughts.
  • Tolerance of ambiguity and range of possible outcomes.
  • Seeking help from others in an open-minded, collaborative way.
  • Ability to take one step at a time.
  • Ability to set limits on problem-solving time.
  • Ability to bear anxiety without escalating or needing to get rid of it.

We can learn how to spot anxious, unproductive states of mind, and step back from them, rather than take the thought content literally and get caught in a stagnant inner dialogue. If we consider these states to be symptoms of fear, or primitive states, we can tell ourselves we’re just scared, that it’s OK, and that we don’t need to continue to work ourselves up. A timeout is needed at that point to settle down before resuming further thinking or conversing on that topic.

To get unstuck and outside of our heads, we can activate our right (nonverbal) brain by doing a simple physical activity such as a walk (without ruminating), or jogging in place for a minute or two. Or we can soothe ourselves, for example, by focusing on our breathing in a meditative way, drawing or painting, or listening to music. In this way, we can contain anxiety and unnecessary torment, as well as safeguard our psychological resources for genuine problem-solving, creative thought, relationships, and other challenges that pay off.

Anxious woman photo available from Shutterstock