If you have an overactive mind – you’ve come to the right place! Ruminations, obsessive thinking, over-thinking, and constant worrying are just a few of the mental symptoms that commonly accompany anxiety. (And often strike at 1am… right?!). In this last (of three) installments on managing anxiety, I would like to briefly discuss a few CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and mindfulness strategies proven to effectively calm the mind.
My previous post on anxiety introduced my 3 step process for managing anxiety effectively:
- Calm your body
- Use breathing and muscle relaxation exercises
- Calm your mind
- Addressing the worrying, ‘what if?’ thoughts and grounding yourself to reality and truth
- Use CBT and mindfulness techniques
- Distract yourself
- Get yourself actively engaged in another activity
- Use any number of 99-coping skills
I addressed number one on this list in that same post (check it out here: https://hisheartfoundation.org/anxiety-how-to-work-with-your-body-to-calm-it/ ), so let’s jump right into learning accessible and effective ways to combat those anxiety symptoms that plague the mind.
What is your flavor of unhelpful-thinking?
There are actually many different ways that stress, anxiety and fear can influence our thinking and distort our perceptions of reality, as well as our thought processes. Take a look at the graphic below and mark the styles of unhelpful thinking you find yourself falling into in times of stress or worry:
One of the most common is called ‘Catastrophizing.’ Catastrophizing occurs when your mind creates a catastrophe (a much bigger deal than necessary) about an event. Ever heard of the phrase, “made a mountain out of a mole hill?” Your mind and body are giving you signals that there is danger lurking, triggering hyper-vigilance even in your thought process regarding what ‘might’ or ‘could’ happen in a given situation.
‘Decatastrophizing’ is a way to walk your mind through a step-by-step process to identify what the felt risk is, and assess how likely the ‘what if…?’ scenarios in your head really are. Take a look at graphic below and you can walk through the process yourself:
What is the catastrophe that I am worried about?
Clearly state: What am I worried will happen? What am I predicting will happen?
Change any “what if..?” statements into clear predictions about what you fear will happen.
How likely is this event to happen?
Has anything this bad ever happened to you before?
How often does this kind of thing happen to you?
Realistically, is this likely to happen now?
How awful would it be if this did happen?
What is the worst-case scenario?
What is the best-case scenario?
What would a friend say to me about my worry?
Just supposing the worst did happen, what would I do to cope?
Has anything similar happened to me before? How did I cope then?
Who or what could I call on to help me get through it?
What resources, skills, or abilities would be helpful to me if it did happen?
What positive & reassuring thing do you want to say to yourself about the ‘catastrophe’ now?
What would I like to hear to reassure me?
What tone of voice would I want to hear that reassurance in?
Journaling/Asking Helping Questions
A related strategy is to ask yourself Socratic Questions about the thoughts running through your head. Those thoughts come and go so fast that there is rarely time to really notice and question them. With practice, you can learn to better capture, question and change the direction of your thoughts, especially the harmful ones.
Try asking yourself or journaling responses to these Socratic Questions 2:
- What is the evidence for this thought? Against it?
- Am I basing this thought on facts, or feelings?
- Is this thought black and white, when reality is more complex?
- Could I be misinterpreting the evidence? Am I making any assumptions?
- Might other people have different interpretations of this same situation? What are they?
- Am I looking at all the evidence, or just what supports my thought?
- Could my thought be an exaggeration of what’s true?
- Am I having this thought out of habit, or do the facts support it?
- Did someone pass this thought/belief to me? If so, are they a reliable source?
- Is my thought a likely scenario, or is it the worst case scenario?
Circle of Control
If you prefer a more visual aide, try printing or drawing and coloring this ‘Circle of Control3,’ placing things you can control in your life or in the current situation you are facing within the circle, and things you cannot control on the outside. Remember: other people’s feelings, thoughts, words and actions are always outside the circle, and your feelings, thoughts, words and actions are always inside your circle!
Try keeping a thought log to track the common thoughts you have, what events/situations you find they occur in most often, and what feelings/behaviors you see flowing out of you in response. Then challenge yourself to come up with at least one rational counterstatement for each thought: something true you can tell yourself in those moments to ground your spinning mind back to the present reality as it is. Use the tools above if needed: ask yourself some of those Decatastrophizing or Socratic Questions to help you evaluate those thoughts and steer the direction of your automatic, unhelpful, anxious thinking onto new paths!
Keep at it!
The good news is that with repeated effort, thoughts that are noticed, evaluated, challenged, and replaced will create new neural pathways in your brain. On a fundamental level, our thoughts are simply electrical and chemical signals sent between neurons (brain cells) that are wired together. And scientists are finding that our brains are much more plastic (throughout our entire lifespan!) than we thought (pun intended ☺). So over time, with repeated effort, anyone can create new neural connections by simply paying attention to and re-training your thinking!
Mindfulness exercises are evidence-based (research proven!) techniques for increasing your ability to notice, challenge, replace and/or let go of thoughts, as well as emotions and even body sensations. Practiced daily, mindfulness techniques train your brain like a muscle, increasing the strength of your ability to have more intentional control over your thoughts.
Mindfulness books and exercises I love and recommend include:
- Brainstorm by Daniel Siegel, MD
- Mindful Games Activity Cards by Susan Kaiser Greenland with Annaka Harris
- Mindfulness Skills for Kids & Teens: A Workbook for Clinicians and Clients with 154 Tools, Technqiues, Activities & Worksheets by Debra Burdick, LCSWR, BCN
Now, go distract yourself!
Once you have calmed your body and calmed your mind, you’re ready for step 3: distracting yourself! Find an activity that engages you mentally, moves your body, gets you out of your house, forces you to be creative, or allows for some social interaction – anything that helps you move on from the thoughts, feelings and body sensations created by the anxious/stressed state you have been in. Research has proven over and over again how beneficial physical activity, being outside experiencing nature, and connecting with other people, all are to reducing stress, managing depressive and anxious symptoms, and even increasing your lifespan. So ideally: grab a friend (or your pet!), go on a walk outside, and try to get back to the business of enjoying even the small things you can find in your everyday life.
Check out the graphic below for some great ‘distracting’ ideas4:
Try the 3 step process for yourself, and keep track of your processing and your progress in a notebook or journal. Find a trusted friend or family member to discuss all you’re learning about yourself, and find safe spaces to practice speaking out loud and acting on your new thoughts. If you find that any of these questions or exercises seem to make your symptoms worse, talk to your doctor or a counselor about what you are experiencing. Anxiety that is rooted in unprocessed trauma, abuse, PTSD, or negative past experiences can increase when closely examined on your own, or lead to safety issues such as self-harm or suicidal thoughts. If that happens to you, please reach out to a trusted medical or mental health professional; they are there to help you walk through those dark places that are too scary and unsafe to travel alone.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned[ and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:4-9 (ESV)