Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


A Hidden Cause of Anxiety: Your Thoughts About Your Thoughts

Changing how you respond to your thoughts can help you keep your calm.

It's hard to imagine a relationship more central to our daily lives than our relationship with our thoughts. Our thoughts follow us constantly, with the potential to influence our every waking moment (and even our sleeping ones). And yet, we often just take this relationship for granted, never examining the way we relate to our thoughts or how we view them, feel about them, or react to them. This lack of exploration into how we think about our thoughts, unfortunately, can hold us back in significant ways and may even contribute to a spiral of negative self-talk, anxiety, or depression rumination.

A healthy relationship with our thoughts

An optimal relationship with our thoughts involves taking on the role of a curious, gentle observer. Can you acknowledge your thoughts without immediately fearing them, judging yourself for them, or letting them immediately spur you towards a reaction? Mindfulness practices like meditation can help increase this: How well are you able to distance yourself from your thoughts and observe them without judgment?

So many of us get so wrapped up in our thoughts, especially negative ones, and that makes them take on even more power—increasing our sense of hopelessness and fear. Remind yourself that your thoughts are neither automatically true nor automatically you. Many thoughts arbitrarily come and go without holding much meaning, and still more thoughts may be completely unreliable distortions that actively lead us astray. The more we can objectively observe our thoughts without adding to our distress because of their presence, the better off we will be.

One important first step of handling your thoughts in a more healthy way is to label them as thoughts and even narrate the process of your having them. Instead of "I'm going to screw up this presentation," reframe it as "I'm having the thought that I'm going to screw up this presentation." You can even distance yourself further from your thoughts by talking about yourself in the third person—as hokey as it may sound, this technique of self-distancing can help you gain objectivity and lower your emotional reactivity.

Remember that a thought can always pass on its own, and it need not be threatening in its own right. We make it more likely to stick when we get into a fight with it or assume that it has to mean something.

Common anxiety-provoking reactions to thoughts

Here are some thoughts about thoughts that can further add to our distress:

What is wrong with me for thinking this way?

I need to push this out of my head!

These thoughts will never go away.

I can't handle this thought!

What all of these thoughts have in common is that they add a layer of upset on top of whatever the thought itself was, increasing distress and making the thoughts even more anxiety-provoking. These thoughts about thoughts send the message that the original thought is too big or intense for you to handle or that you are somehow flawed for having a particular thought—in both cases, that takes away your sense of autonomy rather than adds to it. And it makes it seem that your thoughts are something to be afraid of.

Over the coming days, take time to examine not only your thoughts but any messages you tell yourself about your thoughts. You may find that you feel more relaxed and autonomous when you choose to view your thoughts in this way, as a distanced, curious but gentle observer of them, rather than someone who needs to fight with or hide from them.

More from Andrea Bonior Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today