Let's explore the role thoughts play in Anxiety Disorders.
Frightening negative, repetitive thoughts are a symptom of Anxiety and Panic and Depression. They are a very important part of the Anxiety cycle and use your fear to help drive the cycle, strengthen it and keep it going.
Thoughts are a key part of the makeup of the cycle of fear, and play a key role in keeping you very fearful and very stuck in the these habits.
To put the frightening thoughts you have in this process into some perspective, It is helpful to know that the average person has over 50,000 thoughts every day. The thoughts everyone has are a combination of happy thoughts, sad thoughts, scary thoughts, angry thoughts, in fact a whole mixed bag of different thoughts. This is normal.
If I were to ask you just how many of the 50,000 thoughts that you have each day that you can remember, I am sure that I could safely guess about 50-100 at the most. So what happens to the other 49,900?. Well we don't remember them because we actually don't pay them any real attention. They just enter our head, then leave again quickly and without significance.
Which of the different thoughts we remember and focus on tend to be linked to our present situation, feelings and moods.
When we are upbeat and confident we tend to have and remember our positive uplifting happy thoughts.
The problem with an Anxiety or Depression sufferer is that when your mood is low, it's all the negative, fearful thoughts we pay attention to. In fact all our deepest fears seem to surface and take up all of our mind space.
However surely if we learnt to give them no significance, like the thoughts we have that we paid no attention to out of the 50,000 or so we have in a day, then that would mean that we didn't remember them and would no longer be troubled by them?
Not every thought we have represents reality, especially the type of thoughts we tend to get as a result of what we dream up when we are Anxious or Depressed. They tend to be our worst fears or what we feel may happen, rather than what is actually likely. They are something that we create, not reality.
Our Brain is always really active, always switched on and busy. This can be really useful when we are trying to solve a puzzle or thinking through a test, but it's helpful to also know that when we are not engaging our brain it is also very capable of coming up with a lot of noise and mumble jumble too.
When we are anxious we have lots of excess adrenalin that seems to come out in thoughts and make them worse.
The problem with thoughts is, they can be horrific and strong. When you suffer from Anxiety or Depression you are often in a dark place, the thoughts you have can often be your worst nightmare. There may only be one in 50,000 that really scares you, but you grab it, bow to it, believe it, put it on a pedestal and give it a crown. There you have it right there, it now has your fear and has you hooked.
Every time you think it, it starts off feelings of Depression and fear and panic, so you try not to think it and in resisting it unfortunately think it more.
If I said to you "Do not think about a pink elephant" , a pink elephant would be the first thing that you think of. This is why thoughts can be so strong, by trying not to think them you will think them more.
Now if we look at how we train the Amygdala to react to danger and activate our fight or flight responses, thoughts are no different to situations or people. We have the thought, it scares us, we react and bang, our Amygdala tries to save our life and activates a whole host of frightening physical feelings and sensations. Then we put behaviours in place to try and protect ourselves.
Can you see how the three key elements of this cycle work together?
The thing is though, your behaviours don't protect you from thoughts or feelings as the thoughts and feelings you are having are not actually dangerous, it's just a non harmful fear cycle and habit, and you are just keeping the cycle going by trying to break it in the wrong way.
In my experience I did come to realise that the thought content was largely irrelevant (Bare with me here, I am not belittling the thoughts you are having), until I could see the bigger picture (Anxiety cycle) going on. Over many years I was scared of a lot of things believe me, but each time I overcame the fear of one thought, my Anxiety just altered itself so that I became scared of another. It just manifested in a different way. I came to see I was not actually scared of any of it or my fear would not just be able to alter as it did.
Once I became aware of the bigger cycle going on I no longer paid attention to the content of the thoughts, more just that the cycle was trying to trap me again and so I learnt to pay it no attention and just let it be.
I saw the cycle rather than the content of the thought if that makes sense, the content became largely irrelevant.
Over time, I started to say "oh I'm doing it again there is that habit", and it began to lose its grip and not be able to take hold. Then the thoughts diminished.
The thoughts were effectively just the "spaghetti" that made up the bigger cycle, the content could change as I changed my fears, but when I stopped seeing the thoughts as a problem and started to see the bigger cycle as the real issue they went away, taking my fear with them.
I appreciate that understanding all of this takes time and does not always help how you are feeling right now.
Some of my thoughts were so bad that they gave me physical pain in my chest, they had a massive impact on me until I learned how to switch them off with a larger understanding.
In the meantime if I could give any advice on coping with the here and now.
There were some techniques that really helped me to deal with my negative repetitive thoughts:
- Trying not to think a thought will make it come more, you must allow it to process. To allow it to process you must allow it. Have it, think it , allow it, however bad it is or however bad it makes you feel. It is just a thought and having a thought does not mean you will act on it, or that it makes you a bad person. Trust me the only way to get rid of unhelpful thoughts is to learn that they mean nothing and will not hurt you. It is just adrenalin and your overactive brain creating mumble jumble, it will go away, but only in the correct way.
- Give your thoughts a new ending, have them, feel the sting from them and then give them a more positive ending. Do this each time you have the thought until it becomes automatic.
- It is your choice how you react to a thought, you don't have to feel scared, be open to the suggestion that it is possible to have different reactions to every situation that you come across in life. There are other ways to look at these thoughts rather than just in a fearful way. Practice changing your reaction.
I will give you an example of different ways to view your thoughts:
A lady sits in a cafe waiting for a friend, The friend does not turn up on time and the lady is waiting. Now she could depending on which thoughts she chose to add weight to and react to, end up feeling a variety of feelings.
- THOUGHT 1 could be - My friend has not arrived, knowing her she will be late and held up somewhere. I will just hang on" ( Thinking in this manner the lady feels fine and is still looking forward to seeing her friend, she orders another coffee while she waits)
- THOUGHT 2 could be -My friend is not here, it must mean she is not coming and she has not even let me know, she must not really like me" (Thinking in this manner greatly upsets the lady and she feels let down and rejected by her friend)
Can you see just how having a thought, choosing to believe it must be true (probably with no evidence to suggest it is), and then acting on it can affect us so much, it can be so easy to choose to believe our thought even though the likely hood of it actually happening is very slim.
People who suffer with Panic and Anxiety tend to rush into a response and react quickly as it's all done in a state of panic.
To diffuse panic you must do the opposite. You must not react until you have first looked at the thought, the ways you can react and then have chosen a different way to react. Delay your reaction.
If you normally jump up and leave then don't, try detaching first observing it enter your head and then leave and give it a different reaction.
You will be surprised just how quickly you can change your unhelpful habits in this way.
To achieve normal function, we must live as we did before our experiences with Anxiety and Depression, We would not have tried to stop the thoughts we had then and so we must not try to do that now.