We have all gotten stuck on a thought — ruminating on a particular point until we feel stressed, anxious and overwhelmed.
“I should have said ‘X’.”
“Why didn’t I do ‘Y’'?“
“They probably think I am so stupid.”
Anxiety often thinks it’s being helpful when it keeps bringing things to your attention. “See, this is important” it says, keeping your line of sight right where it wants you to. The problem with that is that anxiety has a very narrow scope of focus. Like a toddler who spots the Lucky Charms and all they can do is think about needing the Lucky Charms, your anxious brain feels like all it can do is think about this thought.
But is it really helpful?
No, not really. See, thoughts are meant to come in waves — like feelings. We are meant to notice them, like cars driving by, but not get stuck following just one. Why? Because thoughts are transient. Important ones will show up again and in some instances, they will spark action. But anxious thoughts rarely do that — or at least rarely spark action in any way that is beneficial to you as a person. Instead, anxious thoughts limit your focus and cause you to fixate on this one particular thought(s). It wants you to fix what it assumes to be broken without the ability to filter it through a lens of rationality.
How can a thought have that much power? I know, it sounds crazy but it’s entirely true. See, our thoughts effect our feelings which effects our behaviors which in turn effects our thoughts. It’s like a super powerful feedback loop that keeps circling around and around until it steals all of your time and energy. Plus, our thoughts are both a product of and a reinforcer for our core beliefs and negative self talk. So the thought no longer feels like just a thought. It becomes much more powerful.
So what can we do about it?
We have to train our brains to move from irrational to rational thinking and to take the weight out of the thought(s). It is a technique called thought challenging and while there are a lot of ways you can use this technique, here are some basic and super effective ways to begin to work through these thoughts and begin to let go of the power they hold:
Take a few minutes to write down all of your thoughts. No editing, no filters…just word dump on a piece of paper. This is important because it gets the thoughts out of your head and externalizes them from your brain. By doing this, it immediately lessens the hold they have over you. It also makes it easier for us to train our brain to trust us that we can come back to these thoughts in time but that they don’t need to remind us of them all of the time (see step 4).
After you have done a brain dump of everything your anxiety is focusing on, look at each of the thoughts and ask yourself which thoughts you can do anything about and which thoughts or worries are out of your control. This step is important as we have to train our brain to stop taking on a responsibility for thoughts that are not ours to take on. Cross out every thought that is not in your control or you cannot do anything about and tell yourself it is okay to let this go as thinking about it will not allow anything to be “fixed” or changed.
Now, for all of the thoughts that are (or seem to be) in your control, ask yourself, “Do I need to do anything about this thought right now?” This is another layer of getting the brain to relinquish control and that focus on the thought as oftentimes there is nothing we can do about a particular thought right now except acknowledge and work to let it go. In this instance, I like to then follow that process up by telling my anxious brain, “No? Okay, then we can trust I put this thought here on the paper and we can pick it back up tomorrow…” — or whenever you can do something about it — “…and deal with it then. We can trust it is on this paper and we will not forget it so we dont have to keep focusing on it.” This is hard as your brain will 1) not trust the paper and 2) still be conditioned to worry. This is where step 4 comes in to play.
It is easy for our brain to get stuck feeling like you have to do something about it right now — texting a friend to follow up about that thing you said you worried was stupid, planning for a meeting in a week to try and think through every situation that could happen and how you will respond, reading everything you can about a particular topic or talking about something over and over again until you can “fix it” in your head. That being said, the question sometimes gives anxiety a back door to take over. In that case, rather than asking the question, change it to a statement, “Nothing needs to be done right now. We can leave these thoughts here and come back to them at [insert designated time]”
Set a time you will come back to these thoughts. For example, I may say “Worrying about how my upcoming doctor’s appt will go is not going to help me right now because I can’t do anything about it. I am not going to think about it until I am at the doctor’s office.” Or, worrying about all of these thoughts when I need to go to sleep and do not have the brain power to sort through them is not fruitful. I am going to leave this list here and come back to these thoughts in the morning, when I am more refreshed and I have more ability to do something about them. Then, every time your brain keeps circling back to the thought, remind yourself the time you will come back to the thought. It is a trick to ease your anxiety. It is saying - we will focus on it, just not right now. Again, this is a back door way of training your brain not to get stuck on thoughts that are not helpful or in our control at this time.
Finally, ask yourself with every thought, “How is this thought serving me?” This is the most critical step — at least for me and my anxious brain. The role the thought plays in my head is important to get clear on as it can help motivate us to work on letting it go. For example, if I am ruminating on a thought from a meeting I had and feel like I said something wrong or didn’t make a good impression, how helpful is it to keep thinking about what I wish I would have said? Or, if I have an art show in a few weeks and I am worrying about how it will go, is that thought particularly helpful for me right now? In both cases, not so much. And that is what you will find true the more you check in with yourself about how the thought is serving you and the role and space it is taking up in your brain when left unchecked.