Think Straight

As we have seen, anxiety is kept alive by negative thinking and worrying. So it is crucial to start challenging this kind of thinking style as soon as possible. Remember, too, that when you stop the ruminating and agonising, you will also sleep better.

First, you need to become aware of all the negative commentary running through your head. You may already be aware of it but a great many people aren't, because it is just an unconscious accompaniment to their daily life.

Fleeting thoughts such as, "I'm not good enough", "I'll never cope", "I'm a bad person", "It's all my fault", "It's all too much!" are powerful: they suck up our vitality and confidence and take a lot of energy that we could better expend elsewhere. So, here are some useful tips for controlling them.

  • Try carrying a notebook with you for a few days ...

And note down every negative thought that you catch coming into your mind. You may well be surprised by just how many there are! Doing this will make you more conscious of negative thinking generally and better able to take the next step.

  • Challenge the negative thoughts!

Ask yourself whether they are realistic or whether they represent merely a highly biased view of events. Challenging unrealistic thoughts will help disempower them and push them out of your mind - altogether.

''I'm not good enough."

"Actually, 1'm doing my best in very difficult circumstances."

"I'm always late!"

"Occasionally I'm late."

''I'll never cope."

"I've always managed to cope so far, one way or another."

''I'm a bad person. "

"I love my children and my husband, and I do my best for them."

''It's all my fault."

"It's partly my fault and partly his/hers."

"It was actually completely unavoidable."

''It's all too much!"

"If I can't do it all, I'll just do what I can."

"I'll do 7/11 breathing for a few moments and see how I feel about it then."

''I'll die if I don't get invited!"

"1'11 be disappointed if I don't get an invite, but there will be others."

"My essays have to be perfect before I can hand it in - can't they see that's why I keep missing the deadlines." 

"It's better to make my essay as good as I can get them, and hand them in on time, than hang on to them and get no marks at all!"

"It can never be perfect. It just has to be good enough."

"I might fail. So I won't do any work, then at least I won't be surprised or disappointed by failure."

"I shall try my best. I might even get a very good mark. If I don't, I'll never know what I have to improve to get better marks next time." 

  • What can you do about it now?

Over-anxious people often spend a lot of time imagining terrifying future events, such as car crashes in which loved ones die, hitherto unknown strains of flu that wipe out their entire family or holidays going disastrously wrong. Or they worry incessantly about past failures and how they might have acted better in a relationship or a work situation or whatever. If that sounds like you, it is helpful to ask yourself, "What can I actually do about it now?" If there is something you can do (ensuring the car is well serviced, for instance, or taking out holiday insurance), make a note to do it - and then do it. If there is nothing you could possibly do to prevent a particular eventuality or to change what has happened in the past, however, then resolve to stop worrying about it.

  • Say "Stop!"

If a particular worry keeps coming into your mind, some- times just saying "Stop!" very loudly to yourself, inside your head, is enough to prevent it from having house room for a while .

  • Have a worry half hour

Agree with yourself that you will put all of your worries aside until a specific half hour in the day - a time that suits you best but not just before bedtime - when you will sit and do nothing but worry. So, when worries flash into your mind at other times, either note them down to worry about later or, if you know you'll remember them because they are old favourites, just push them away till the appointed time. People often find it much easier to block out intrusive worries when they know they can give them their full attention later. Then, when your worry half hour arrives, you can either worry pointlessly for the whole half hour or, if there are steps you could take to deal with your concerns, you might like to use the time to work on those instead. If you don't feel like worrying for a full 30 minutes, stop short of the time. But remember that is your allowance used up for the day and you don't get to 'make the time up' on any other day!  

  • Exaggerate

This might sound strange, but exaggerating can really help to put things in perspective. When psychologists have sensed it would be appropriate, they sometimes tell anxious worriers, corning to them for therapy, that they were simply not worrying enough! They then list dozens and dozens more things they could worry about, piling them up into a huge mountain of absurd, catastrophic scenarios. This soon becomes so ridiculous that their clients collapse with laughter, sometimes even joining in the game.

In one such case, a young film script writer had become obsessed with how easy it is for people to kill another person. "Every house has knives in!" "Cars are everywhere!" He couldn't get such thoughts out of his head and was now worrying that this might mean he was going to kill somebody. A creative, intelligent man, he had a great sense of humour but was spending 15 hours a day working on his own, writing and researching. So, although he was intellectually stretching himself, his other emotional needs were being neglected. His psychologist decided to used the exaggerating technique on him. As their conversation developed, he began suggesting to the writer, as if in all seriousness, all the countless crazy ways people could kill one another with ordinary objects. It soon became farcical. His client kept trying to go one better in absurdity until they were both in tears of laughter. Once put into perspective, the sinister obsession never came back. The writer began rebalancing his life, taking into account all his other needs, and his anxiety levels dropped away.

Low self-esteem

Some anxious people can come to think that they are rubbish ... and they are then described as having 'low self-esteem'. They feel inadequate, not good enough, not clever enough, not competent enough in some area or other. It could be that, when they were young, they were told they were unlovable, worthless, bad, unwanted or stupid, and they took in those false messages and were conditioned by them to think they were true. But it doesn't always come about like that. Because of a tendency to overreact to negative events, like losing a job or a lover, some people will catastrophise these types of situation to such an extent that they write themselves off as worthless beings.

Self-esteem is a buzz term with psychologists and self-help experts - 'having it' is seen as vital for mental health - but it isn't something you can get by standing in front of the mirror and telling yourself you are a wonderful, lovable person, as some self-help approaches recommend. Feeling good about yourself emerges naturally when you engage with life in a meaningful way. When you master new skills and develop new competencies and feel sure of the support of good friends and the love of people close to you, self-esteem is yours.

When we participate in activities that truly have value to us, and when we are helping and serving others, that is when we feel best about who we are. This is a very good reason for working to break the pattern of negative thinking that might be locking you into low self-esteem as well as anxiety.

High self-esteem, incidentally, is not the opposite of low self- esteem, and it is not something to strive for. People with high self-esteem tend to be selfish and greedy, and take little account of other people's feelings and opinions.

Self-esteem goes up and down according to how things are working for you. We are more effective at some times than others, just as we can concentrate better at some times rather than others. When self-esteem drops, therefore, it is a signal that something needs addressing in your life.

Continued in this article:

Take a different perspective