How To Tame Your Anxious Mind
Our humanness dictates our varied perceptions, evaluations, judgments, and expectations. These develop over time based on our physiology, history, and experiences. For some people, they perseverate or hyper-focus and complain that “they can’t get their mind off of ___.” Others overthink things and can’t stop “but-ing” themselves, while others chronically worry and/or have negative, dreaded, or pessimistic thoughts. Some others have racing thoughts, in which they experience their mind buzzing often. The quality of these thoughts may lead to restlessness, relentlessness, and intense feelings of concern, worry, fear, disappointment, and frustration.
Our mind’s level of chattiness varies from person to person. Because of the level of discomfort, there is often a struggle to avoid, get rid of, or “wish” that the thoughts and feelings ceased or never existed. This struggle perpetuates a mind loop where we end up challenged with having thoughts about our thoughts and feelings about our feelings. For some, this mind loop can be exhausting, painful and frustrating. It can be challenging to have self-compassion when all of that “noise” is surfacing causing us to question, defend against and desire to avoid ourselves.
You likely ask yourself or are asked by others to “stop” having the thoughts and feelings that you’re having. You’re expected to accomplish this by reciting “positive affirmations”, “thinking about something pleasant or positive”, or “thinking about something else.” You soon realize that there is no feasible method of “getting rid” of the thoughts and feelings, rather efforts can be made to decrease the intensity of distress so that life can be lived more meaningfully.
Our minds do what they do. It varies as to how chatty our minds are. It differs as to the degree to which we behave from our intellect (Pre-Frontal Cortex) vs our emotions (Amygdala). There is also variability as to how negative our thinking innately is.
I make it a point to validate and verbalize to my patients that how they think and feel is okay and that they are intrinsically okay. Also, that there’s a difference between thinking about something and acting on behalf of the thought and feeling. Finally, that they are not fully defined by their thoughts and feelings. For example, they can have a mean thought and it doesn’t make them a mean person.
Patients have described it being freeing to open up to the idea of noticing their thoughts, accepting them for what they are, while also reserving their self-judgment and self-criticism. They recognize the choice to act on behalf of their best self and who they want to be as opposed to relying solely on their thoughts and feelings to guide their behavior.
Rather than be beholden to accept their thoughts and feelings as facts, they learn to observe them, assess them, and respond to them mindfully and thoughtfully. Learning how our mind functions can make all the difference in reducing self-criticism and shame, increased self-compassion, and acting on behalf of our best selves.
In Order To Get To Know Your Mind Better, Consider The Following:
- Our mind holds onto formative ways of thinking, feeling, and coping. When I ask people “how old” their thought or feeling is, it’s usually an old thought or feeling going back to childhood; especially when there’s a lot of intensity attached to it today. The thought and/or feeling may be familiar, comfortable, and what the person’s used to. These thoughts, feelings, and coping mechanisms may have been extremely purposeful in childhood but sometimes doesn’t accommodate the person’s development as they mature into adulthood. Ask yourself what thoughts, feelings, and coping mechanisms do you hold onto and do they presently work effectively for you?
- Notice those “old” thoughts and feelings. Observe the consistent patterns and whether they pertain to the present set of circumstances. Evaluate for yourself whether you’re falling back into these older patterns or whether the circumstances would naturally evoke those set of thoughts and feelings. Also, assess if you tend to fall into those typical ways of reacting and acting on behalf of those thoughts and feelings. Re-assess if that’s in fact how you want to be acting. We may not have control over our thoughts and feelings, but we can presently make different choices about our behavior. Ask yourself if you are following and perpetuating certain patterns and how they serve you today?
- Recognize which core beliefs those thoughts and feelings hit up against. Is it ineffectiveness? unloveability? and/or hopelessness? Do they tend to hit up against one or another? Remain consistent or change based on the circumstance? Ask yourself what your core beliefs are and what their utility and variability are in the present?
