Stopping Anxious Thoughts

Tonya McDaniel, ABD, MEd in Human Sexuality, MSW, LSW

Posted by: Tonya McDaniel
ABD, MEd in Human Sexuality, MSW, LSW

Our prefrontal cortex is one of our greatest developmental achievements and challenges. On the one hand, it allows us to perform complex executive functions (e.g., problem solving, judgement, memory, impulse control, etc.); on the other hand, it makes us susceptible to anxious thinking. Anxiety is one of the most common mental health afflictions in our nation. Not only can it negatively impact our interpersonal relationships and work/school performance, but it can make us susceptible to physical illnesses. This article will illustrate a specific technique to manage anxiety by stopping, labeling and replacing anxious thoughts with more appropriate and productive thoughts. 


Step 1: Stopping Anxious Thoughts – STOP

The first step to stopping anxious thoughts is to say mentally or out loud, “stop.” You don’t want to complete the anxious thought because that reinforces the negative sentiment in your brain. Imagine that every time you think a particular thought, your brain reinforces that neural pathway by making it bigger and stronger; thereby making it much easier to travel down that road repeatedly. This can lead to rumination or the feeling of getting stuck thinking about the same thing over and over again.

As soon as you realize you are starting to engage in anxious thinking, you should stop the thought in its track. However, what you don’t want to do is say, “Do NOT think about…” because that has the opposite effect. To illustrate this point, consider completing the following thought experiment:

Imagine a big, white Polar bear with black eyes and a black nose. Once you have the image of the Polar bear in your mind, tell yourself, “don’t think about a Polar bear.” What happened?  Now with that same image of that Polar bear, tell yourself, “it is extremely, critical that I absolutely do NOT think about a Polar bear this time.” What happened? What did you notice?

If you are like most of my clients, the first time you told yourself to not think about the Polar bear you immediately thought about it. The second time, it might have felt almost impossible to think about anything EXCEPT for the Polar bear. This is called the “rebound effect.” The more you tell yourself to NOT think about something, the more you are compelled to think about it. So the first step to stopping anxious thoughts is to simply say, “stop.” 


Step 2: Stopping Anxious Thoughts - LABEL

The second step in stopping anxious thoughts is to label the thought. When you are experiencing an emotion, your amygdala (a.k.a., the emotion processing part of the brain) becomes engaged. When you categorize or label the thought, your prefrontal cortex (a.k.a., executive functioning part of the brain) becomes engaged. What this means is that you can create some emotional distance or turn down the volume on the feeling by simply labeling the thought. Notice the difference in the following statements:

“I’m such a failure. I can’t believe I lied to my boss over something extremely stupid and got caught.”

“I’m having a negative thought about a mistake I made at work.”

What did it feel like when you read those sentences? Which one seemed to provoke more of an emotional response? Which one seemed more neutral or manageable? Many people find the first sentence more anxiety provoking, whereas the second seems to be more objective. So after you say, “stop” you label the type of thought you are having. For example, you might say:

“I was having a(n)…

  • phobic thought about my flight tomorrow.”
  • self-doubting thought about my presentation today.”
  • obsessive thought about the status of my stove.”
  • self-deprecating thought about my school performance.”
  • anxiety thought about my date tonight.”

Sometimes it is helpful to imagine your thoughts coming down on a conveyor belt in which you simply label them and allow them to continue moving down the belt. With this approach, there isn’t any inherent judgement about having the thought (e.g., “why am I so weak? Why can’t I focus and stop worrying about my presentation?”) and it discourages activating or expanding upon the thought (e.g., “Not only do I mess up at work, but I’m also a failure at relationships, live with my parents and can’t seem to do anything productive with my life.”). Instead you are left with an awareness of the thoughts you are having and allowing them to float away without engaging with them. 


Step 3: Stopping Anxious Thoughts – THOUGHT REPLACEMENT

After you stop the anxious thought and label it, then you need to create a replacement thought. In other words, you need to provide your brain an alternative neural pathway to travel down. This serves a dual benefit. Not only does it stop you from reinforcing the previous anxious thought, but it helps you reinforce a more productive thought. If this process is consistently repeated, then through the process of neural plasticity, the brain will start to prune or diminish the strength of the previous anxious thought and grow or enhance the strength of the replacement thought.

Replacement thoughts could be positive affirmations, such as, “I am prepared and ready for this trip” or “I will host a successful family dinner.” Again, it is important to avoid using negative elements, such as, “not” because the brain will not register the “not.” For example, you want to avoid saying, “I will not be late” since the brain would have encoded that message as, “I will be late” and instead say, “I will be on time.” Another helpful replacement thought could include some form of reality testing. For example, in response to a compulsive urge to wash your hands, you could say, “The likelihood that I have dangerous germs on my hands is small and I can tolerate slightly dirty hands.” Or in response to a social anxiety fear of attending a party, you could say, “The likelihood that people will laugh at me is very small and most people are probably as anxious as I am.” Sometimes you may have helpful anxiety thoughts but at the wrong time. In this scenario, your anxiety is alerting you to a potential danger, but you don’t have the time to explore different solutions because other things need your immediate attention. In this case, the replacement thought could include a commitment to address the anxiety later. For example, you might say, “This is an important issue and I will give it my undivided attention tonight after the kids have gone to bed.” This will help provide you some containment for your anxiety, so long as you follow through with your promise to explore the potential risks or danger as planned. 


Step 4: Stopping Anxious Thoughts – DISTRACTION

The fourth step to stopping anxious thoughts is to engage your brain in some activity or distraction to prevent it from trying to immediately return to the anxious thought. This could include some grounding techniques [insert link to article], mindfulness meditation [insert link to article], fun games, or even redirecting your focus back to what you were doing before you had the anxious thought. Although distraction can seem simple; it is quite powerful. Consider the following thought experiment:

Bring up the image of the Polar bear from before. This time try to keep the image of the Polar bear in your mind while you: catalogue all the sights, smells, sounds, and sensations you are experiencing at this moment. Or try to keep the Polar bear image present in your mind while you play a game of Angry Birds on your phone or while you are updating your financial report for work. What happened? What did you notice?

If you are like most of my clients, you may have found this task very difficult. The brain has a hard time holding two different thoughts at the same time. Participating in activities that will engage your mind will help contain your anxiety. 


Step 5: Stopping Anxious Thoughts – REPEAT STEPS 1-5

Because we have a very active prefrontal cortex, we will inevitably start to return to our anxious thoughts. When this happens, we should simply cycle through the steps again to help get you to a place of containment. In other words, the goal of this technique is to help you manage negative thoughts when they occur.

Do to our advanced prefrontal cortex, we are wired to experience anxiety. Though there can be some positive outcomes to some anxious thinking; there are times we need to contain the anxious thoughts to allow us to focus on other important issues. This stop, label, thought replacement and distraction technique is a valuable tool to use when you want to manage your anxiety. If you are struggling with implementing this technique or would like additional support with anxiety management, contact one of our experienced therapists today.

*This article uses traditionally plural pronouns (e.g., “they, them, their, theirs”) as singular pronouns for purposes of gender inclusion and neutrality.