Are Your Anxious Thoughts Trustworthy?
Fear. Terror. Worry. Obsessive thoughts. Anxiety and all of its manifestations can be crippling. The mind races with worst-case scenarios, and the anxious thoughts can be unrelenting. As if the thoughts themselves aren't bad enough, it's common for another worry to bubble to the surface of the mind plagued by anxiety: are these thoughts real, and can I trust them?
Can You Ever Trust Anxious Thoughts?
When we're gripped by any type of anxiety disorder, it can be maddening to experience self-doubt on top of the anxious thoughts. On too many occasions, I've made some mistake or another and then fretted and agonized over it until I was fully entrapped in web of anxiety symptoms, both physically and emotionally. I knew, without a doubt, that I had completely ruined important aspects of my life: relationships, career potential, reputation, love, and financial security. I was certain that these were out the window because my thoughts told me so, and thoughts don't lie. Perhaps you've had similar experiences.
When anxiety is running rampant through our minds, it's often difficult to know if our thoughts are accurate or faulty. It doesn't help when the (usually) well-meaning people around us dismiss these thoughts, saying, "Don't worry!" or "It's not that bad. You're imagining problems."
Are Anxious Thoughts Real? Yes. Trustworthy? No.
Anxiety is real. It's part of the brain's physiology. Further, the thoughts are real. They are authentic. While they are real, you can't always trust them. Because they're not trustworthy, they don't have to control or dictate your reality. Since you can't trust them, why let them stick around?
Decreasing anxious thoughts is a process, and there are many effective approaches to ridding yourself of thoughts you can't trust. One component of the process is a researched-proven therapeutic approach known as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Cognitive-behavioral therapy is multi-faceted. It includes, among other things, identifying your anxious thoughts or negative thinking patterns and challenging them.
How to Transform Anxious Thoughts Into Trustworthy Ones
- When you're anxious, pay attention to the thoughts clamouring around in your mind. What, exactly, are you thinking?
- Don't argue or struggle with the thoughts. Like a stubborn toddler, that will just make them stand their ground.
- Simply notice your thoughts. Wonder about the possibility that you can't trust this thought.
- Come up with a plausible alternative and acknowledge that this could be the trustworthy thought.
That's it. Of course there are subsequent steps, but going through too much of the process at once can be overwhelming and usually anxiety-provoking in and of itself. An important goal in reducing anxiety is to slowly, but surely, develop a large toolbox filled with strategies that work for you.
Simply noticing your thoughts and gently challenging them by wondering if there could be alternate thoughts that are more trustworthy, has great potential to make anxiety dwindle.
Peterson, T. (2014, March 19). Are Your Anxious Thoughts Trustworthy?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, January 25 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2014/03/with-anxiety-are-your-thoughts-trustworthy
Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
This kind of thinking and behavior can be incredibly frustrating and difficult to deal with in a relationship. By doing the things you mentioned and learning about what's going on, you are being supportive of your husband and yourself, too. I'm not in a position to diagnose or say with certainty what's going on, but I can share some thoughts. His thoughts and behaviors could definitely be anxiety related. It's also possible that there's something else going on. He could be experiencing paranoid delusions (delusions are beliefs in something that has no basis in reality but seem very real to the person experiencing them. Delusions can be part of schizophrenia, but they are only one component. Schizophrenia is complex and involves many other symptoms and effects, too. It might be helpful for your husband to see a doctor or psychiatrist. That's the only way to get to the root of the problem and to treat it properly. Unfortunately, it could be difficult to get him there, especially given his suspicion that people are checking on him for drug use. You don't want to lie of course (that might make things easier at first but could cause problems in the long run), but you might tell him that going to the doctor will help prove that he's not taking drugs (that's not actually a lie). Be patient with yourself, your husband, and the process. It is possible to treat and/or manage psychological conditions. You've already started down the right path.
It's been awhile since the original article was written and I want to say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but I've been having difficulty figuring out my specific relationship anxiety. I love my boyfriend, he's intelligent, very handsome, we have most certainly had some ups and downs in our relationship but overall I think he's amazing and I want to see us go the distance. I recently moved 500 miles away from him (GA) to Indiana to stay with my sister. Previously him and I lived together and decided to take this time away from each other to heal ourselves in our own traumas, and to reassess ourselves and our relationship. We are still committed to each other, but this process has been 1.) confusing for me and 2.) It's definitely triggered me. I have been having pretty consistent "what if" thoughts and a lot of doubts. I am terrified I am going to mess things up out of fear and because my anxiety is feeding me constant negative thoughts around our relationship. Any advice you can give me?
Relationships are challenging, and they become even more so when one or both people have past trauma. Then add the distance, and anxiety on top of that, and it's very natural for you to have these anxious, negative thoughts and doubts. Often a helpful place to start is with your own values--what's important to you for your life. Does your boyfriend fit with those values (it's nice that you've lived together because you have a good idea of what he's like to be with)? Take your time with your answer. It seems simple, but it's not! Once you've decided on what's important to you, consider how well your boyfriend fits into your big picture. If you decide he's a good fit, then you can work through problems with him, but if he isn't, it may be better not to stay with him. You could even suggest that he consider his values and what's important to him, and you two could compare your lists. The key is to know what you want in life and relationships and talk openly about it. Of course, this is just one suggestion. Books on relationships and communication have many more ideas. Your local library might have good relationship self-help books. Knowing yourself and your values will help quiet your anxiety and clear your mind. Be patient with yourself!
