Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Life isn’t easy when you’re prone toward anxious thinking. And let me be honest: helping clients who are anxious thinkers is also challenging for therapists. I will give you a recent example.
A client I’ll call Anthony was telling me about some anxious thoughts he was having. “I just moved to a new regimen, and my doctor encouraged me to take it one day at a time while we see how it’s going to work. That sounded like a good idea until I started to get a little anxious about how it might affect me. When I’m not feeling well, getting anxious makes me feel worse. So I started getting even more anxious about the possibility of my anxiety getting out of control and really making myself feel bad. It’s like a domino effect.”
Anxious thinking is more than just being worried about something that might happen. As Anthony’s story illustrates, anxious thinking is more complicated than that. Anthony was anxious about getting anxious.
Anxious thinking is something that is not at all uncommon among individuals who live with chronic conditions. Learning to cope with anxious thoughts can be challenging, especially when your well-being is involved.
Anxious thinking can be hardwired in our minds. But it can be unwired.
Our minds can be tenacious. Thought patterns are established early in life. We learn to think a certain way, the patterns become familiar, and they continue even if they cause us discomfort. So over time, the way we think about stressful or potentially stressful situations, for example, becomes hardwired.
Here’s the pattern that Anthony experiences: His chronic condition presents him with a situation, like a medication change, that he expects will make him feel anxious. He may even be starting to feel some anxiety creeping in. And he sure doesn’t want to feel that way. So sure enough, the possibility that he might feel even more anxious dials up his anxiety. Anxious thoughts pile onto anxious thoughts and, sooner or later, Anthony’s anxiety is through the roof.
Yes, anxious about getting anxious.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to undo that hardwiring and rewire our minds to stop creating more anxiety.
What about you? Are there times when you expect to feel anxious and then get anxious? Here are some ideas for better coping when you find yourself edging in this direction:
Engage your rational mind. If you have anxious thoughts and feelings that accompany them coming at you from all directions, make the decision not to follow them down the rabbit hole. Say something to yourself like, “This situation is really pushing my anxiety button. But I don’t have to get derailed. There’s another way to look at this.”
Give yourself reasons not to be anxious. That urge to get anxious about getting anxious can be soothed with your own self-talk. Calmly go through a list of reasons why being anxious just plain isn’t useful. Here a good one for you: “Whether I am anxious or not doesn’t affect the outcome.” Or, “Getting anxious is not going to solve the problem or make it go away.”
Or just plain old tell yourself to stop! This is called thought stopping and it’s proven to work. “Stop it. We’re not going down this road.”
Don’t give power to your anxious thoughts. The more you fight anxiety, the more power you give it. So, as much as possible, take your focus away from the thoughts that are telling you that anxiety is on its way. And focus toward doing what you can to keep yourself calm.
Self-soothe. You can do this through self-talk and through action. Talk yourself “off the ceiling” with calming self-talk. Repeat to yourself phrases like, “You’re okay.” “You’ve got a good doctor and lots of support.” “You’ve got what it takes to deal with anything you have to face.” Do things that have helped to calm you down in the past, like taking a walk, listening to music, getting exercise. It might help to think of those things as a toolkit you can reach into whenever you need something to help you keep your cool when anxious thoughts are bubbling up.
Accept that some anxiety is normal. We all feel anxious at times. Anxiety is uncomfortable, but it doesn’t have to overwhelm you. So don’t turn it into a catastrophe. Tell yourself, “It’s normal to feel some anxiety. If I do feel anxious, it will go away, like it always does.”
Get support. Sitting down with a friend or family member and talking things out is a great way to keep anxious thoughts at a distance. Vent as needed. Release any pent-up feelings. Ask for help in maintaining your optimism.
Power up. Start with staying on top of your self-care regimen. When you’re on top of everything you need to do to take good care of yourself, you have one very big reason to have peace of mind. Sure, you can’t control everything. But knowing you are taking control where you can is empowering. And empowerment stands up to anxiety any day.
Anxiety does not have to be your destiny. So often, my clients who are anxious about being anxious assume that this is just the way they are. Sure, these anxious thought patterns are hardwired. But you can change your mental wiring through the power of your rational mind. It takes time and patience.
You and your anxious thoughts. Fearing becoming anxious only opens the door to more anxious thoughts. Relax. You’ve felt anxious before. Maintain your perspective. You’ve got the tools you need to cope with anxious thoughts and the feelings that result. It all starts with using the power of your mind.
Do you struggle with anxiety? What helps? Share your advice by commenting below.