Steps to Manage Anxious Thoughts

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A wonderful part of being a human being is our ability to think into the future and reflect on the past. This incredible ability allows us to learn from our experiences and to prepare for our futures. One problem with this wonderful adaptive ability, is that some of us are so good at it, that we become primed to overestimate the possibility of terrible outcomes and to minimizing our abilities to respond. Being vigilant about danger and not taking safety for granted would have been paramount for our ancestors but this level of vigilance may be out of place in our modern world. Our day to day conveniences should afford us the ability to trust more in our abilities to respond and adapt to unexpected scenarios and to alleviate our need to predict the possibilities of danger. Unfortunately for many of us our brains continue to be wired for predicting disasters and we can get stuck in a loop of anxious thinking. Fortunately our brains are wonderful and flexible and we can help free ourselves from these unhelpful thinking traps.

Here are a few steps you can take to help free yourself from chronic worry.

Are you predicting possible outcomes, or are you fortune telling?

You may be worried about a routine medical exam, the state of your relationship, that friend you haven't seen in a while or how your boss feels about your performance. If you find yourself skipping from one anxious thought to the other, try writing these worries down and rating the likelihood of these things actually happening.

Best Case Scenario/ Worst Case scenario

Come up with all the different ways that your worries could manifest, and write them down. Give yourself a moment to think up all the possible outcomes including the best case scenarios.

Increasing your ability to think of both positive and negative outcomes widens your perspective and allows you to ponder on all the different ways (positive and negative) that things may pan out. 

Go to court with your thoughts! Find evidence FOR and AGAINST your thoughts.

Our mind tends to focus more on the possibility of negative outcomes as a way of protecting us from danger. Through years of evolutions we have become wired to account for danger rather than expect safety. It is what helped us evolve as a species but it is also what contributes to our busy and over worried brains.

The problem is that our negative predictions could be based on limited information or a biased perspective. Give yourself a moment to bring forward evidence for and against each worried thought so you can weigh the outcomes and see each thought a little more clearly.

What are the costs and benefits of worrying?

See if you can think back on all the worrying you have done in the past and how many of those worries were correct. How many times have you been wrong? How has your worrying helped you?

Are you benefiting in some way from worrying? Is there a possible outcome to your worrying or does it keep you from moving into action?

Remember your resilience and ability to respond.

Think back on all the times you have been able to respond to surprising or unpredictable events in the past. Take time to consider how you may not be able to prepare for every possible scenario but how you may be able to trust yourself to handle anything that comes your way. Help strengthen trust in youself by thinking of all the past experiences that used to worry you but that you have since overcome.

What would you tell a friend in the same situation?

It is often easier to see strength in others than to see it in ourselves. Can you take a moment to treat yourself like a friend you love and admire. What kind of support would you give this worried friend? How would you help them see their own strength?