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Are Your Anxious Thoughts Trustworthy?

Anxious thoughts cause the mind to race with worry and fear. Anxious thoughts are real but not trustworthy. Here's how to reduce their power.

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.

Connect with Tanya on Facebook, Twitter, Google +, LinkedIn, and her website.

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of four critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges as well as a self-help book on acceptance and commitment therapy. She speaks nationally about mental health, and she has a curriculum for middle and high schools. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

21 thoughts on “Are Your Anxious Thoughts Trustworthy?”

  1. Hi Tanya,

    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.

    1. Hello Nile,
      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.

  2. As of lately i have been a anxiety wreck. I was doing good for about 3 years at keeping my anxiety at bay. However i allowed myself to get stressed out and boom i set off my anxiety and somehow the thought of me being bipolar popped in my head and that sent my anxiety soaring. I have taken the bipolar spectrum quiz over and over and the text even stated that it is my anxiety but i just can shake the thought just because i actually entertain it in the first place. I question everything i think of because of this, im just ready to be back in Anxiety Free Remission lol. I feel so out of it and unreal. Any suggestions?

    1. Hello AnxiousOne,

      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.

      1. I know that im not bipolar, i just get thoughts in my head and I have also read that usually if it is something you fear having that you normally dont have it. I know its my anxiety, i just want to get back to a point where i trust my thoughts when i tell myself that its just Anxiety playing tricks and that I am Fine just going through the motions of horrible anxiety. I have met people who expirence the same thing and arent bipolar just super stressed with anxiety.

        1. Anxiety can definitely mess with thoughts and cause great stress. You’re ahead of the game in that you are aware of it. Of course that doesn’t mean that anxious thoughts will automatically stop. Wouldn’t that be nice?! Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps people fully identify anxious thoughts (often, we know we have them and can even identify some of them, but there are underlying thoughts and beliefs that fly under our radar and greatly increase anxious thoughts), question and challenge them, and replace them with realistic new thoughts and thought patterns. Working with a therapist is very beneficial. If you are unable to see a therapist, there are also numerous CBT self-help books available.

          1. Thank you so much cause I will check out some books and it would be great if they would just go away lol wishful thinking huh!

  3. Hello Tanya!

    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.

    1. Hello Ann!
      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! 🙂

  4. So when I fear and have this over powering worry, It means it was never true? That I worried because I didn’t want it to happen but because I became worried my brain made it feel real only because I was worried? I hope that made sense.

    1. Hi Emily,
      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!)

      1. Thank you so much! I’m very much a Worry wart and its always over something very strange and I will worry constantly till one day it goes away. I wish I could make that stop

        1. Hi Emily,
          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.

  5. I’ve come across numerous patients who have previously heard of CBT and equate it to basically telling yourself to ‘snap out of it’, or implementing a mind over matter attitude. In one particular case this could also relate back to damaging childhood memories of being told to do this whilst suffering from depression at a very young age.

    Do you believe that CBT can be just as effective with someone who is dealing with depressive tendencies as well as suffering from anxiety?

    1. Hi Fran,
      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.

  6. Thank you for this very insightful post. I woke today full of anxious thoughts and it was starting to let them unravel me. This is just what I needed to read: perhaps the thoughts are not trustworthy. I have pondered this idea before but definitely needed a reminder this morning. So thanks.

    1. Hello Alex,
      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!

    1. Hi Barbara,
      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.

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