If we create and then dwell on certain thoughts, there’s a good chance we’ll activate a part of the brain called the amygdala, and create anxiety. Most of our anxious thoughts don’t have a basis in reality — but try telling that to the amygdala. It simply responds to the messages we send it, and it can’t distinguish fact from fiction. To prevent the amygdala from tripping every five minutes, we need to control the way we think.
There is a clear difference between thinking about something and the actual event. Sometimes in anxiety, these lines blur. If we take our thoughts at face value, and start believing them, this can make us more likely to respond to anxious thoughts.
Most people give weight and accuracy to their own thoughts and some may even struggle to accept strong evidence to the contrary of what they think. The process of assuming what we think is reality (when it is not always) is called cognitive fusion. When anxious thoughts combine with cognitive fusion, the risk of anxiety increases.
Worriers and pessimistic thinkers take heed. It’s important to remember that thoughts do not predict actions. Feeling that something is dangerous doesn’t necessarily make it so. Therefore it’s useful to be able _de_fuse thoughts by not taking them at face value.
Using coping thoughts
Coping thoughts are simply thoughts more likely to have a positive effect on our emotions. One way of thinking about coping thoughts is by contrasting them with anxiety-producing thoughts. Coping thoughts are more useful because they increase our ability to problem-solve tricky situations and they keep us calm.
It’s not easy turning a pattern of thinking around but the time and effort put in will result in dividends. Here are a few examples:
Anxious Thought: I just can’t deal with this.
Coping Thought: I’m a capable person with skills. I can manage this.
Anxious Thought: I must not make mistakes.
Coping Thought: I’m human. All humans make mistakes.
Anxious Thought: I just know something terrible is about to happen.
Coping Thought: This is just a feeling and feelings can be wrong.
If you’re aware of a certain pattern of anxious thinking you may find it useful to write down coping thoughts. This can be handy when you begin the exercise and especially effective with your most intrusive thoughts. You also may be surprised just how frequently you use anxious thinking!
Don’t try to erase – replace
There’s very little point in trying not to think thoughts. The harder you try to push a thought to one side, the more it pushes its way back in. A far easier, and more effective approach, is to practice replacing a particular thought with its alternative.
Some therapists recommend the stop! technique as a way to stop ruminating and obsessing. It’s as simple as it sounds. If an anxious thought becomes troublesome, you simply tell yourself “Stop!” You could shout this out if you’re alone, but otherwise you need to shout it in your thoughts. You then replace this with an alternative, such as a favorite tune, or a shopping list you need to write, or maybe some planning for an event (as long as that event planning doesn’t make you anxious!).
In their book “Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic and Worry,” C.M. Pittman and E.M. Karle tell us the right hemisphere of the brain is a source of anxiety and negative emotions. The left half of the brain, by contrast, has greater focus on the things that interest us. When we engage in activities we like, the dominance of the right hemisphere is reduced. Similarly, meditation increases left hemisphere activity. The authors also point out that certain activities deliberately occupy the right hemisphere in ways that are incompatible with negative moods. Uplifting music is one. Positive images are another.
Let us know how you get on!
(1) Pittman, C.M., & Karle, E.M. (2015) Rewire Your Anxious Brain. How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic and Worry. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Dr. Jerry Kennard is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry's clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.