Anxious thoughts can overwhelm you, making it difficult to make decisions and take action to deal with whatever issue bothers you. Anxiety can also lead to overthinking, which makes you more anxious, which leads to more overthinking, and so on. How can you get out of this vicious cycle? Repressing anxious thoughts won’t work; they will just pop up again, sometimes with more intensity. But there are more effective techniques you can borrow from Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Cognitive-Behavioral therapies.
Following are 9 strategies to help you get unstuck and move forward:
1. Attempt Cognitive Distancing
Try to see your anxious thoughts as guesses not facts. Your mind is trying to protect you by predicting what could happen, but just because something could happen doesn’t mean it will. Look at objective evidence: How likely is it that the negative outcome will actually happen? Is there anything good that might happen instead? And which do you think is most likely to happen, based on past experience and other information you have about the situation?
2. Try Cognitive De-fusion
Stop being fused with your thoughts. Think of your thoughts as moving data passing through your mind, rather than the objective truth about a situation. Our brains are hypersensitive to threat and danger because this kept our ancestors alive in the wild. Some of your thoughts may just be automatic conditioned reactions generated by a brain that is oriented to survival. Choose whether or not to believe these thoughts, rather than just accepting them.
3. Practice Mindfulness
Practice observing your thoughts, rather than reacting automatically to them. Think of your thoughts as clouds floating by. Which draw you in and which make you want to run away? Is there a way you can untangle yourself and just observe your thoughts, rather than reacting?
4. Focus on Direct Experience
Your mind makes up stories about who you are, and about your safety and lovability. Not all of these stories are accurate. Sometimes our minds are biased by negative past experiences. What is your experience in the present moment? Is this something that is actually happening or something that might happen? Notice that they are not the same thing, even though your mind may treat them as the same.
5. Label Things
Label the type of thought you are having, rather than paying attention to its content. Watch your thoughts and when you notice a judgment (e.g., how good or bad the situation is), go ahead and label it as Judging. If you notice a worry (e.g., that you are going to fail or experience a loss) label it as Worrying. If you are criticizing yourself, label it as Criticizing. This gets you away from the literal content of your thoughts and gives you more awareness of your mental processes. Do you want to be spending your time judging and worrying? Are there less judgmental or worried ways to see the situation?
6. Stay in the Present
Is your mind regurgitating the past? Just because something negative happened in the past doesn’t mean it has to happen today. Ask yourself if the circumstances, or your knowledge and coping abilities, have changed since the last time. As an adult, you have more choice about whom to associate with and more ability to identify, preempt, or leave a bad situation than when you were a child or teenager.
7. Broaden Your View
Are you focusing too narrowly on the threatening aspects of a situation, rather than seeing the whole picture? Anxiety makes our minds contract and focus on the immediate threat without considering the broader context. Is this situation really as important as your anxiety says it is? Will you still care about this problem in 5 or 10 years? If not, then ease up on the worry.
8. Get Up and Get Going
Worrying over an issue without creating a solution will not help you solve the problem. It may in fact make you less likely to act by feeding your anxiety. When your mind is stuck in a loop, you can interrupt it by getting up and moving around or doing a different task or activity. When you sit back down, you should have a different perspective.
9. Decide Whether a Thought Is Helpful
Even if a thought is true doesn't mean that it is helpful to focus on it, not all the time. If only 1 in 10 people will get the job you seek, and you keep thinking about those odds, you may become demotivated and not even bother applying. This is an example of a thought that is true but not helpful. Focus your attention on what is helpful and let the rest go!
Resources and Links
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a psychologist in Mill Valley, California, and expert on mindfulness, emotions, neuroscience, and behavior. She provides workshops and speaking engagements for organizations, psychotherapy for individuals and couples. She regularly appears on radio shows, and as an expert source in national media. She also does long-distance coaching via the internet.