Unwanted thoughts can be very distressing and challenging particularly when suffering from an anxiety disorder. Our minds can play extraordinary tricks. Our thoughts can become strange, bizarre or frightening.
It can be helpful to remember that your fearful, negative, unwanted thoughts are a product and a part of your stressed out physiology. You don't need to take any notice of them - just accept that they are another symptom of an anxiety disorder and let them pass. As your nervous system settles down, so will your thoughts. In the meantime, here are some tips for dealing with them. (Remember to check out anxietyunravelled.com's other free tips to help your body and mind regain balance, peace and calm, such as information about flower essences like Boronia and White Chestnut, that are really helpful in settling unwanted and circling thoughts.)
1. Choose not to give attention to unwanted thoughts that will perpetuate your anxiety state (worrying, negative, circling thoughts) Yes, I know, this can be easier said than done, but carry on reading for tips that will help make this process more achievable.
2. Know that difficult and unwanted thoughts are just a part of the imbalance that has been caused by all the numberless stresses that you have experienced - they are not real, they will start to lose their power as you start to recover. After your recovery, a thought that can send a shock of anxiety through you now will become just another thought that you won’t bother paying any attention to.
3. Unwanted thoughts will inevitably arise – don’t try to push them away or resist them or fight them, this is negative attention – in other words, it is still attention. It is a bit like getting a song stuck in your head. When this happens there is only one way to get rid of the offending song and that is to replace it with something else, especially another song. It is the same with unwanted thoughts. Whenever you try to force the song or other unwanted thoughts away, this increases resistance, which just gives strength to their presence.
4. Allow your unwanted thoughts to be there, allow space around them. Gently replace the thoughts with something else and allow the unwanted thoughts to go without forcing them away. If you can, avoid going back to check whether they’re gone – that will tend to bring them back. But don't worry if this happens, just keep practising - you'll get there in the end.
5. Use this tendency of the mind to want to replay thoughts over and over and find an inspirational song, prayer or phrase to sing.
6. Whilst sometimes it may be helpful to tell a particularly persistent thought to get lost, generally speaking it is ultimately more effective if you can allow these thoughts to exist. Acknowledge them - "oh there's another fearful/doubting/anxious thought again, it's OK, it's just a bunch of words - it could just as easily be my mind saying banana, banana, banana!" and then allow your attention to be absorbed by something else. Know that they are just another symptom.
7. It can be very helpful to observe what is happening in the body when you have unpleasant or worrying thoughts. Mentally scan the body – where are you feeling sensations? Can you feel tightness, tension, heat, cold, unsettledness? Just feel the sensations without trying to change them. This is helpful because it gives your mind something else to focus on and also brings you into the present moment. Often this is sufficient to allow the unpleasant sensations to dissipate as the thoughts that were sustaining them have had the attention removed from them.
8. You may need to give yourself a pep talk (see the Anxiety Unravelled ebook for the scientific rationale for this) – something along the lines of “you know that if you give too much attention to these thoughts you’re just going to keep your anxiety going – you don’t need to pay attention, these thoughts are just a product of my present imbalance and they are not real, I can let them go and get on with something else” or whatever words work for you.
9. Reframe unhelpful thoughts – it is unhelpful to dwell on negative thoughts about yourself or others and all the millions of possible “what ifs”. Reframe thoughts such as “I’ll never get over this”, to something such as “I may not being feeling better today, but I’m doing everything I need to and eventually I will feel better just like millions of people before me”. Reframe “what ifs” by reminding yourself that there’s no point worrying about something that may never happen and if it does happen you will deal with it then.
10. Thoughts can also be used to our advantage. When we are caught up in the intense symptoms that can surround panic and anxiety attacks, we experience the instant negative impact that our thoughts can have on our physiology. A single thought can be enough to send an immediate lightening bolt of intense fear through the body. When you have experienced this there can be no doubt remaining that our thoughts affect us physically. What we can forget, however, is that we can also use this mind/body connection to our advantage by spending time every day nurturing ourselves with loving thoughts. There are lots of different ways to do this and what feels right and most comfortable to you will be most effective, but here is one idea:
When you are troubled by unwanted thoughts it can help to remind yourself of who is in charge of your thinking! These are just thoughts, and you are creating them, frightening yourself.