Too Many Anxious Thoughts? Causes and Techniques to Take Control

We all get anxious sometimes. It's a natural emotion, especially when life seems unstable, as the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many of our everyday routines. However, when anxious thoughts start to impact your day-to-day life, it's time to implement techniques to stop them in their tracks.

Have you considered clinical trials for Anxiety?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Anxiety, and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

What are anxious thoughts?

Anxious thoughts are sometimes called "unwanted" thoughts¹. They may pop into your mind at any time, whether you want them to or not. Anxious thoughts include:

  • “Did I lock the door? I'm not sure I locked the door...”

  • “Is Connor going to be okay driving home?”

  • “Everyone is laughing at me.”

  • “I didn't get hired for that job. I'm never going to get a job.”

  • “I'm a failure.”

  • “I deserve to be alone.”

  • “I made a mistake. I’m always going to be a bad person.”

Anxious thoughts can revolve around a particular situation, such as a job interview, a date, or something you did wrong. A classic sign of anxiety is when you can't move on from a thought or fear, so instead, you keep returning to it and dwelling on it.

We all get these thoughts from time to time, but some people are more affected by them. A little bit of anxiety is not necessarily an issue as it can motivate you to study or remind you to take reasonable precautions to keep yourself or your things safe. They are your brain reminding you of what might go wrong so you can prepare for them.

When do anxious thoughts become a problem

Anxious thoughts are normally nothing to worry about when you are in control of them and they serve a purpose. However, they can become a problem² if they interfere with daily life, affect your productivity at work or school, hurt your relationships, or stand between you and your goals, for instance.

Other signs that your anxious thoughts are negatively affecting you include:

  • Physical symptoms of anxiety such as insomnia, stomach problems, headaches, muscle tension, sweaty hands, or elevated heart rate

  • Increased use of substances such as alcohol and drugs to try to get rid of anxious thoughts

  • Snapping at others or being irritable

  • Time spent worrying that could be spent on something more productive

  • Time spent chasing solutions to a problem that doesn't exist or can't be solved

  • Taking excessive steps to avoid an unlikely situation (for example, while frequent hand washing helps to prevent disease, washing your hands every five minutes is not helpful and causes issues)

  • Having difficulty concentrating

  • Worrying about unlikely hypothetical problems (such as an asteroid hitting you while you're in the bathroom)

  • Worrying about having anxious thoughts in the first place

Sometimes these kinds of anxious thoughts can indicate that you may have an anxiety disorder. It is recommended that you contact your doctor to discuss your situation.

Causes of anxious thoughts

Anxious thoughts are our brain’s way of reminding us to take sensible precautions to manage possible risks. A thought of what would happen if you were in a car crash is helpful if it reminds you to fasten your seatbelt. Wondering whether you locked the door to your house when you left is helpful if it reminds you to always lock the door. However, these thoughts become unhelpful when you continue to worry and can’t get the thought out of your mind.

Frequent worrying thoughts may be a sign that you have OCD, so you should seek help if you experience this.

Anxious thoughts are more common if you have a high level of uncertainty in your life, which is why anxiety disorders have risen during the pandemic. Life issues such as not being able to find a job or being concerned about rent prices can cause you to have more anxious thoughts than you would when you feel more settled. Positive life experiences that bring major changes can also cause anxious thoughts, such as getting married or celebrating the birth or adoption of a child.

Anxious thoughts breed more anxious thoughts. One can easily lead to another, taking you down a worrying spiral that can be very hard to break out of.

How can I stop anxious thoughts?

If your anxiety is getting in the way of the things you want and need to do in your life, it is important that you start to work on stopping anxious thoughts. This might seem difficult or even undesirable (some people with anxiety think their excessive worrying is useful as it motivates them to act).

Many people with anxiety need treatment, which often talks about therapy. However, there are also techniques you can implement yourself which help. These include:

Schedule your worrying

If your time is taken up with worrying instead of living your life, you could schedule a specific time during which you let yourself worry to release them. Allowing and setting boundaries for your worries can be better than suppressing them, as it releases the anxiety. This also keeps you from judging yourself for worrying about silly stuff. Make this a regular part of your schedule at the same time and place every day. You can give yourself permission to worry about anything during this time (even an asteroid hitting you in the bathroom).

