4 Expert-Backed Strategies For Challenging Anxious Thoughts
Thoughts aren't facts, but sometimes they can be pretty convincing. And during times of uncertainty (every day of 2021 so far, it seems), anxious thoughts have a way of hijacking the mind.
"Anxiety is a very common reaction to the unknown because it feels like a threat to our mental, physical, or emotional safety in the world," clinical psychologist Ayanna Abrams, Psy.D., tells mbg. "When anxiety crosses the threshold into distress, it can limit our ability to problem-solve effectively, begin affecting us physically, make us withdraw socially, and leave us feeling exhausted, confused, and unfulfilled."
And while we can't always control our thoughts, Abrams reminds us that we can control our reaction to them. Here are a few strategies to quell anxious thoughts as they arise and move forward into the unknown feeling a little steadier:
Consider what you do know to be true.
When uncertainty about the future starts to affect your experience of the present, Abrams recommends reminding yourself of what you know to be true. Look around your surroundings and consider the real, tangible things that are around you. "This also reconnects you with your senses and your body, which can feel comforting and safe amid uncertainty," she adds.
Remember what the anxiousness is there for.
Repetitive thought loops love resistance. In other words, when we try to push a feeling away with all our might, it tends to come back that much stronger. That's why Abrams says that during anxious moments, it's essential to remind yourself that "your anxiety is trying to protect you from something, even if it gets it wrong sometimes."
Another thing to remember is that "getting rid" of stress and anxiety is not the goal. Stress is an inevitable part of life, and our job is to take it as best we can as it comes—and goes. "Oftentimes, anxiety becomes amplified because we quickly and aggressively try to push it away or deny that it exists, versus letting it move through you and realizing that it even will eventually lessen," Abrams says.
Lean on a mindfulness practice like deep breathing or visualization.
You've heard about them a million times—and it's because they work! Any tool that helps you reconnect to your body and the present moment will be an ally when anxious thoughts come up. Abrams can vouch for deep breathing, counting, and visualizations (of pleasant experiences, hopes, dreams, etc.).
Track your anxious thoughts to find where the patterns are.
"Having the same thoughts repeatedly can be frustrating and exhausting," Abrams says. "Tracking or logging when these thoughts begin, what you're doing at the time, what's around you, can be helpful to learn if there may be triggers in your environment." For example, she says you may notice that you (rightfully so!) tend to feel the most anxious after watching the news or going on social media. Start a new journal—or note on your phone—where you can quickly jot down what you're doing the next time you notice anxious thoughts start to take over. Then you can keep an eye out for patterns over time.
Finally, Abrams says that during times of worry, it's essential to remember the support that's available to you: "If you find it difficult to implement this on your own, seeking social support and therapy can offer huge relief and skills so that you feel more competent when anxiety does arise." Together, we got this.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.