How to Challenge Upsetting Anxiety Thoughts

Medical Reviewer

One sure way to feel better about yourself is to shift your pattern of thinking in a more positive direction. In a previous post I gave ten examples of biased thinking in anxiety, and I suggested it was important to find ways to overcome these. Adopting alternative ways of thinking doesn't come automatically, or easily, but it can be done. First, you'll need a structure to follow:

Step 1: Interrogate your thinking

Chances are, you are so used to an anxiety pattern of thinking that you tend to overlook the many alternatives. If you can identify the fact you are using anxiety thinking you will have made an important step forward. The next logical step is to question these thoughts. For example:

  • Where's the evidence? A lot of what anxiety thinkers regard as the truth doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Are you mistaking feelings for facts? Are you pre-judging? Are you caught up in a thought cycle?

  • What's the alternative? Try putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. How might that person view the situation?

  • Find the middle ground. One way to do this is to think in terms of extremes. What’s the absolute worst you could imagine happening? Now what’s the best? Now which is most realistic? That’s the most likely outcome.

Step 2: Answering yourself

Searching your mind for alternative ways of thinking may feel a little artificial and false at first. This is because you’ve embedded a certain way of thinking that you now regard as accurate. Forcing yourself to come up with alternatives may feel as if you’re playing games.

We don’t usually write our thoughts down, yet this is a something myself and other therapists commonly suggest. The reason for writing things down is that it provides an ongoing record that allows you to see patterns emerging. The alternative is to promise you’ll think about it. But in fact that won’t really happen, at least not in a systematic fashion.

Putting your feelings into words is something you may not have done before. Describing emotions can be tricky, but these emotions have been triggered by your beliefs and your expectations. For example:

  • Upsetting thought:_ “that person looked right through me. I’m nobody.”_
  • Alternative thought: “maybe that person is preoccupied, or looking for someone.”

Exploring alternatives allows you to be more accepting and gives more scope for doubting negative interpretations.

Step 3: Embrace “maybe”

The alternative thoughts that are most effective are the ones that make you feel better. The more a thought fits with the facts the easier is to accommodate and accept it. In many cases the facts simply aren’t known, so rather than fill the gap with assumptions and suspicions, it’s simpler and easier to embrace “maybe.”

  • Maybe people are looking at me, but no more than they’re looking at others.
  • Maybe I feel more nervous than I look.
  • Maybe there’s nobody special in the room, so maybe I’m as good as them.
  • Maybe I’m not being judged. Maybe people are actually interested in me.

It's impossible to get rid of negative thinking entirely. But you can do simple things to stop it taking hold and dominating your life. This is one of the benefits of a thought record. You’ll learn to recognize your particular thought patterns and this makes it easier to manage your situation.

For example, “Here I go mind-reading again. How can I possibly know what someone else is thinking?” You’ll see the tricks your own mind can play on you and gradually learn to see them for what they are.

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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