Write down your worries

When you have an anxious thought, write it down and set it aside to deal with later. This tells your brain that the thought is out of your head and not a problem anymore, which can help you calm down.

Writing things down externalizes them and strips them of their power over your mind. Read these notes back to yourself during your scheduled worry period, but not at any other time. They might seem ridiculous on a later viewing, or they might be valid and will help you to solve a problem.

Challenge negative thoughts

A lot of the time, your worries are what’s known as a cognitive distortion. People who are prone to anxiety tend to see the worst-case scenario. After thinking through it, you get more perspective. Ask yourself whether your worry is true, reasonable, and probable.

For example, if you have to do some public speaking at an event, which you have done successfully before, it is normal to still feel nervous this time around. Many people find that public speaking induces a lot of anxiety. Your anxious thought might be, "I'm going to forget my speech and look like a total fool." You can replace that thought with, "Last time I did this people liked what I had to say." It's more likely that you will do it successfully than not. Even if you don’t succeed, get perspective on the fact that the consequences are likely very minor, if there are any at all.

Distinguish between solvable and unsolvable worries

Can you do anything about the thing you are worried about? You need to separate out productive solvable worries which you can take action on from things that are out of your control. This can be difficult as if you have anxiety, you likely only worry about the things you can't fix.

If your worry is solvable, try to take one small action towards solving it. For example, if you are worried about an upcoming trip (even vacations you are looking forward to can make you anxious), can you do a planning task such as looking up restaurants near the hotel and making a list of ones you might like to go to?

Anxiety that spurs you to reasonable, productive action is not a bad thing. Anxiety which traps you in a cycle of worrying about things you can't solve, however, is.

Exercise

Exercise³ interrupts the worry cycle by releasing endorphins. Choose a form of exercise which you need to focus on (going for a long walk, for example, often means taking your worries with you). Try yoga, tai chi, dance, a gym class, or take up a new sport. If you are focused on moving your body, your mind can't keep worrying.

Meditation and mindfulness

Meditation and mindfulness can also help and they are easy to start. You could use an app designed for this. Choose a guided meditation, which forces you to focus on a specific "story" that will distract you from your worries. Breathing exercises help to calm your mind. Practicing these regularly can actually change the activity in your brain and give you long-term relief from anxiety.

Talk about it

Talking about the things you are worried about with a trusted friend helps you calm down, feel supported, and gain perspective. Make sure that the person knows you are not seeking advice, but that you just want a listening ear, as well-meaning advice can make your anxiety worse.

If you can't talk it out, writing down your anxious thoughts can help. Or, you can call a hotline designed to provide support for anxiety.

Seeking treatment

If you have severe anxiety that interferes with your work, school, relationships, and life or is causing you to experience physical symptoms, you may need professional treatment. Anxiety is typically treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), in which a professional therapist will help you develop new ways of thinking and behaving to control your anxiety. Your therapist might also give you advice on other ways to deal with your anxiety and will always be willing to listen. Digital CBT⁴ interventions are becoming more widely available with more trials in development.

You may also need medication, especially if you are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. The most common medications used to treat anxiety disorders are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). The most important part of any long-term management strategy for anxiety disorders is self-care and therapy. For many people, medication is used only as a short-term measure or to supplement longer-term behavioral treatment. However, others may need to be on medication long-term to see benefits.

You should talk to a doctor if your anxiety is causing physical health problems, such as insomnia or racing heart rate. Your doctor can rule out other underlying conditions which might mimic anxiety, then refer you to a mental health professional.

The lowdown

We all have anxious thoughts and they are a normal way of our brain preparing us for future scenarios. However, if your anxious thoughts feel out of control and are interfering with your day-to-day life work or your physical health, you may need help. Making lifestyle changes, seeking out professional therapy, using prescribed medication, or other treatments may help you to take control of anxious thoughts.

Have you considered clinical trials for Anxiety?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Anxiety, and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

Joining community groups and exercise programs for my condition made me feel empowered – but I want to be part of finding a cure.
Peter, 64

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