“I am so worried about getting my test results next Monday that I just can’t sit still,” a client recently said to me. “I try to focus at work, but my mind just won’t let me. I keep telling myself that I can’t control what will happen, so worrying won’t do me any good. Just like you told me. Wow, anxiety!
“But it’s like I have a big battle going on in my mind. The anxious thoughts jump in. I tell myself to think positive and make them go away. But I just end up feeling even more anxious. All this fighting going on inside my mind is wearing me out.”
Have you ever felt this way? On one hand, whatever it is you’re dealing with is bringing up a lot of anxious thoughts that you’d just as soon be without. On the other hand, your attempts at staying optimistic and hopeful just seem to get met with more anxiety. That’s called getting anxious about getting anxious. It’s like your mind is divided into two sides, and the side you want to win isn’t having an easy time of things. What can you do?
Win the Battle by Giving Ground to the Enemy
Let’s step back and take a look at anxious thoughts and the feelings they cause. As much as we would like to think we have control over our thoughts, the truth is that we don’t. Our mind churns out thoughts constantly. And when we are in difficult situations – like waiting for the results of a medical test – our mind naturally wants to go to a place of fear. It’s just human nature to have scary thoughts when faced with uncertainty.
So, how about this: Since you can’t stop these anxious thoughts, how about if you quit fighting with them? How do you do that? By giving them a voice.
What? Indulge all those scary thoughts and images?
Well, yes actually. But with limits. And you can limit this by giving yourself anxiety breaks. Here’s how:
Schedule time to let your anxiety run wild. Rather than your mind being a battleground while you fight off fearful, anxious thoughts, designate a certain time period during your day or evening to just indulge those thoughts to your mind’s content.
Set a time limit. Fifteen minutes is about right. That should be plenty of time to let all those anxious thoughts stand up and be counted.
During the anxiety break, give your thoughts free rein. Don’t judge these thoughts or try to control them. They are what they are. Most likely, lots of feelings will come up as well. After all, thoughts lead to feelings. Feelings are just feelings. Let them pass right through you. Be aware of your thoughts and feelings during this time. Just what is it that you’re afraid of?
You may want to take notes. Doing a little journaling during your anxiety break can help you in a couple of ways. First, writing it all down can give you the sense that you are literally clearing out your mind. Second, if you go over your notes later, you might see some themes that keep reoccurring, maybe similar to situations in the past where you have felt anxious, which might in turn give you some insights into the best way to cope. On the other hand, if it feels good to tear your notes up and throw them away, that’s not a bad idea either.
But at the end of the break: Enough! Set a timer. When the time you have allotted for your anxiety break has ended, then stop. Take a deep breath, maybe take a walk or call a friend for a few minutes, then continue on with your day or evening. Break’s up!
As anxious thoughts intrude, remind them they will have to wait their turn. Acknowledge them and remind yourself that you can be as anxious as you want to be during your anxiety break. Your anxious thoughts will have to wait until the designated time. Keep practicing this technique. You’ll be surprised at how well this works to help you to not be overwhelmed by anxious thoughts and the additional anxiety of trying to make them disappear.
You and your anxiety. Give it a break. A break to run wild, that is. And then, when the break ends, let it go. Don’t fight anxious thoughts. Set limits. You can’t control your anxious thoughts, but you don’t have to let them control you.