Each of us has a stream of automatic thoughts running through our minds. These thoughts are often undetectable, yet powerful nonetheless. It's like having background music playing while you work. Most of the time you don't even notice it’s on--you simply go about what you're doing. But have you ever felt that different music affects your mood or even your energy level? Perhaps also your ability to concentrate? The automatic self-talk playing in your mind can affect all of these things, and much more.
To work with our thoughts and make them more adaptive and realistic, we first need to know what they are. We can't allow our self-talk to remain background music, affecting us without knowing it.
One of the most useful things you can do to combat stress and anxiety is to keep a running record of your thoughts on paper. There's simply no better way to learn about your thought processes than to write them down.
Use any type of notebook you like and make these headings at the top: 1) Situation; 2) Thoughts/What am I telling myself? 3) How anxious do I feel? Leave space to jot down a few words about the situation and perhaps the date so you can easily monitor your progress. Most importantly, write down any thought you're having either in anticipation of or during a situation that causes anxiety. In other words, what are you telling yourself? How do you feel about it? You can use a number in the third column to represent how you feel (using a 1 – 10 scale) or write a few words as a description.
Most people aren't accustomed to keeping a thought diary and may encounter the following obstacles:
1. "I don't have any thoughts. I'm just anxious!" Many people feel their anxiety comes from "out of the blue," and they have difficulty identifying specific trigger thoughts. Joe, a college student I worked with, told me about a situation that happened where he encountered this problem. He needed to do some research for one of his classes. As he walked through the library doors, he immediately felt an overwhelming sense of dread. His heart raced, he perspired profusely, and he became so dizzy he thought he might faint. But because he wasn't paying attention to his thoughts, he hadn't a clue as to what was going on. "It happened so fast," he said. "I wasn't thinking about anything. I just needed to check out a book for a paper I’m writing."
And studying the situation more closely, Joe remembered he'd seen a group of students from the same class walking up the library steps ahead of him. "Come to think of it, it crossed my mind that I should speak to them, but I looked down, pretending not to notice them," he said. As we talked about the incident, Joe recalled several thoughts that had flashed through his mind:
- They have friends; I don't.
- If I said "hi" they probably wouldn't know who I was.
- I hope I can avoid them in the library.
- No one ever asks me to study with them.
- I do everything alone. I'm such a freak.
Joe was amazed that he could have all these thoughts running through his mind without him noticing it. Once he did, he could see why you felt so anxious. He picked up right away how one negative thought led to another more devastating than the first, and how this made him feel even worse.
When you run up against situations like Joe did—you know you're anxious but you don't know why—you'll need to investigate. Review what you were doing prior to feeling anxious. Did you see anyone in particular? Did you talk to anyone? What was going on around you? Try to remember precisely when your mood changed. Joe recalled he’d been in a good mood before entering the library. He was eager to check out the books he needed so we could finish his paper. He enjoyed this particular class, and it wasn't an effort for him to write. He hadn’t felt at all anxious until he saw those other students, which then triggered an onslaught of unrealistic, negative thoughts.
Even if you don't know exactly what you're thinking at the time, develop the habit of writing anyways. Write down, "I don't know for sure what I'm thinking … I wonder if it has something to do with _________." Generate several possibilities; don't commit yourself to one. Oftentimes, simply going through the process of writing in your thought diary helps you ferret out important insights. It certainly takes practice and patience, and if you persist, you'll become adept at noticing your thoughts and seeing the connections to your anxiety.
2. "I don't have time to write down my thoughts." It's true, it can be a chore in the beginning to keep a detailed thought record. But keep in mind, you don't need to write down all your thoughts. That would be impractical, if not impossible. Pick times when you feel at least moderately anxious, perhaps when physical symptoms mount, as well. For example, Joe's experience in the library was a good one to journal. His anxiety came on quickly and mysteriously, along with a good dose of physical distress. Try to write down your thoughts while you're still in the situation, but sometimes that's not feasible. Do so as soon as you can, though, while the thoughts are still fresh in your mind.
Also remember, you won't need to write down your thoughts forever—even doing it for a week or two will yield plenty of good information. After you've gotten some practice with monitoring and challenging your thoughts, the process will become more natural and you won't have to physically do it all the time. You’ll develop mental shortcuts that will prove effective, as well. But don't rush the learning process. Most people need to write out their thoughts—think them through on paper—in order to systematically make changes in their outlook on life.
3. "My thoughts sound stupid when I see them written out in black and white." Some people find that when they write down their thoughts, there's surprised at how foolish they sound. Even if you don't plan on showing what you've written to another living soul, you may still feel embarrassed.
This reaction is not all bad. It means you're gaining perspective through the sheer act of putting pen to paper. Thoughts sounding perfectly logical in your head now look irrational on paper. What's more, writing your thoughts down is one of the most direct routes for bringing unrealistic thoughts into consciousness. Only when you're fully conscious of your thoughts do you gain the power to change them.