How to beat anxiety by changing the way you think

Do you often suffer from anxiety? Find out how you can take control and beat it, just by changing the way you think – and get practical strategies to help you.

Self‐talk happens. We all do it. So, if you’re going to have constant thoughts going through your head, you may as well make most of them positive rather than negative. You need to get out of that negative thinking rut.

But just how do you replace unhelpful, irrational and disempowering beliefs with more realistic, useful and empowering ones? If negative self‐talk came with an off switch, you could just flip it.

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But it doesn’t. It takes some effective techniques, effort and practice in order to dispute negative thoughts and replace them with more helpful ones. But you can do it and it is worth the effort!

Challenging your self-talk

Challenging your self‐talk means challenging the negative or unhelpful aspects – the cognitive distortions such as generalising, mind reading and tunnel thinking.

Doing this enables you to see whether your view is reasonable and, if not, identify more helpful ways of thinking instead. You can then move on to responding to situations in a more constructive, helpful way.

There are three main types of challenging questions you can ask yourself.

1) Questions about reality

  • What is the evidence for what I think will happen?
  • What is the evidence against what I think?
  • In what way is it helpful for me to think like this?

2) Questions about perspective

  • What is the worst thing that could happen? How likely is it?
  • What is the best thing that could happen?
  • What is most likely to happen?
  • Is there anything good about this situation?

 3) Questions about alternative explanations

  • How would a more positive friend perceive this? What would they say to me?
  • If the situation was reversed, what positive things would I say to a friend if they were the one thinking negatively about this?

How to change the way you think – an example

Let’s take a look at an example. Jess is concerned about driving down from Doncaster to London to start a new job. She has never done this journey by car before. Last time she drove somewhere new she got lost.

Jess is feeling anxious and panicky about it: ‘I’ll never get there. I won’t be able to sleep the night before so then I’ll be too tired to think straight. I just know I’ll be stressed and I’ll get horribly lost.’

1) Questions about reality

  • Evidence for and against what I think will happen.
  • Evidence for: I got horribly lost when I drove to Bristol last month.
  • Against: I have driven to other new places before and I didn’t always get lost.
  • In what way is it helpful for me to think like this? It isn’t!

2) Questions about perspective

  • What is the worst thing that could happen? How likely is it? I will get lost. I will be stressed.
  • What is the best thing that could happen? I get there without getting het up. I arrive feeling calm.
  • What is most likely to happen? I’ll get lost!
  • Is there anything good about this situation? I got the job! I start next week.

3) Questions about alternative explanations

  • How would a more positive friend perceive this? What would they say to me? ‘Is there anything I can do to help? Shall I come over and we could talk through the best way to do this?’
  • If the situation were reversed, what positive things would I say to a friend in this situation? ‘You don’t have to do it all in one go. You could drive to your sister’s in Leicester first. You could buy a satnav. You can do it!’

Remember, when you feel anxious and stressed, your self talk is likely to dismiss or ignore the helpful possibilities and options. You’ll more likely expect the worst and focus on the most negative aspects of your situation.

Recognising that your current way of thinking might be self‐defeating can prompt you to look at things from a different perspective. This doesn’t mean that you ignore or pretend you don’t have those anxious thoughts. Rather, you identify and acknowledge the negative thinking.

Questioning your thoughts is a useful step towards interrupting your habit of negative self‐talk.

Replacing negative self-talk with positive self-talk

When you’re anxious it’s not easy to say positive things to yourself. But you can replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts.

Think of a time when something didn’t turn out as you would have liked: a job, a project, a holiday, a relationship or a friendship. What were your thoughts? Write them down. If they were negative, what other, more positive thoughts might have been possible instead?

If you are struggling with this, a useful way to do it is to think of yourself as a script writer – imagine you are simply writing alternative thoughts for a character in a play.

Now look at the thoughts you’ve written down in a ‘Thought Diary’. Look at each one and come up with some ideas for more positive thoughts to replace the negative self‐talk.

Do make the new positive thought something that feels believable to you, otherwise your mind will not accept it as a real possibility.

It’s important to know that neither negative thinking nor positive thinking is more ‘real’ or ‘true’ than the other. Either way of thinking could be real or true. But what does make one way of thinking more real is the one you choose to say to yourself.

As Shakespeare said, ‘For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’

Need more help with anxiety?

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This is an edited extract from Overcoming Anxiety: Reassuring Ways to Break Free from Stress and Worry and Lead a Calmer Life by Gill Hasson, published by Capstone (a Wiley imprint).