Here is how most people see anxiety disorder – trigger (symptom, thought or memory) followed by emotional, behavioral and physiological reaction. In my experience, this perception of anxiety leads people to think that there is nothing they can do about it, which eventually makes them develop victim mentality due to helplessness.
This perception of anxiety suffers from lack of solution. Luckily, there is a solution that can help you take control back from anxiety and that solution is Automatic Thoughts.
In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Automatic Thoughts are thoughts that we have after becoming aware of the Trigger (symptom, thought or memory). Depending on how that Automatic Thought will be – positive, neutral or negative, we will have similar Reaction (emotional, behavioral and physiological).
In this article I want to talk to you about the way Automatic Thoughts are contributing to your anxiety and how you can use them to your advantage.
Thoughts Cause Anxiety
Back in my anxiety days, I remember walking down the street I tended to avoid after having a few panic attacks there. As I walked, thoughts like “What if I have a panic attack” and “What if I die here” started to take over my brain. This was followed by a rush of fear, variety of symptoms and me rushing out of that location.
I was completely convinced that it was the location that caused me to have the discomfort. Frightened by the thoughts, I didn’t even dare to question them, so I just blindly accepted and believed in them. This was the problem, because the more I feared to question them, the more they ended up controlling me.
So in attempts to avoid the discomfort, I tried to avoid addressing anxious thoughts but by not addressing them, I created even more discomfort. It started to become clear that it were my thoughts that lead to anxiety, not the situations.
It was hard for me to accept at first because my first panic attack was out-of-the-blue. But when I dug deeper into my memory of that initial episode, I realized that it was my thinking that really sparked it. So even in the most extreme cases, it was catastrophic negative thinking that lead to catastrophic negative reaction.
Positive, Negative and Neutral Thoughts
We’ve now established that negative thoughts lead to negative reactions. By the same logic positive thoughts will lead to positive reactions. But when anxiety is high, pretending to have a positive reaction towards the discomfort is simply impossible. And here is what you may have missed – the bridge between a negative and a positive thought lies through a neutral thought.
Most of us grew up with black and white thinking, which is if someone is not good, then they must be bad, if someone doesn’t love you they must hate you, and if someone doesn’t think positively then they must think negatively.
The problem of black and white thinking is that it leaves no room for rationality, and as you know, anxiety thrives on lack of rationality. Therefore, it’s vitally important to start making use of your neutral thoughts to get out of this black and white trap.
Neutral thoughts are clam, rational and non-judgmental and often lead to quick diffusion of anxiety because unlike negative thoughts they don’t fuel it and unlike positive thoughts they don’t try to downplay it. While it’s clear that negative thoughts like “All is lost” will make anxiety worse, positive thoughts are another trap that needs to be understood.
Here is an example of a neutral thought “I feel the discomfort but it’s due to my high level of anxiety, I will let it go through me without resisting and it will eventually pass.” Here is an example of a positive thought “There is nothing wrong with me. I feel completely fine.”
There is nothing wrong with having a positive thought about anxiety, in fact, it’s something that you will eventually come to realize as you work on recovery. But if you force positivity when you feel absolutely horrible, then it will feel like you’re lying to yourself and that will eventually lead to frustration.
That’s why neutral thoughts are the bridge between negative and positive thinking. It’s a rational balanced way of seeing the problem, which will gradually shift your understanding of anxiety as you work on your recovery.
Identify Automatic Thoughts
Now that we know that positive thinking is achieved through neutral thinking. It’s time to learn how to identifying automatic thoughts. It may not be easy at first because they quickly become reflexive and you may react to them without even noticing it. So what you should do is ask yourself following questions before, during and after anxious episode (adjust tenses accordingly):
- “What was I predicting?”
- “What did I expect?”
- “What was I imagining?”
- “What was I afraid could happen?”
- “Was I remembering something?”
- “What did I anticipate?”
Once you have identified your automatic thought, give it a clam, rational and non-judgmental response and use it every time your automatic thought comes up instead of choosing the negative route or even positive one if it feels forced.
While identifying automatic thoughts is a significant piece of recovery process, it’s just a fraction of it. I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much information because you may end up not taking action on it and taking action is the key to recovery. If however, you want me to personally guide you through recovery and show you all aspects of recovery, then consider joining my coaching sessions to start having a structured approach towards recovery.