Anxiety can cause such suffering. Adults and adolescents coming into my office are often struggling with things like difficulty sleeping, headaches, stomach aches, and racing thoughts. But that’s not where the suffering ends. Their anxiety is often contributing to difficulty at school or work, in their personal lives, and even in their relationships with family, friends, or partners. This is all how the anxiety is manifesting, and what drives people to seek out therapy. They are looking for relief.
The other piece that becomes pretty apparent during our beginning sessions is what generally triggers their anxiety. For many it can be something like a life adjustment, a fear of travel, social situations, school tests, etc. A specific trigger – an invite to a party, an upcoming plane trip, a big exam — is an easy part of the anxiety equation to identify and understand.
Where things get trickier, in therapy, is identifying the thought that oh, so subtly slips in after the trigger. That party invite, for example for someone who is socially anxious, isn’t what causes the sweaty palms, feelings of worry, or the avoidant behavior of declining the invitation. It’s the interpretation or thought that occurs when receiving the invite that is the culprit. These almost automatic thoughts might sound something like:
“I won’t know what to say to people.”
“I never know how to make small talk.”
“I always sound like an idiot.”
“They probably felt like they had to invite me.”
“Everyone will be looking at me and think that I’m so awkward.”
These kinds of thoughts are distorted, exaggerated notions, skewed toward the negative. And so, they are not very accurate, reasonable, or balanced. Some of the important initial therapy work is to become aware of these thoughts. When people are able to recognize these automatic thoughts as they pop up, they can gain insight into them and their origins, and can then work to readjust them into healthier ways of thinking. So, early in therapy I try to help people become expert “thought-catchers” and figure out what is going through their minds when they start to feel anxiety. It can be a challenge to pinpoint them, as they are often so stealth and automatic. Here are four tips to learn how to become a “thought-catcher,” to increase self-awareness about thoughts:
- Work Backwards: The next time you are distressed with anxiety, try to examine what may have been the thought that popped into your head right before you started crying, freaking out, or procrastinating. This will probably be easier to do after the fact, because sometimes in the moment it’s just too hard. So, for instance, after your meltdown about being overwhelmed with schoolwork, you may discover you had thoughts like “I’m never going to get this all done,” “I’m going to do horribly on this paper,” “I must get an ‘A’.”
- Slow Down and Notice: Try to slow down, in general, and notice your thoughts – good, bad, and indifferent. You can do this by engaging in a formal meditation practice, or you can just start to observe your thoughts while taking a shower, driving in the car, or sitting outside quietly, for instance. Often, we are so attached to our thoughts they just seem like an essential part of us, but if we can take a step back and pause, we can actually observe them as something more separate. Almost like noticing the clouds passing by in the sky.
- Tune into Your Talk: What do you say about yourself to others? Are you often putting yourself down? Pointing out what you see as your shortcomings? Using words like “always,” “never,” “should,” and “must?” If you are talking like this out loud, you are probably thinking like this in your head too. Listen to the way you talk with friends, coworkers, and loved ones and see how you can tie those statements back to your thoughts.
- Prone to Predicting: Often the types of distorted thoughts that can cause emotional distress come in the form of predictions. Are you making a prediction about what will happen in a situation? Or what someone else might be thinking about you? If so, this can be a way of thinking that is getting you into emotional trouble.
Building awareness and catching your thoughts are just the first steps towards managing anxiety. Working with a therapist who uses cognitive behavioral techniques (CBT), will give you the opportunity to learn other effective ways to manage anxiety.
<Photo credit: Jeremy Perkins via Unsplash>