Anxiety about relationships/people is frustrating! It tends to be so huge because our relationships are usually very important to us and we want to make sure they're "just right" and that we've made the right choices. It can be easy to get trapped in our anxious thoughts, especially when other people are part of the equation, like your ex or even your grandmother. Unfortunately, there often is no way to answer the questions and thoughts anxiety is putting in your head. Ironically, sometimes just accepting your anxious thoughts and letting them be there while switching your attention to the present moment, paying attention to your time with your boyfriend, and otherwise thinking about what is going on in your life "right now," in that moment when your anxiety flares is what works the best. You don't have to make your anxious thoughts go away. You just need to pay attention other things so those thoughts don't consume you.
Sometimes it's helpful to work with a therapist about both anxiety and relationship issues. You can gain helpful insights about yourself and tools to overcome your specific anxiety. It's something worth considering.
Firstly, thank you so much for your wonderful and insightful writing - such a huge help! I’m currently having an anxiety relapse and wondered if you had any insight into this particular scenario. I had CBT several years ago and it was very helpful. In short, I’d become obsessed with the idea that I HAD to do a certain thing in order to overcome my fear of it, even though this certain thing (namely living alone) a) wasn’t what I actually wanted b) wasn’t financially viable and c) living with others wasn’t causing me harm or distress - in fact it was good for my mental health. My therapist helped me see that fear could be reduced simply by changing the way I thought about things, rather than DOING the things simply for the sake of doing them. However, I’m going through an anxious phase of doubting what she said, wondering if she just told me what I wanted hear to get me out of her office! Is the only way to overcome fear to do the thing you fear, even if would ultimately end up being not in your best interests?
Goodness, I hope that makes sense; my thinking is so obsessive at the moment!
I'm so glad to know that my writing is helpful. Thank you! And yes, your comment makes perfect sense. Your question is a very good one that applies to all types of anxiety as well as obsessive-compulsive disorders. Our mind can distort things and make us think certain things, including that we have to do things to overcome fear and anxiety. While taking action, doing things to move yourself forward toward where you want to be) is incredibly important, doing things simply for the sake of doing them isn't helpful -- especially when they aren't in your best interest. It's a delicate balance. You don't want to become paralyzed by fear (it can easily happen), but you don't want to blindly do things that aren't actually helpful.
Two approaches that are very helpful for fear, anxiety, and overthinking are acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and mindfulness (mindfulness is part of ACT and it stands on it's own, too). Ironically "ACT" is pronounced like the word "act" because it does involve taking action. But it's purposeful, committed action that moves you toward what's important to you. Here are two articles on these subjects that I wrote on HealthyPlace a while back if you are interested in seeing if the information might fit you.
ACT article: https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2015/07/stop-avoiding-anxiety-acceptance-and-commitment-therapy
Mindfulness article: https://www.healthyplace.com/self-help/anxiety/using-mindfulness-for-anxiety-here-s-how
First off I wanted to thank you for your wonderful articles. I think I speak for many when I say these articles have provided a safe space to feel understood without judgement. Thanking you from the bottom of my heart. In regards to anxious thoughts not being trustworthy, I do agree, but do you mind explaining why these are "authentic" thoughts? To me, anxious thoughts are real, however they are not genuine or authentic, they don't necessarily come from the heart as much as they do from spaces of negative self-talk, which to me are inauthentic. Thank you in advance for exploring this topic with me.
Thank you for your very kind comments! I appreciate them. Thank you, too, for the rest of your comment. I love discussing things like this, but the people around me don't always appreciate it. :) As I ponder this, I think that anxious thoughts may or may not be considered "authentic." They definitely aren't true, reliable, trustworthy, or accurate -- they are part of automatic negative thoughts, which include negative self-talk. So by this definition of "authentic," anxious thoughts are most certainly not authentic.
My original thought was that they are indeed real thoughts. They're not something that someone fabricates for attention, and they're not a result of someone purposely magnifying things or blowing them out of proportion. It can be frustrating and disheartening when someone finds his anxious thoughts dismissed as unnecessary, dramatic, etc. In this regard, I consider anxious thoughts to be authentic -- but inaccurate.
That's a bit of exploration of the topic of authenticity. I'd love to read your response if you are so inclined.
It's important for you to know that this "relapse" is normal. Anxiety can flare up when we least expect it, even when it's been out of the picture for a long time. Triggers usually set it off; sometimes we can identify them (as you can -- the though of bipolar disorder seems to be very worrisome for you), and sometimes we can't pinpoint a trigger. Re-discovering techniques that have previously been effective can be quite helpful, as can addressing the source of the anxiety. Online quizzes/tests can be useful tools in helping people identifying what they're experiencing and in providing a tool for discussion with a doctor or therapist. They're not meant to actually diagnose, and it's easy to get caught up in them. Taking your results with you to a doctor or therapist could be quite beneficial. You might discover that you do have bipolar disorder, in which case you can begin to treat it and reduce your anxiety in the process. Or, you could learn that you do not have bipolar disorder; having confirmation from a professional can go a long way toward reducing anxiety. Do know that you have been able to reduce anxiety in the past, and you'll be able to do so again.
