In providing teen and child therapy, and in my work coaching parents, I spend a great deal of time helping people change their thoughts in order to overcome their anxiety. Anxiety is a physical response, but it is highly thought-driven. Our perception of a situation as stressful or scary sets off the “fight, flight, or freeze” response in the brain, which activates our nervous system to go into survival mode. The anxious survival response (that sensation of our heart racing and the strong urge to get out of a situation as quickly as possible) is useful at times when we are in real danger, but not too useful when we are trying to get through routine tasks. If you are naturally more anxious, your days are filled with false alarms — getting anxious about situations that really are safe, like having to talk to someone on the phone, being in a crowded space, or taking an elevator. People with chronic anxiety are constantly scanning for “dangerous” situations. There are a slew of cognitive distortions that make a routine situation seem dangerous and trigger anxiety, but I’ve noticed in almost 10 years of treating anxiety with cognitive behavioral therapy that there are two basic categories of anxious thoughts that require identifying and replacing:
- “Oh No!” This is the negative thought that always pops up in some variation when our anxiety is triggered, and that in turn triggers more anxiety. This is when we catastrophize, when we make ‘mountains out of molehills’ so to speak. Have you ever gotten somewhere and realized you forgot something important, like your wallet? The best thing to do would probably be to keep calm, figure out a plan, and carry out the necessary steps to fix the situation. But an anxious reaction is to freak out: “Oh no! I forgot my wallet! Oh my god! Oh no I don’t know where it is!!!! NO!!” It might sound silly, but try to reason with someone (or be reasoned with) during a state of “Oh no” thinking. It’s a dead-end way of thinking that is sure to lead to panic. When we say “Oh no,” we spiral into more anxious thinking about how bad our situation is, how stuck we are, and how bad it feels.
Replace with: “What Now?” We can acknowledge that something is hard without thinking that everything is bad. “What now?” tells us to regroup and make a plan. It gets us un-stuck. If we can stop thinking “Oh no” and start thinking “What now,” we have moved past panic and into problem-solving. In the here and now, we are usually okay. Our biggest obstacle in most cases is our own reaction, not our actual ability to get through a situation. When we start thinking about solutions, we regain our power over a situation and we can draw on our abilities and resources to respond effectively.
- “What If….?”Here’s the thought that sums up all our negative future-thinking. We all do it, because we all experience fear at some point, but some people get very trapped in their “What if’s” to the point of not wanting to go anywhere or try anything new. If “Oh no” is a fast-track to panic, “What if….?” is the one-way street to paralysis and avoidance. What if I fail? What if people laugh at me? What if I get hurt? As our fears mount, our anxious fight/flight/freeze response kicks in. Have you aggressively defended a mistake you’re making because you were afraid of what might happen if you tried to change what you’re doing? That’s fight. Have you ever talked yourself out of something that was probably achievable, because you felt so anxious about it possibly going badly or failing? That’s flight. Have you ever been unable to make a decision because you were stuck in your anxiety about possibly making the wrong decision? That’s freeze. When we say “What if….?!” we begin imagining worst case scenarios, and we grow our fears and insecurities.
Replace with: “IF…., THEN…” This thought is how we return to reality from our worst case scenario envisioning. If I fail, then I’ll try again. If people laugh at me, then I’ll join them- it’s good to be humbled and laugh at yourself now and then! If I get hurt, then I will heal, because I’m really strong. When we answer your fears with thoughts about concrete plans, we begin to feel safe, secure, and in control once again. It might sound overly simple, but the fact is that when we are afraid we forget to picture how things might go well. Or how they might turn out neutral, which is probably the most likely outcome. The more we come up with If Then’s, the more we can see the multiple ways in which things can realistically turn out okay and then respond in a way that takes us in one of those directions.
Practice noticing your thoughts — particularly during times of stress. See if you can replace your anxious “Oh No!” and “What If” thoughts, with more productive thinking like “What now” and “If, then.” Notice the difference in how it feels, and how your anxiety lowers when your thinking shifts to be more positive.