Throughout the day, our brains engage in a continuous dialogue with us, delivering a range of self-talk messages that can be positive, neutral, or negative. Positive and neutral messages may consist of self-affirmations such as "you've got this" or "that was smart," practical reminders like bringing an umbrella or sending crucial emails, safety alerts through a "STOP" message, and more. These positive and neutral messages pose no harm and typically don't demand much of our attention.
Nevertheless, our brains also have the capacity for negative messaging, which may involve self-deprecating labels like "idiot" or "loser," thoughts of social rejection, anticipation of impending doom, or the belief that overcoming challenges is impossible no matter how hard we try. While these negative messages are a normal part of human experience, they tend to intensify during moments of anxiety, causing more harm. Hence, it becomes crucial to pay attention to these messages and develop the ability to assess them.
In times of anxiety, our perception of the world often skews towards seeing it as threatening and perilous. This response is logical, as envisioning worst-case scenarios aids in preparing for genuine threats and safeguarding oneself. For instance, if alone at home and hearing an unfamiliar scratching sound at the window, assuming it's a burglar can trigger a heightened state of alertness, preparing for potential escape, self-defense, or seeking help. While this anxious reaction proves beneficial in the presence of a real threat, it becomes problematic if the initial thought was inaccurate, such as mistaking a tree branch for a burglar. Acting as though there is danger when it doesn't exist leads to unnecessary anxiety.
Consequently, an effective strategy for managing anxiety involves replacing negative, anxious thoughts with more constructive thinking patterns.
How to Approach It
STEP 1: OBSERVE YOUR INTERNAL DIALOGUE
Our thoughts, often expressed silently as self-talk, play a significant role in shaping our emotions. Throughout the day, we generate numerous thoughts, influencing our feelings. Our unique perspective on various situations contributes to the way we process information. When we anticipate negative outcomes, like the fear of being bitten by a dog, it triggers anxiety.
Consider a scenario where you're taking a stroll and encounter a dog. If your thought process leans towards perceiving the dog as a potential threat and likely to bite, fear sets in. Conversely, if you view the dog as adorable, a sense of calmness prevails.
Frequently, we remain unaware of our thoughts, yet given their profound impact on our emotions, it becomes crucial to start monitoring our internal dialogue.
STEP 2: RECOGNIZE THOUGHTS CONTRIBUTING TO ANXIETY
Identifying the specific thoughts that trigger anxiety may require time and practice. To assist in this process, consider the following tips:
1. Be attentive to even subtle shifts in anxiety levels. When you sense an increase in anxiety, take a moment to inquire:
- "What am I currently thinking?"
- "What is causing this anxiety?"
- "What am I concerned might happen?"
- "What negative outcome am I anticipating?"
2. Here are some examples of anxiety-inducing thoughts:
- "What if I'm incapable of doing it?"
- "I might suffer a heart attack."
- "People will mock me if I make a mistake during the presentation."
- "I'll lose my mind if I can't quell this anxiety."
- "Things won't turn out well."
- "I feel like a fool."
- "What if something unfortunate happens to my child?"
STEP 3: EXAMINE AND QUESTION YOUR "ANXIOUS" THOUGHTS
Merely entertaining a thought does not validate its truth or guarantee its occurrence. For instance, assuming that a dog will bite you doesn't necessarily mean it will happen. Frequently, our thoughts are mere conjectures rather than established facts. Consequently, challenging anxious thoughts proves beneficial, as they can create a sense of impending negativity, even in situations where the likelihood is minimal.
At times, our anxiety stems from succumbing to cognitive distortions, known as thinking traps. These traps involve adopting unfair or excessively negative perspectives on various situations.
STEP 4: EXPLORING MORE EFFECTIVE AND REALISTIC THOUGHT PROCESSES
Further insights on fostering helpful thinking:
Tip #1: Coping Statements
Create statements that reinforce how you can manage challenging situations. Examples include:
- "If I feel anxious, I'll practice calm breathing."
- "I just need to give it my best."
- "People can't discern when I'm anxious."
- "I've dealt with this before, and I know how to handle it."
- "My anxiety is temporary; it won't last forever."
Tip #2: Positive Self-Statements
Regularly engage in self-affirmation rather than self-criticism. For instance:
- Instead of saying, "I will fail," say, "I can do it."
- "Having anxiety doesn't make me weak; everyone experiences it."
- "I'm not a loser if someone doesn't like me; not everyone is liked by everyone."
- "I am strong for confronting things that scare me."
Tip #3: Balanced Statements as Alternatives to Negative Thoughts
After examining evidence or recognizing thinking traps, develop a more balanced perspective. Using the job interview example:
- "There's a chance I might not excel in tomorrow's interview, but not performing perfectly doesn't mean I won't get the job."
- "Even if I don't secure this job, it doesn't imply I'll never find employment. I've consistently been able to secure work."
Helpful thinking is closely related to psychotherapy, especially cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Here's how helpful thinking connects with psychotherapy:
1. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is a widely used therapeutic approach that focuses on the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It recognizes that our thoughts can influence our emotions and behaviors. The goal of CBT is to identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to emotional distress. In the context of CBT, helpful thinking involves challenging and restructuring negative thought patterns into more realistic and positive ones.
2. Recognizing Thinking Patterns: Psychotherapy, particularly CBT, helps individuals become aware of their thinking patterns, especially those that contribute to distress, anxiety, or depression. By recognizing these patterns, individuals can begin to understand the impact of their thoughts on their emotions and behaviors.
3. Challenging Distorted Thoughts: Helpful thinking in psychotherapy involves challenging distorted or irrational thoughts. Therapists work with clients to examine the evidence supporting or refuting negative thoughts. This process helps individuals develop a more balanced and accurate perspective on their thoughts and the situations they are facing.
4. Skill-Building: Psychotherapy often involves teaching individuals specific skills to manage their thoughts and emotions. This can include coping statements, positive self-talk, and other techniques that foster helpful thinking. Clients learn to apply these skills in various situations to reduce distress and improve their overall well-being.
5. Promoting Resilience: Psychotherapy aims to enhance an individual's resilience and ability to cope with life's challenges. By fostering helpful thinking, therapists empower clients to approach difficulties with a more positive and adaptive mindset. This can lead to improved emotional regulation and a greater sense of control over one's life.
6. Individualized Approaches: Psychotherapy is tailored to individual needs, and the focus on helpful thinking can vary based on the client's specific challenges. Therapists collaborate with clients to identify and address thought patterns that contribute to their unique concerns.
In summary, helpful thinking is a key component of psychotherapeutic approaches like CBT, where the goal is to understand, challenge, and modify negative thought patterns to promote emotional well-being and positive behavioral changes.