I find this website so comforting. I don't know about the others, but sometimes when you are drowning in anxiety and you know if you voice the thoughts to other people, they will look at you weird, laugh about it, make light of it and say oh you're just being silly, etc. It is comforting to know that others have had these same experiences, thoughts, reactions, etc. All the material on here is also very helpful and encouraging. I have been through so many therapists I have lost count. I attended a group for anxiety and depression for 5 months, three times a week. I take medication. I have every book written on anxiety and depression, and it remains my constant companion. It's kind of scary sometimes wondering if it will ever be gone.
You are most definitely not alone. The thoughts you shared are very common among people with anxiety (and other mental health issues, too). I've learned from my own personal experiences that when people do react poorly, just as you described, it's because they don't understand. It's not that you are "weird" or "being silly" -- it's that they are ignorant of what anxiety is really like. Knowing that doesn't change things, but it can change how you feel about yourself. HealthyPlace was created to be exactly what you mentioned, to be a comforting place where people can feel safe and supported gathering information and sharing their experience. It's empowering to be able to be heard and to listen and to know that you're not alone. I hope you keep coming back! :)
While in life there are of course real worries and real fears, with anxiety, fears and worries become magnified. Our minds imagine horrible consequences to something that, in reality, probably won't have a horrible impact. (For example, if I have a confrontation with someone, I become very anxious and imagine all sorts of negative things happening -- and I'll fret over it day and night for a long time -- but in reality nothing actually happens beyond the discomfort of the confrontation.) Anxiety loves to make our thoughts race and spin out of control. So yes, many times our anxiety-stimulated brains make problems seem worse or situations seem real. A powerful way to help stop this from happening is known as cognitive-behavioral therapy. The "cognitive" part refers to our thoughts, thoughts that blow things out of proportion. It involves becoming aware of our thoughts, stopping them, questioning them, and replacing them with different, more likely possibilities. There are many self-help books available about CBT -- check your library. And many therapists are trained in the technique. Working through anxiety with a professional can be very helpful. (Oh, and by the way, your comment made perfect sense to me!)
Thank you for reading and sharing your comment! What you describe is common among people living with anxiety, and it's frustrating. It doesn't have to last forever, and you can make it stop. Keep doing what you're doing: reading, gathering information, reading comments, etc. You'll find many helpful tips and tools for managing and even beating anxiety. Not every tool is right for every person, so it's usually a process of trial and error to build up your toolbox. You definitely can do it.
Do you believe that CBT can be just as effective with someone who is dealing with depressive tendencies as well as suffering from anxiety?
I appreciate your comment/thoughts. Regarding your first point about CBT and people's beliefs, I've seen that too. I think it's good that CBT is becoming increasingly known because it can be such a helpful tool. The unfortunate part about this is that it is often oversimplified and it can come off as a shallow, just-snap-out-of-it approach. As you know, it's more complex than that, but it does have that reputation, and that's frustrating for people (and there are so very many) who have received the message that they should just get over anxiety and depression and that they should just employ mind over matter. I think when people learn that there's more to it than this, they'll be more receptive. Personally, I wasn't sold on CBT at first for the very reasons you mention.
I do believe that CBT can be very effective for both anxiety and depression. CBT helps people interpret their world (both their inner world and the outer world) differently and more objectively. The way we think definitely contributes to anxiety and depression. That said, I think that while CBT can be a very effective component to therapy, I personally believe (after studying the plethora of counseling theories, working with people, and considering my own mental health struggles) that a holistic approach is usually the most effective way to beat anxiety and depression. Thoughts are definitely part of what's going on, but so are emotions, behaviors, and personal backgrounds. They all mix together to contribute to both anxiety and depression, so it makes sense to address all areas. CBT is great for the thoughts but other areas should be healed, too. (Now I will admit that there are many approaches and many therapists and not everyone will agree with each other on what is best!). I'm wondering if you have found CBT to be effective with anxiety and depression.
I'm very glad that this was helpful just at the right time. I like how you worded that -- that you were starting to let them unravel you. That's a great description because that's just what anxious thoughts do. It's powerful that you were able to recognize it and take charge instead of letting the thoughts be in control. We all need reminders of this!
Your statement captures one of the frustrating things about anxiety. It feels real. The thoughts feel real. After all, they come from our own mind. It is indeed difficult. As hard as it seems, you can overcome. One effective thing to do is to tune in to your thoughts. Recognize them. Then begin to question them. Are the worries justified? Maybe, but to what degree? What is the likelihood of the consequences actually happening? How hurtful would they really be? Are there other possible outcomes than the ones your anxiety is imagining? It's a process to change thinking, and sadly it doesn't happen overnight. But keep at it, and you'll overcome.