9 WAYS TO CONTROL ANXIOUS THOUGHTS
From an evolutionary perspective, anxiety serves an important, protective function. Healthy levels of anxiety are what helped our ancestors detect, prepare for, and respond to threats in their environment, from predators to preparing for a heavy storm. In today’s modern world, healthy anxiety is what makes a mother double-check her baby’s car seat, making sure it is properly situated; healthy anxiety is what motivates a student to study extra hard for an important exam.
At times, however, anxiety can become overwhelming and counterproductive. An anxious mind can lead to rumination—a compulsively focused thought on one’s distress or worry. Rumination is a nonproductive overthinking that leads to more overthinking and ever-increasing anxiety. Ultimately, rumination leads people to avoid taking action, making decisions, or moving on from negative experiences. It can lead to the feeling of being stuck in the present circumstance, making you feel helpless and out of control.
Here are nine helpful tips to calm your mind from Dr. Melanie Greensburg, an expert in mindfulness-based cognitive-behavioral therapy.
- Cognitive Distancing
Our brains are hardwired to refer to past experience and all similar information, even if that information is not pertinent to the problem at hand. When we compare present situations with past experiences, we relive the emotional experience as well, which can increase anxiety. Try distancing yourself emotionally from the situation, imagine another person in your place, and look at it objectively.
2. Separate Your Self from Your Thoughts
Anxiety is often driven by negative, generalized, and catastrophic thoughts. If you catch yourself focusing on only the negative possibilities, thinking in generalizations (i.e. everybody/nobody, always/never) or believing that the current situation will lead to more negative outcomes, separate yourself from your thoughts. Your brain is always on the lookout for danger, including the danger of failing. Remember, it is up to you to believe your thoughts or analyze the situation for opposing evidence that can open your mind to positive possibilities and outcomes.
3. Learn to be Mindful
Mindfulness, a practice similar to meditation, has been growing in popularity thanks to statistical evidence of its numerous health benefits. Mindfulness exercises have been shown to improve executive cognitive functions, including memory and problem-solving abilities. It is also an effective stress-management and anxiety reducing exercise. Mindfulness meditation focuses on observing our thoughts without reacting, while focusing on the present moment. You can easily find guided mindfulness meditations on YouTube; practicing mindfulness daily will help you regain control of your worries and anxiety anytime, anywhere.
4. Separate perspective from reality
Your perspective is your reality. Our perception of our environment and ourselves is not always accurate. Research has uncovered that our minds are biased towards evaluating our present circumstances by our past, leading to an inaccurate perspective of the present. You can uncover these inaccuracies by reminding yourself that the past, present, and the future are separate spaces in time; do not allow negative thoughts to gain control over you in the present moment.
5. Tag It
You can get an inside peek at the cognitive functions of your brain by recognizing thoughts categorically. For example, when you experience self-doubt, tag it as doubt; when you have a repetitive thought or worry, tag it as repetitive or worrying. Learning to name thought patterns is a way of distancing yourself from the content of the thought and recognizing it as a cognitive process or pattern, one that does not require your full attention.
6. Be Present in the Now
By now you know that the brain processes new information by retrieving old information that it perceivesas identical. Understand that as high functioning as your brain is, that does not mean it is infallible. Your brain does not always take into account your own progression in life—new skills, coping strategies, observations, and knowledge mean that your reaction to an event today will be different from your reaction to the same event last year. This is an especially important strategy for people attempting a career change after being employed for several years. We often minimize or even discount the progress we have made over long periods; anxiety over a job interview in your 30’s is often based on difficult job interviews experienced in your 20s. Stay in the now and remember that negative past experiences have no bearing on your present or future experiences.
7. Expand Your View
Anxiety can give you tunnel vision. Unfortunately, the “anxiety tunnel” is narrowly focused on only the immediate or potential threats it can foresee. Try expanding your view. Ask yourself: Will I still care about this problem next year, or the year after? Is this problem worth the energy of being upset?
8. Stop Thinking and Start Doing
The most effective cure for racing and repetitive thoughts is to get up and get active. Maybe your repetitive thought is about something you need to do or a deadline that is coming up; it could be a sign that you are procrastinating. The easiest remedy for procrastination-induced anxiety is to get to the task; in this way, you can make unproductive anxiety productive. If the racing or repetitive thoughts are not related to procrastination, find an activity that gets you moving, like taking a walk, exercising, or even cleaning the house. By changing environments and activities, you introduce new stimuli for your brain to focus on, freeing you from the discomfort of anxious thoughts.
9. Evaluate Your Thoughts as Useful or Irrelevant
Our brains are very thorough. When faced with a problem or weighty decision, our minds are suddenly able to recall a plethora of information from what we know to what we heard on television to what we heard from a neighbor at last year’s 4th of July barbecue. Not all of this information is relevant to the situation. It is up to you to decide what is useful and what is irrelevant. Focus only on the useful information, let go of the rest.