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Anxiety: Stop Negative Thoughts
Anxiety is having too much fear and worry. Some people have what's called generalized anxiety disorder. They feel worried and stressed about many things. Often they worry about even small things. Some people also may have panic attacks. A panic attack is a sudden feeling of extreme anxiety.
People who have social anxiety disorder worry that they will do or say the wrong thing and embarrass themselves around others.
Anxiety can cause physical symptoms like a fast heartbeat and sweaty hands. It can make you limit your activities and can make it hard to enjoy your life.
Healthy thinking can help you prevent or control anxiety.
- Negative thoughts can increase your worry or fear.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a type of therapy that can help you replace negative thoughts with accurate, encouraging ones.
- Changing your thinking will take some time. You need to practice healthy thinking every day. After a while, healthy thinking will come naturally to you.
- Healthy thinking may not be enough to help some people who have worry and anxiety. Call your doctor or therapist if you think you need more help.
How can you use healthy thinking to cope with anxiety?
Notice and stop your thoughts
The first step is to notice and stop your negative thoughts or "self-talk." Self-talk is what you think and believe about yourself and your experiences. It's like a running commentary in your head. Your self-talk may be rational and helpful. Or it may be negative and not helpful.
Ask about your thoughts
The next step is to ask yourself whether your thoughts are helpful or unhelpful. Look at what you're saying to yourself. Does the evidence support your negative thought? Some of your self-talk may be true. Or it may be partly true but exaggerated.
One of the best ways to see if you are worrying too much is to look at the odds. What are the odds, or chances, that the bad thing you are worried about will happen? If you have a job review that has one small criticism among many compliments, what are the odds that you really are in danger of losing your job? The odds are probably low.
There are several kinds of irrational thoughts. Here are a few types to look for:
- Focusing on the negative: This is sometimes called filtering. You filter out the good and focus only on the bad. Example: "I get so nervous speaking in public. I just know that people are thinking about how bad I am at speaking." Reality: Probably no one is more focused on your performance than you. It may help to look for some evidence that good things happened after one of your presentations. Did people applaud afterward? Did anyone tell you that you did a good job?
- Should: People sometimes have set ideas about how they "should" act. If you hear yourself saying that you or other people "should," "ought to," or "have to" do something, then you might be setting yourself up to feel bad. Example: "I have to be in control all the time or I can't cope with things." Reality: There's nothing wrong with wanting to have some control over the things that you can control. But you may cause yourself anxiety by worrying about things that you can't control.
- Overgeneralizing: This is taking one example and saying it's true for everything. Look for words such as "never" and "always." Example: "I'll never feel normal. I worry about everything all the time." Reality: You may worry about many things. But everything? Is it possible you are exaggerating? Although you may worry about many things, you also may find that you feel strong and calm about other things.
- All-or-nothing thinking: This is also called black-or-white thinking. Example: "If I don't get a perfect job review, then I'll lose my job." Reality: Most performance reviews include some constructive criticism—something you can work on to improve. If you get five positive comments and one constructive suggestion, that is a good review. It doesn't mean that you're in danger of losing your job.
- Catastrophic thinking: This is assuming that the worst will happen. This type of irrational thinking often includes "what if" questions. Example: "I've been having headaches lately. I'm so worried. What if it's a brain tumor?" Reality: If you have lots of headaches, you should see a doctor. But the odds are that it's something more common and far less serious. You might need glasses. You could have a sinus infection. Maybe you're getting tension headaches from stress.
Choose your thoughts
The next step is to choose a helpful thought to replace the unhelpful one.
Keeping a journal of your thoughts is one of the best ways to practice stopping, asking, and choosing your thoughts. It makes you aware of your self-talk. Write down any negative or unhelpful thoughts you had during the day. If you think you might not remember them at the end of your day, keep a notepad with you so that you can write down any thoughts as they happen. Then write down helpful messages to correct the negative thoughts.
If you do this every day, accurate, helpful thoughts will soon come naturally to you.
But there may be some truth in some of your negative thoughts. You may have some things you want to work on. If you didn't perform as well as you would like on something, write that down. You can work on a plan to correct or improve that area.
If you want, you also could write down what kind of irrational thought you had. Journal entries might look something like this:
Stop your negative thought
Ask what type of negative thought you had
Choose an accurate, helpful thought
"I get so nervous speaking in public. I just know that people are thinking about how bad I am at speaking."
Focusing on the negative
"I'm probably better at public speaking than I think I am. The last time I gave a talk, people applauded afterward."
"I have to be in control all the time or I can't cope with things."
"I can only control how I think about things or what I do. I can't control some things, like how other people feel and act."
"I'll never feel normal. I worry about everything all the time."
"I've laughed and relaxed before. I can practice letting go of my worries."
"My headaches must mean there is something seriously wrong with me."
"A lot of things can cause headaches. Most of them are minor and go away."
Other Works Consulted
- Hart SL, Hart TA (2010). The future of cognitive behavioral interventions within behavioral medicine. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 24(4): 344–353.
- Layous K et al. (2011). Delivering happiness: Translating positive psychology intervention research for treating major and minor depressive disorders. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 17(8): 675–683.
- Lightsey OR, et al. (2012). Can positive thinking reduce negative affect? A test of potential mediating mechanisms. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 26(1): 71–88.
- McKay M, et al. (2011). Changing patterns of limited thinking. In Thoughts and Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods and Your Life, 4th ed., pp. 27–45. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
- McKay M, et al. (2011). Coping with panic. In Thoughts and Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods and Your Life, 4th ed., pp. 85–104. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
- McKay M, et al. (2011). Uncovering automatic thoughts. In Thoughts and Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods and Your Life, 4th ed., pp. 15–25. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
- Newman CF, Beck AT (2009). Cognitive therapy. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol 2., pp. 2857–2873. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.