- On the continuum, individuals who are anxious are more apt to have “chattier” minds. They tend to be flooded with anticipatory anxiety (before), anxiety in the moment (during) and postpartum anxiety (after). The cycle appears with “____ will happen”, “what ifs” and “I should/could haves.” Ask yourself whether you tend to have a chatty mind and if you are flooded with anxiety before, during or after events?
- Our mind is relentless at protecting us. It provides us with safety at all times – even when it’s not necessarily warranted. The safety I speak of includes protection from rejection, pain, disappointment, etc. Thank your mind for this! The “what ifs” are purposeful. For example, if we didn’t think “I’m going to fail the test” we may not be prompted to study. The challenge presents itself when the thought “I’m going to fail” becomes all-encompassing and impacts on a person’s self-confidence and ability to effectively study and concentrate on the material. Ask yourself if you have an overly overprotective mind and whether it sometimes gets in the way of you doing what you want to be doing?
- Based on our mind’s protective mechanism, it tends to be naturally negative and goes to those dreaded places of looking at things through a negative lens. Mindfulness and meditative practices facilitates the effort to be in the present moment and retrain our mind to be flexible and open to other possibilities. In the ACT work I do, we call it “psychological flexibility.” I ask my patients; how else can they see it? What are other possibilities? It helps to open and expand the mind. Ask yourself whether you tend to see things through a negative lens and whether you take the opportunity to be flexible and expand your thinking?
- Don’t believe everything you think. I have a sign with these words on my office door. Be cautious at accepting your thoughts as facts. Observe your thoughts, be curious about them, notice your judgments and ask how else can things or circumstances be considered? If it’s just a thought, try challenging it. If it’s a fact, then notice it, accept it, problem solve through it, while compassionately being with the thoughts and feelings that surface. Ask yourself whether you instantaneously accept thoughts as facts and whether you’re open to assessing and working through them no matter what the circumstances?
- We are taught to be happy (“happily ever after”), “fix things that are broken”, “get rid of bad feelings and hold on to only the good ones”, and “what we think or feel is reflective of who we are.” With all of this, it makes it difficult for us to “BE OKAY” because rarely all of this falls into place. Part of our intrinsic humanness is acceptance of all that we are and are presented with, including the more comfortable and less comfortable thoughts and feelings. I always refer to it this way — never suggesting good and bad. That connotes that if we have bad thoughts than we’re bad and if we have good thoughts than we’re good. If this were the case our humanness would dictate that we’re all bad because negative and less comfortable thoughts are constantly being evoked. Ask yourself whether you judge yourself and others as “good” or “bad” and that you attempt to get rid of the negative and less comfortable thoughts and feelings?
- We all strive to be accepted and sought after and want to believe that we’re not the cause of someone else’s pain or discomfort. Because of this we are sometimes hypervigilant because of the fear that we are. There lies why we get confused and have conflicting thoughts and feelings about our “selfishness” and our need for “self-preservation.” When we perceive ourselves as being “selfish”, we experience ourselves as being mean, self-centered, self-serving, and non-caring. It serves us well to accept that sometimes we need to make decisions that are based on our own needs for the sake of self-preservation, despite whether it may make someone uncomfortable or negatively impact them. The key is whether in our decision making that we truly ponder about the impact on others and take that into consideration in our decision making. Ask yourself whether you judge yourself for considering your needs and if you take the time to reflect on the impact it has on others in the process?
Accept, appreciate and be proud of all that you are. Part of us accepting our own “humanness” allows us to appreciate the “humanness” of others inclusive of their thoughts, feelings, perceptions and judgments. Approach the world with curiosity and flexibility, it will open you up to many new experiences and possibilities to facilitate personal growth and self-satisfaction.
Maidenberg, M. (2018). How To Tame Your Anxious Mind. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 25, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/thoughts-therapist/2018/04/how-to-tame-your-anxious-mind/