Learning to Approach Anxious Thoughts Differently

by Cynthia Jenkins, PhD

Anxiety is something that we all feel. Some feel it more frequently or more intensely than others but we are all wired to feel it and this wiring is designed to get our attention. Anxiety is one of the ways that our bodies keep us safe. It often goes something like this…

  • You feel vigilant. All your senses are extra tuned-in to the details in your environment.
  • Your mind identifies potential threats and determines the level of danger.
  • If a threat is perceived it kicks your body into action to try to restore safety.
  • Our heart rate increases to activate our bodies.
  • Blood leaves our digestive system and enters large muscle groups so we can run or fight.
  • Our body heats up and we sweat.
  • Adrenaline pumps into our bloodstream, we think quickly and emotionally to restore a sense of safety. No time for the slowness of logical problem solving – we’ll return to that when we are safe.

If we are actually under threat we are grateful for this system and the quick preparedness for fight or flight. More often than not our anxiety stems not from a physical threat but from an emotional threat or a perceived threat. Maybe you have perceived a threat to your self-image because someone has misunderstood you. Maybe you are afraid of looking foolish which would change how people see you. Sometimes anxiety is triggered by a memory, a bad experience in the past or just plain biology (like a fear of heights). In these instances the quick biological response to restore a sense of safety gets in the way more than it helps. It tends to pull us toward avoiding what is making us anxious (thereby making us feel temporarily safer) or has us thinking over and over and over about something to try to get it right, to feel prepared and to figure out what needs to be done to fix something and restore a sense of safety. The problem with this is that avoidance is the perfect way to maintain and prolong the anxiety. Ruminating rarely gets us through anything.

In these instances when anxiety is triggered by an emotional issue, rather than a physical danger, it can be helpful to approach the anxious thoughts in a constructive way.

  • Remember that your thoughts are trying to protect you and keep you safe but remind yourself that they are creating more of a sense of a threat than may be necessary.
  • Notice what physical sensations you are feeling and remember that they are just sensations. Just because your heart is racing doesn’t mean that you are in danger. Your system has just gotten switched on. Think of it as a hypersensitive smoke detector that goes off in the kitchen when the pasta gets too steamy. You’d like it to just go off when there is a fire but it’s more sensitive than that. Try to just notice your heart rate, your breathing, and perspiration as a scientist might.
  • Notice your thinking.
    Are your thoughts focused on the past?
    Trying to redo something?
    Trying to get something right?
    Trying to work through a sense of shame, remorse, fear?
    Trying to make sure something doesn’t happen again?
    Are your thoughts focused on the future?
    Are you trying to prevent something unpleasant from happening?
    Are you trying to predict an outcome so you will stop worrying about it?
  • Has your mind detected something as a threat? What is the actual level of threat?
  • Learn to quiet your alarm system. Deep breathing, relaxation, distraction, exercise, talking, visualization, cleaning, meditation can all be very helpful.
  • Be compassionate and patient with yourself.

If you have tried everything you can think of and are still feeling like anxiety is interfering with your day-to-day life it might be helpful to talk to a professional. Mindfulness meditation, therapy, changes in diet and exercise, and medication can all be helpful.