anxious thoughts

When You Can’t Think Away Your Anxious Thoughts, Do This Instead

By Lesley Lyle
July 19, 2022

If we can create feelings of anxiety through our thoughts, then surely all we need to do to feel less anxious is to change our thoughts to more positive ones. Right? This may sound logical, but as you may have already discovered, putting this theory into practice can seem all but impossible.

Anxiety-Provoking Thoughts Can Be Persistent and Resistant

You may have experienced the frustration of trying to stop thinking about something, only to find that the problem gets worse instead of better. Science backs this up: Trying not to think about certain things makes the likelihood of thinking about those things even stronger!

Harvard psychologist Dan Wegner demonstrated this in a study that showed that when people were asked not to think about white bears, they were far more likely to think about white bears. It seems that trying to suppress our thoughts leads to “thought rebound,” the paradox of producing the very thought that one is trying avoid.

The Thinking Problem

These two quotes are attributed to Albert Einstein: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” and, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Trying to think of ways to stop thinking about the things that make you feel anxious simply doesn’t work. Another approach is needed.

An Alternative Way

Instead of concentrating on what is causing the problem (thinking), it can be more effective to switch your attention and focus to your physical feelings. After all, if the thoughts didn’t make you feel bad, you wouldn’t mind having them, would you?

Concentrating on how you don’t want to feel is as useless as going online and trying to book a flight to “anywhere except New York.” The system can’t help you unless you are specific. It needs information, such as exactly where you want to go and when you want to get there.

In the same way, you are much more likely to feel better if you identify exactly how you would prefer to feel instead of anxious. For instance, do you want to feel calmer, more confident, more self-assured, or something else? Once you know exactly how you do want to feel, you can start working toward it.

Biological Feedback

Our feelings of anxiety can intensify or diminish depending on how we behave, because what we do affects the biological feedback our nervous system receives. So if we act as if we are already in our desired state, our body will respond accordingly.

The James-Lange Theory of Emotion suggests that all our emotions result from our physiological reactions to external events.

When we behave in ways that reflect our state of anxiety, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) remains on alert, ready to fire the fight-or-flight stress response. On the other hand, if we behave as though everything is fine, we can encourage our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), where the relaxing state of “rest and digest” presides, to become dominant.

Take a Deep Breath

It may sound cliché to suggest that paying attention to our breath will help us feel calm, but recent research shows that it is true. The act of focusing on the breath and deliberately changing our breathing rate creates changes in the brain that can help increase our emotional control.

Instead of the rapid and shallow breathing pattern associated with anxiety, we can consciously change to a pattern that promotes feelings of calm relaxation. It’s as quick and simple as doing the following:

• Take a few moments to focus on your breath.
• Allow your breath to flow as deeply into your abdomen as feels natural, without forcing it.
• Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
• Gradually allow your breath to slow to a steady rhythm.

Stick with Your Normal Routine

If you feel anxious, sticking with a normal routine will help. Whether you are washing dishes, making the bed, or preparing a cup of tea, mindfully focus on every detail involved in the process—such as the sounds, smells, feelings, and tastes (if appropriate). This will help distract and disengage you from your anxiety-provoking thoughts, and send the implicit unconscious message that all is well. After all, if there were immediate danger, you wouldn’t prioritize or carry on with these sorts of activities, would you?

Relax Your Muscles

When we have anxious thoughts, our bodies tend to become tense—but relaxed muscles allow this tension to be released. A massage, a bath, or some simple stretching exercises can encourage your muscles to let go of this tension.

Notice the Change

As soon as you notice any positive change to your mood, acknowledge it. Changing your thoughts to ones like, “I’m beginning to feel much calmer now,” “I’m getting more aligned with how I want to feel,” and “This is working” will compound the effects and further your progress.

Lesley Lyle, MAPP, DipHE, is a positive psychology practitioner and associate lecturer on the MSc Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) course at Buckinghamshire New University UK. She is co-founder and director of Positive Psychology Learning and The Positive Psychology People. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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