Anxiety is one of the most common issues I hear about from my clients, one that many people have on a regular, sometimes daily, basis. Of course, anxiety is a normal part of the human experience, and it can be a healthy, biological reaction to environmental stressors.
The problem is when that reaction switches from one of manageable, temporary worry or stress to heightened, intolerable panic. The latter can interfere with work, social activities, and personal relationships. Sometimes anxiety can make it incredibly difficult to function as we normally do, and this is a very scary and uncomfortable feeling.
One of the most effective ways to curb anxiety in the moment is thought-stopping — a strategy that interrupts catastrophic thinking to allow our minds a few moments of clarity to think through the anxiety. Here are seven ways to do it:
1. Scattered Counting
Counting up (or down) to 10 is a great way to handle anger, but it’s not as effective for anxiety because the process is so automatic. While we’re counting chronologically, our minds still have the capacity to ruminate on whatever is causing our anxiety. A better technique is scattered counting. Start with any number and then jump around — 14, 89, 30, 57, etc. It takes more concentration to come up with the next number when you have to think about what it will be, and this helps take your mind off the thoughts that are troubling you.
2. Verbal Interruption
The traditional way to stop thoughts in their tracks is with a verbal interruption. This could be literally spoken out loud, if you feel comfortable doing so, or spoken to yourself in your head. Shouting “stop!” or “enough!” or “not now!” when your worries begin to take over, forces you to take a pause. This can be done as many times as you need to calm your mind.
3. Positive Self-talk
If your thoughts are particularly negative or scary, try restructuring them into ones that empower you. Instead of thinking “I’m so nervous about bombing this presentation at work,” try thinking “it’s okay to be nervous and I can deal with this.” Coach yourself through each anxious thought until your anxiety subsides, and then congratulate yourself on getting through it.
4. What’s the Worst that Could Happen?
Anxiety often takes us to the worst-case scenario. We go from feeling nervous about a presentation at work to worrying about performing badly to worrying about losing our job entirely. If you’re able, imagine going to that worst-case scenario. What would happen if you did lose your job? How would you handle it? What kind of plan would you make to revamp your resume, network with other people in your industry, and apply for new positions? Picturing yourself tackling the imagined worst possibility often gives us confidence that even if the worst were to happen, we would still be able to handle it.
5. Auditory Distraction
Our obsessive thoughts can be so loud in our head, and one great way to drown them out is by listening to something else. Put on your favorite song, your favorite podcast, or an audio book you find interesting and let the sounds coming out of your headphones squash the sounds of your anxiety.
6. Muscle Isolation
Anxiety clogs our minds with unwanted thoughts and obsessions, and keeps us stuck in our heads. By feeling our body intentionally through muscle isolation, we can draw the attention away from our brain and into different parts of our body.
First, sit comfortably in a chair or on the edge of your bed. You can close your eyes if that feels natural to you. Then, starting with your toes, squeeze and hold those muscles and count to five slowly. At “five,” release the muscles and feel your toes completely relax. Repeat this process up your body from your feet to your calves to your thighs to your abdomen, all the way up to your head and back down to your arms, hands, and fingers. An exercise like this relieves some of the tension in your brain by releasing it from your body.
7. Meditation (It Really Does Work!)
Maybe you’ve had a friend or a therapist recommend meditation to alleviate anxiety. Maybe you rolled your eyes at the idea thinking that it would never work for you. Science has proven that it does! Regular meditation changes the structure of the brain and strengthens your ability to combat strong emotions like anxiety. Start by practicing mindful breathing for five minutes a day. You can picture your anxious thoughts like clouds, drifting by you, or like cars passing on the road. Over time, you can work up to 10 minutes, 20, or even an hour of meditation.
When anxiety strikes, it can be difficult not to give in to the obsessive “what-if” thoughts that consume your attention. It’s an uncomfortable experience that is hard to ignore, but with a little practice using thought-stopping exercises, those worries might seem a little less frightening.