During the spring/summer months I facilitated our office’s Depression/Anxiety group. While trying to come up with a plan to help the clients in the depression and anxiety group I was running, I thought about thought stopping. I imagined if I could just help my clients eradicate their negative thought patterns, they would start to feel more in control and less depressed.
However, thought stopping does not work for a lot of people. For those who are unfamiliar, the name describes exactly what the technique entails: stopping your unwanted thoughts. This is usually done through some sort of system, such as the person wearing a rubber band and snapping it on their wrist whenever they have an unwanted intrusive thought. This serves as a reminder to dismiss the thought and move on to something else. It sounds simple, so why doesn’t it work? I did the following exercise with my clients to demonstrate: Pick an object in the room to focus on. Let’s say it’s a bright red chair. Observe the color, texture, how tall it is, etc. Now, close your eyes, and whatever you do, DO NOT THINK ABOUT THE CHAIR. Are you thinking about the chair? Stop thinking about the chair. Remember, you are not supposed to think about the chair. What happened? You thought about the chair didn’t you? The more you try NOT to think about something, the more consciously aware you become of it. This is what happens when we worry. We tell ourselves not to worry about this or that, that it’s unnecessary or foolish, and that leads us to worry more. I have some interesting alternatives that others have reported great success with:
A worry period is a set time (ten minutes is good—you don’t want to overdo it) where you focus all of your attention on your worries. Fully immerse yourself in whatever is making you anxious. Most of our worrying is done as a background process while we are engaged in other activities so we never really get the opportunity to give our worries our full attention, thus causing them to creep up at inopportune moments. Some people say this technique is more effective when done out loud, in front of a mirror so that the individual can see and hear the worries as though they are coming from a third party. If our worries have never left our minds, verbalizing them can be therapeutic. If for some reason you need to postpone your worry period, be sure to make up for it. Skipping worry periods can cause worries to pile back up and become intrusive again. However, once that time is up, move on to something more productive, leaving the worries behind.
Using Warmth for Comfort
Studies have shown that physical warmth, from a blanket, sitting near a fire, or something similar, can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. It is speculated this is because it mimics the warmth a baby receives from its mother, which we are biologically wired to be comforted by. Using a heating pad or blanket after a hard day can help boost your mood and help you relax.
“Throw Away” Thoughts
Putting negative thoughts down on paper and then tearing it up, flushing it, or throwing it away is shown to help “cleanse” the mind of these thoughts. Studies also showed that writing these thoughts in a Word document and then dragging the item to the “trash” bin on a computer had similar effects. People reported having less intrusive thoughts after throwing them away.
Plan Instead of Worry
The most effective way to battle worries and anxious thoughts can be through planning. A good plan doesn’t need constant review. If you plan right, whenever you start to feel anxious, you can remind yourself that it is OK to relax, you already have it worked out in your plan.
The steps to planning include:
- Reminding yourself that your brain is just firing off and that is why you are having anxious thoughts.
- Reframe the situation if you can (for example, if you say, “I’m never going to get this work done,” it is self-defeating, but if you say, “I have a lot of work to do. I need to plan and I may need to ask for help,” it changes your outlook and gives you an opportunity to find a solution.
- Distract yourself. This can be done in a variety of ways. Read a book, take a walk, or talk to a friend. If you are stuck at work or someplace else where these options are not viable, take a few moments to go “mental shopping.” In this technique, you imagine yourself in an aisle at the grocery store and picture all of the items on the wall in that aisle, down to the last detail. This should help divert your attention from your worries and get you back on track.
- Now that you have learned to achieve a clear state of mind, you can sit down and plan. Planning involves concretely identifying the problem, listing problem solving options (as many as you can think of) and then picking the best one. Now write out an action plan based on this option. Save your plan and refer back to it whenever the worries pop up.
If you struggle with anxiety or excessive worrying, hopefully one of these suggestions can help you lessen the intensity of those anxious moments.