Self-Help: Anxiety Thoughts

Sometimes thoughts start going around in circles, repeating themselves. For most people these repetitious thoughts are negative and unpleasant. I call them "gerbil thoughts" because they go round and round in your head like a gerbil on an exercise wheel. Here are some ways to stop them.

Interrupt them These thoughts need to be interrupted. When you catch yourself plagued with them (and this is often the hard part because they are so automatic), or squeeze your eyes tightly shut; mentally imagine a red stop sign; or, squeeze your eyes tight and whisper "stop" to yourself; and if this does not work, squeeze your eyes shut and scream "stop" inside your head. (When you do this scream, you may feel a little dizzy spot someplace inside your brain from the activation of neurons that happen.) Or, put a rubber band on your wrist; whenever you catch these thoughts, pop your wrist with the rubber band. This is not to hurt you but to get your body's attention.

Shift your thoughts Change your thoughts to something more positive and relaxing, such as a vacation you're planning, the next chapter in the book you are writing, or a time when you felt very confident.

These methods are called thought stoppage and thought substitution. They are a discipline. The more you practice them, the better they work. Sometimes in the beginning, you can only shift your thoughts for a few seconds and then you have to start over again. Find more ideas in the book, The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook by Davis, Eshelman and McKay.

Think competitive thoughts
After you stop the gerbil thoughts, you need to find something else for your brain to think about or it will go right back to the well worn path that the anxiety thoughts have created. These competitive thoughts need to be complex so that it occupies your mind. One idea would be counting sheep and wishing something good to someone with each sheep. Or try going through the alphabet and naming birds whose names start with A, then birds starting with B. Or think about your favorite songs each year of your life that you can remember. Or write a mystery book in your mind, sketching out characters, plot, etc. I like to use a mantra when I am feeling anxious, especially at night. I breathe in and say "Peace within me." I imagine cool clear air moving into my lungs and spreading through my body, carrying peacefulness. I breathe out and say, "Peace about me." I imagine the peaceful clear air surrounding my body in a whirlpool of safety. "Peace all around me." Now I imagine the peacefulness radiating from me to people and places I love. I breathe in and out, in the same rhythm, and ask for what I need. "Let me be healthy, let me be happy, let me be peace." Then I repeat the process until I fall asleep. This idea came from a book A Path with Heart by Buddhist priest/psychologist Jack Kornfield.

Counteract these negative thoughts Argue with the negative thoughts. If your mind is calling you stupid, say back to yourself something like: "I am not stupid. I make mistakes before I learn something I need to know. That is not stupid, it is just the way humans learn." If your mind is saying that something terrible is going to happen, counter with self talk like "You are always predicting bad things. Ninety nine times out of a hundred, nothing bad happens but you never pay attention to those 99 times. I am not going to listen to your fear mongering."

Learn meditation practices  There are a number of meditation practices that help slow down the gerbil wheel. Mindfulness, body scans, and a variety of breathing exercises can help. There is a well researched eight-week program called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction that is offered in many towns. We have a couple of fabulous teachers here in Portland. If you don't have access to therapy, you might want to look for meditation CDs at the library. Jon Kabat Zin has some very good CDs.

Books and workbooks about anxiety written by Matthew McKay and by David Burns have some excellent Cognitive Therapy techniques.