By Alana Gregg, MA
When we are anxious, our minds tend to race with all kinds of thoughts. It can feel like a pinball machine up there and it can be really overwhelming to sort through them all. Our anxious minds can go from thinking of things we have to do to worrying about something that hasn’t even happened yet in a matter of seconds. So what do we do with all those thoughts?
First, it’s important to slow yourself down enough to recognize the thoughts you are having. It can be really easy to plow through life so you don’t have to deal with them. I call this the Indiana Jones approach…you run as fast as you can away from the giant boulder barrelling down at you that seems to be picking up speed every second. All because you are terrified of what will happen if the boulder catches up with you. Try sitting still for five minutes and jotting down the thoughts that come up without judgment.
Once you are in a place where you can identify the thoughts you are having, the second step is figuring out what to do with them. We can’t always help the thoughts that pop up but we can decide how much power to give them. One way to do this is to make categories for your thoughts so you know how to handle them.
Three categories of anxious thinking
1. Thoughts you can do something about– Ask yourself, “Is there something I can be doing to make this situation better?” There are times when we can do something to make the things we are worried about better. For instance, those finals coming up can feel really overwhelming. You may think “What if I fail” or “I’m never going to remember all this material.” Of course, those things cause some anxiety because you want to do well and be successful. But we can either allow ourselves to be paralyzed with fear or we can do our best to study and prepare. It may not guarantee you an A but you will have done everything in your power to do well. It can be very tempting to avoid the situation but that will not make it better. You may feel better in the moment, but it will add to your anxiety later because those issues will still be there waiting for you.
2. Thoughts you can’t do anything about– There are times when the things we are worried about are outside of our control. This can be very scary because we have to wrestle with a lot of uncertainty. If there is something you can do to make that situation better, then focus on that thing. If there isn’t, then work toward accepting that this situation is your present reality no matter how much you wish it weren’t. Acceptance is not the same as approval. But it does mean choosing to not be stuck in your pain or denying reality altogether. Talking to a God who is infinitely bigger and wiser can help us find a place to rest our anxious thoughts about things we don’t understand.
3. Thoughts too far into the future– Sometimes our minds drift to the future where we start imagining scenarios that have not or may not even happen. Often, they are worst case scenarios we have played out that most likely will not come true. We can’t do anything about these thoughts popping into our head but we can choose what to do with them. You can try a thought stopping technique when your thoughts become too focused on what if scenarios in the future. You can say “Stop!” in your head or out loud and then divert your attention to a more positive thought or activity instead. This is different from avoiding the thought. You are still acknowledging that this imagined situation is upsetting to you but you are choosing to focus on what is in front of you instead. When we bring our minds back to the present, we have a greater capacity to deal with challenges right now.
If you are struggling with racing thoughts, inability to concentrate, restlessness, or irritability, then you may be experiencing anxiety. The counselors at Lime Tree Counseling are trained to help you recognize your anxiety and offer evidence based anxiety counseling. We have an office in Ambler, PA as well as offer online counseling in Pennsylvania, online counseling in North Carolina and online counseling in Colorado. If you aren’t sure if counseling would be a good fit, we offer a free 15-minute phone consultation so you can voice any questions or concerns you have. Don’t continue to struggle alone.