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Controlling Your Anxious Thoughts

Thoughts run away by themselves sometimes, seeming out of control, making us suffer over all the possible worst-case scenarios.

Man noticing his own thoughts

Working with your own thinking is a central activity in CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy). It has been tested with millions of clients by now and is known to make a big difference in anxious thinking. This is my version of a good CBT exercise. You will need some paper or a journal to write your thoughts in.

Can You Control Thoughts? - Yes

Try this little experiment in moving your attention from one thing to another: Stop right now and pay attention to your feet, where they are what is on them, and how they feel. Stop reading for a moment to do that.

Ok, now you are back at this screen. Now pay attention to your hands, and what they look like. Stop and do that.

Notice how it felt to move your attention around, back and forth between this screen and your hands or feet. You did that by deliberately controlling your mind. Controlling anxious thinking is a bit like that on a bigger scalel, so let's break it into steps.

Step 1. Observe Your Thoughts

Consider this unfortunate fellow who is worrying about something:

Cartoon man with negative thoughts

His mind is running this playlist of thoughts over and over and he feels awful, unable to focus on other things. He is sure these thoughts are all absolutely true. You can see that only the first ones are true; the rest are predictions.

What would your playlist of thoughts look like? Grab a sheet of paper (which you can destroy later) or a journal and write down your worries.

blank thought bubble

Now see if you can notice, with curiosity, how all these thoughts roll around in your mind. The playlist seems to run automatically even if you don'twant to hear these thoughts yet again. It is not like normal problem-solving where you figure something out. This instead is a continuous, distressing noise in your mind that gets in the way of everything else.

Step 2 - Ask: What Effect Do These Thoughts Have?


You might notice that even as you look at those worries, you get a feeling. Maybe a feeling of tension, fear, anger, helplessness, urgency, or something else.


How much mental focus do these thoughts consume? How much do they get in the way of thinking about other important items?


How much do these worries diminish your normal handling of day-to-day challenges?


What do these worries do to your relationships? Usually, worries make us more distant from others, especially our close relationships. Our spouses or partners usually notice and maybe complain about it.

Write down your answers. Writing has a greater effect than just thinking in your mind.

Step 3. See The Cycle of Suffering.

Step back from agreeing with the worries for a moment. Just notice how they work. Pause and notice that your suffering is not because of events in the outside world. Instead, the real suffering is generated on the inside due to unwanted cycling of the same thoughts and feelings over and over.

Sure, you know this already but do something different here. Sit quietly and observe this happening in your own mind. Do that for a minute or so.

Step 4. Make a Realistic Alternative Playlist

It took some effort, but our friend has decided to challenge his beliefs about what will happen. He has come up with some alternatives:

Cartoon mand with positive thoughts

This playlist of thoughts does not play automatically, so he has to deliberately choose to think, and say, these thoughts.

Now write down your alternative playlist of thoughts. Only write down things that really make sense to you. These questions might help:

  • What would you tell a friend in the same situation?

  • What do you truly believe about the meaning of your life?

  • Think of a person you trust. What would they say to you?

  • What are your long term goals?

Do not write fluffy positive affirmations. Write something you coud actually believe in time.

As you write, you may notice a shift in how you feel. So far so good. Next is the big question

Step 5. Use "Present Moment" to Switch Playlists

It's almost impossible to just switch from negative thinking to positive. Next is a powerful tool to help make the change.

The best-known method of switching thought mental playlists is to start by deliberately bringing your attention into the present moment. Any activity that makes you focus on what is right here, right now will qualify. This is the part where you "get out of your head." Do it by purposefully moving your mind to what is outside of you.

In counselling, we practice ways of doing this. Here are some ways to do this on your own.


Sit at pay mindful attention to where you are right now. Just notice what is in front of you, above you, and around you. Notice how your body feels sitting there. Notice your breath going in and out. Stretch your arms or legs and feel the stretching. After doing that for a few minutes, ask yourself which thought playlist you would like to allow back into your mind.

Speak it Out Loud

Say your thoughts out loud to someone. It doesn't need to be too heavy. Even this will do: "I've been worrying a lot about this problem, and now I'm working on having a better perspective by recognizing...(describe the better thoughts)... and I think it will help me move on." As you say that out loud, your mind finds it much easier to believe the realistic, better thinking.

Physical Activity

Do some activity that is good for you. Not to be confused with mere distraction, some activities like walking, exercise, socializing, or going out to enjoy music or movies gives your mind a healthy break to reset. After you do that, review the two playlists above. You may find it easier to choose balanced thinking after this reset.

Each of the above activities provides a break to get out of your head. Do them with the specific intention that "I am bringing my mind back to more balanced thinking." It is a bit like practicing a sport or musical instrument. You get more skill with practice.

6. Give Yourself Permission to Lapse

We all slip back and forth between anxious and positive thinking. It's not possible to think positively all the time. We even need times of anxiety in our lives to help us get moving. For those of us to tend to worry more, it helps to recognize that we will slip in and out of feeling this way. Having some tools to observe and change our thinking is the best protection against feeling trapped by anxiety.

Dixon Zalit is a counsellor in Vernon BC, offering counselling for stress and anxiety, relationships, and other self-management topics.


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