By the time people reach out to see me for therapy, they have been plagued by anxiety that is so severe, it feels as if it is running their lives. They report sometimes having obsessive thoughts that seem to never stop or nagging worrisome thoughts that elevate their heart rate and keep them in an almost constant state of fear. This can sometimes not only cause emotional distress but also physical symptoms such as high blood pressure, dizziness, nausea, digestive issues, and the list goes on and on.
What if I told you that almost 100% of the time, it is our thoughts that are the culprit? Most of our anxiety, even at it’s most severe, begins with one anxious thoughts that builds and builds until it feels as if our mind is filled with them. So then the answer must be that we just need to figure out what that first thought is and get rid of it! Right? Wrong.
Unfortunately, there is no way to get rid of these anxious thoughts completely. I know, that would have been the best, simplest solution possible but it is just not the case. We really don’t have complete control over what thoughts are coming into our mind. I’m sure you have tried to tell yourself, “okay, mind, just have positive thoughts now” or “stop thinking negative thoughts”. How did this work out for you? Not very well, right? It’s just not that simple. A meditation teacher once told me, “our minds create thoughts like our mouths create saliva.” Thoughts are streaming into our minds like a continuously moving conveyer belt, dropping sometimes random thoughts, images, stories and memories into our consciousness. And, as you have probably noticed, they are being dropped into our minds at an alarmingly fast rate. So it is virtually impossible to stop thoughts from dropping.
Although this isn’t great news, it doesn’t mean that there is nothing we can do to feel better. Our control lives in what we do with the thoughts once they arrive.
So what can we do with these anxious thoughts?
1. Don’t Believe Everything Your Mind Tells You
We can start with an awareness that we don’t have to believe everything that comes up in our minds, that we don’t have to take it all to heart or allow it to change our moods. As humans, we have the tendency to believe all of the thoughts that come into our heads. But I have to tell you, not all of your thoughts are real or accurate. Sometimes, they are flat-out lies. It’s true, your mind sometimes lies to you! Even our own memories can become distorted or seem to be more negative when we are already in a bad mood. Often, our minds will randomly drop images or thoughts that are incredibly scary or disturbing and again, aren’t really based in reality. But I know from experience, these thoughts and images can stick with me and set off a spiral of anxiety or even depression.
There may be times where it seems impossible not to believe our thoughts. But perhaps if we can remember this just 10% of the time, we can notice an improvement in our anxiety or low-mood levels.
2. You Are Not Your Thoughts
By putting some distance between ourselves and our thoughts, we begin to realize that we are not what we think. What I mean by this is that we can begin to identify with our thoughts. A good example are unkind thoughts that we all have about ourselves, such as “I am stupid” or “I am ugly”. We can believe these thoughts so much so that it becomes a part of who we are. But actually, these are just thoughts. Just because they come up in our minds, doesn’t make them true, as I explain above.
3. Come Back to the Moment
Anxious thoughts are always directed toward the future and often begin with “what if…” or are full of possible scenarios, usually of a catastrophic nature. Most of us are not able to predict the future, and yet we try to do it all the time. We have amazing, vivid imaginations, which can be helpful in many creative ways. However, this hurts us when we begin worrying about the endless and sometimes horrific scenarios that may come to be. And in actuality, I have found that 99% of the time, the things that I’m sure will happen, never do.
When we begin to try our hand at predicting the future, it is possible to disrupt the thought loop by coming back to the moment. Again, we are in the future when these anxious thoughts come up, so it is possible to shift our minds back to the task at hand, which may be our work, time with our loved ones, etc. When caught in these anxious thoughts, our minds often pull us away from our present moment experience which is all that truly exists. The past is gone and the future hasn’t happened yet, thus, the present moment is precious and filled with possibility.
Dr. Christina Barber-Addis is the founder of New Awakenings Therapy and is a mindfulness-based, licensed psychologist in private practice in Encino, California. She specializes in treating adults with anxiety by incorporating mindfulness meditation into her therapy practice.