How to challenge your thoughts to reduce anxiety

person writing in journal

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

When you are experiencing anxiety, your thoughts can get into a cycle of worries which can often exacerbate your anxious feelings. When you are in the anxiety cycle, the anxiety can lead you to overestimate the likelihood of bad events and negative consequences. Sometimes these thoughts are based on past negative experiences, but past negative experiences are not necessarily predictive of the future. For example, just because someone treated you poorly once, does not mean all others will treat you poorly in the future, or just because you failed a test once does not mean you will fail every future test.

So how do you change the way you think and break out of the worry cycle? It takes time and practice to develop a different lens through which to view the world, but it can be done and in doing so you can reduce your anxiety. You can start by learning to:

  • Recognize when you are thinking anxiously or negatively
  • Identify ways in which your negative thoughts might not be accurate
  • Actively challenge negative, anxious thoughts and emphasize more balanced ways of thinking

There are several strategies you can use to develop more balanced thinking, but keep the following things in mind as you go:

  • Writing thoughts down helps you process them in the beginning. As you get more practised at identifying your negative thoughts you won’t need to write them down as often as you’ll be able to process them more quickly and move to a more balanced mindset.
  • Developing these skills takes time. At first you might find you don’t believe the positive thoughts you take time to develop. However, your belief in your negative thoughts is due to lots of practice over time and it will take time and practice before you value the balanced thoughts in the same way.
  • The goal is not to develop equally inaccurate, super-positive thoughts either. The goal is balance. When considering a thought, ask yourself if it is possible that a negative belief and a positive belief about a situation can both be true. For example, is it possible to be rejected by a romantic partner and still have people in your life who love and value you?
  • It is easier to practice these skills when you aren’t in a state of distress. When your anxiety is quite high, look towards relaxation strategies first.

Challenging your thoughts

There are different types of questions you can ask yourself when you recognize an anxious or overly biased thought.

Brief challenging thinking questions

  • Am I being objective?
  • Am I looking at the whole picture?
  • Is there another explanation?
  • Could there be another possibility?
  • Is this a helpful way of thinking?
  • If what I predict happens, what would that mean to me? What would realistically happen next? How would I cope?
  • What is the worst that can happen? What is the best that could happen? What is most likely to happen? (These 3 questions are meant to be asked together – focusing on just the worst possible scenario is not recommended)

Perspective taking questions

  • How would someone who isn’t anxious view this same situation?
  • How would someone who cares about me view this situation? What would they say to me?
  • What would I say to a loved one who was having the same anxious thought?
  • What questions would I encourage another person to ask in this situation in order to challenge their thoughts?

Positive coping statements

  • I’ve felt anxious like this before, and it goes away with time. This too will pass.
  • That’s just my adrenalin kicking in- it will pass.
  • I know what is happening in my body. I just need to breathe through it.
  • I know what I can do. I’ve dealt with this before.
  • I can survive this. I’ve done it before.
  • I can’t stop the symptoms this instant and I don’t need to.

Keeping thought records

To understand your anxiety, it is helpful to gain a very good understanding of it. When you can identify the moment-to-moment expressions of your anxiety and follow them through the anxiety cycle, you can start to interrupt them. You can do this by assuming the role of a keen observer of your internal processes. When you can maintain awareness of your thoughts and become skilled at recognizing anxious thoughts, it can be easier to interrupt them. To keep a thought record, follow these steps:

  1. Note the situation or trigger that activated your anxiety.
  2. Observe and record your anxious thoughts without judgment.
  3. Rate how strongly you believe each thought (between 0 – 100).
  4. Note the emotions and sensations that go with your thoughts and the strength of your emotions (rate each emotion on a scale of 0 – 100).
  5. List evidence that supports your anxious beliefs and then list the evidence that does not support your anxious thoughts.
  6. Write down some alternative or balanced thoughts for this situation.
  7. Rate your emotions after completing this exercise.

After doing these exercises for a while, you’ll be prepared to identify your anxious thoughts and stop them before you get into the worry cycle. These skills take time to develop, so take it easy on yourself as you build up these new ways of thinking. If you’d like to learn more about thought challenging and other strategies for reducing anxiety, try taking our Alleviating Anxiety seminar.

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