Anxiety: Stop Negative Thoughts

Overview

Anxiety is a feeling of fear or concern that something bad may happen. It can cause things like headaches, sweating, or a feeling that you just can't relax. Everyone feels anxious from time to time. But if anxiety interferes with your daily activities, talk with your doctor. You may need treatment with medicines (such as antidepressants or antianxiety medicines) and/or professional counseling.

Negative thoughts

When you have anxiety, negative thoughts can increase your worry or fear. Changing negative thought patterns may not be easy. But our minds can be trained to be stronger and healthier—just like a muscle. A technique called thought reframing can help.

Thought reframing is the process of replacing negative thoughts with more helpful thoughts. It's a skill taught in a type of counseling called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). There are also books and apps that can help you learn thought reframing on your own.

With practice, you can get better at choosing healthier thoughts to replace negative thoughts.

How can you use thought reframing when you have anxiety?

Negative thoughts can increase your worry or fear. But with some practice, you can learn how to shift those thoughts into healthier ways of thinking. Here are some tips to get started.

  • Be on the lookout for common types of discouraging thoughts.

    When you know the common types, it's easier to spot them when they happen. Here are a few to watch out for.

    • Ignoring the positive. This means that you filter out the good and focus only on the bad. For example, you might focus only on critical feedback from your supervisor and ignore feedback about your strengths.
    • The "should." Thinking that you or other people "should" or "have to" do something is a sign of this type of thinking. For example, "I have to be in charge of things, or I can't relax."
    • Overgeneralizing. This means taking one example and saying it's true for everything. Watch for words such as "never" and "always." For example, "I always act awkward on first dates. I'll never find anyone who wants to be with me."
    • All-or-nothing thinking. This is also called black-or-white thinking. It means that you think of things as either all good or all bad—with no options in between. For example, "If my job review isn't perfect, I'll get fired."
    • Assuming the worst. For example, "I have a headache. What if it's a brain tumor?"
  • Practice reframing your thoughts.
    • Notice the negative thought. Don't be hard on yourself because you had the thought. Negative thoughts can pop up sometimes before you can stop them. But learning to recognize them can help you shift them.
    • Question the thought. Ask yourself whether it's helpful or true. Your answers can help you find more accurate ways to think about the situation.
    • Replace the thought. Ask yourself "What's something that's true and more helpful?" Use your answer to replace the discouraging thought. Here's an example:
      • You might first think: "I get so nervous speaking in public. I just know that people are thinking about how bad I am at speaking."
      • You can replace that thought with: "I'm probably better at public speaking than I think I am. The last time I gave a talk, people applauded afterward."
  • Use a thought diary.

    Write down negative thoughts throughout the day. Then rewrite them to be more encouraging. Over time, choosing more positive thoughts in the moment will get easier.

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