Anxious thoughts can hold you captive and keep you on a roller coaster of worry and fear. It seems that you are carried along by a cadre of thoughts over which you have no control. These thoughts wreak havoc on your mind and body. Your body bears the brunt of experiencing the hormonal cascade of adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol that come with being triggered by a thought that releases anxious energy into the body. The mind is assaulted by being occupied with circular thinking, inability to sleep and idling at a high speed for long amounts of time.
Many people believe that by rehearsing anxious thoughts they are preparing themselves in case bad things happen. It gives them a sense of control to rehearse a negative outcome and how they would react in a variety of scenarios. In reality they are ruining the present by engaging in thoughts and feelings that in no way control the future nor prepare them for what is coming. Anyone who has ever rehearsed the death of someone they love in advance so that they are prepared when the time comes can tell you that it is completely ineffectual, and it robs the days you do have with a loved one of joy, because you are constantly in that space of pseudo-mourning, when instead you could be in a shared place of peace with that loved one while they are still alive.
There are several effective interventions to address these anxious, negative thoughts. First, realizing that anxiety puts you in a position where you are living in the future. You are literally making up scenarios in your imagination and believing in them. Logically it is helpful to realize that it is just as likely that the opposite, more positive scenario may happen. When you realize that you are giving your imagination the power to control how you think and feel, you realize that you have the power to shift the scenario you are envisioning to one that brings peaceful feelings instead.
If you feel you must worry, creating a container for it can give you some relief. Scheduling “worry time” is effective in freeing up some energy for the rest of your day. Tell yourself all day that “now is not the time to worry, I will do that this afternoon from 4:00-4:30.” is a powerful way to clear most of your day of the anxious thoughts that plague you. It is a step towards reclaiming your power over your thoughts.
Allowing your thoughts to pass through your mind with acceptance is another way. Recognizing that “Oh, there is a thought” without judgement that it is good or bad, without becoming engaged with the story behind it is helpful. Notice the thought with your awareness and then pulling your mind back to the present is key to mindfully accepting what your mind is doing. To bring yourself back to the present, engage your senses and focus on the stimuli around you. Notice the feel of your feet on the floor, the feel of the chair to your back, the smell of the coffee on the table, the sound of the birds chirping outside of your window. This mindful presence is the optimal state for all of us to function. If you can master staying present and allowing the thoughts to come and go without interacting with them you will have come a long way towards peace.
Questioning the thoughts is a way to confront their validity and to help you know whether they are worth wasting your time on. Are you worrying about something that cannot be helped? This seems futile. If your thought seems like it could have a solution, brainstorming with a loved one to create action steps may be helpful, rather that ruminating alone without a goal. Once you have an action plan, then executing the steps will give you a sense of purpose. Instead of sitting helplessly wringing your hands, you are accomplishing something and shifting the anxious energy to an energy of motivation and achievement.
It seems the most difficult thoughts to address are the thoughts of the unknown. What if you have to wait on results for medical tests, or wait two weeks to see if you actually achieved the pregnancy you have been longing for, or what if you don’t know if your loved one is telling you the truth about their pornography or drug usage? These situations can consume you and destroy your quality of life if you let them. Engaging in activities of “distress tolerance” can go a long way towards helping you thrive during uncertainty. Positive forms of distraction can busy the mind and keep you engaged in activities that bring you pleasure. Going to a movie, hanging out with supportive friends and gardening are all ways to shift the thoughts away from the anxious situation. Contribution is a very effective way to distract the mind. Donating time to a cause you care about, and doing an activity that contributes to a higher purpose are good ways to distract, but so are doing someone a favor or making someone a nice card for a “just because” occasion. Or writing a letter to a loved one, telling them how much you care. Contributing not only helps distract you from your own painful emotions but it helps one build a sense of self respect and gives meaning and purpose to your life. Doing things for others can be very rewarding, especially when the act is unsolicited. Generating opposite emotions helps. Watching a funny movie when you feel sad or anxious, or listening to soothing music serves as a contrast and helps diffuse the thoughts and emotions.
Addressing the energy of anxiety in the body is another way to free the thoughts. Sometimes the thoughts are responding to anxious energy that has become trapped in the body. Emotions are energy in our body that literally want to be expressed or squeezed out. When we refuse to acknowledge them or to address them the energy becomes trapped, putting us on that roller coaster of “what am I going to do?” Noticing where the energy exists, allowing it to be there without judgment and being curious about what it wants to do are the ways to shift the energy and to allow it to release. Drop your awareness to where you are experiencing the energy in the body, and noticing how it behaves, with judging it helps you become familiar with its personality. Energy comes in waves. Notice how it wants to act. Notice the area around the energy. Are you squeezing against it, trying to keep its unpleasantness confined? This is when it becomes a problem. Visualize yourself expanding around the energy and creating a space for it to pass through your body. Visualize the waves traveling from one side of you and out the other side as you practice deep cleansing breaths. Controlling the energy frees your mind to think of other things.
It is not necessary to be held captive to anxious thoughts and feelings. There are interventions that can help. Invest the time to learn and practice these interventions and you will see your quality of life improve today!
Carolyn Tucker LAPC is a psychotherapist and life coach specializing in the treatment of anxiety. To find out more please see www.carolyntuckertherapist.com