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A Colorful Exercise to Change Your Anxious Thoughts

Anxiety affects us deeply and in many ways, including taking over our thoughts. Anxious thoughts can be loud, obnoxious, repetitive, and bothersome. They seem real and accurate. We think something; therefore, it must be true. In reality, however, our thoughts--especially anxious thoughts--aren't reliable. There are many different types of anxious thoughts that become repetitive patterns, and because they repeat in our heads, they feel very real. We come to believe them, and this affects our actions and overall happiness. Here's a look at one particularly bothersome anxious thinking pattern, all-or-nothing thinking, and an exercise to change these anxious thoughts. 

Why We Need to Change in Anxious Thinking

While anxiety isn't only about our thoughts, thoughts are definitely a very big part of anxiety. Many different types of automatic negative thoughts contribute to negative experiences like anxiety, stress, and depression. One particularly annoying negative thought pattern is all-or-nothing thinking, also known as black-and-white thinking.

These thoughts tell us that our world exists only in extremes. We are either a great parent or a terrible parent; we are going to be wildly successful or complete failures; we "always" mess up our relationships; we're "never" going to be happy or find love. These are just a few general (and, unfortunately, common) examples of black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking. Your own will be unique to you, but the chances are high that if you experience anxiety, you've probably engaged in some black-or-white thinking from time to time.

Automatic negative thoughts aren't character flaws. They're not thinking patterns we choose to have but are just something the brain does. That's why they're called automatic negative thoughts. These thought patterns, including black-and-white thinking, are a part of anxiety rather than a style of thinking we choose on purpose. I still catch myself engaging in this type of anxious thinking sometimes. The key in reducing anxiety's grip is to realize that we don't always have to listen to or believe everything we think. We can override automatic thoughts and be more intentional about the quality of what we're thinking. 

Change Anxious, Black-and-White Thinking with this Colorful Exercise

This exercise specifically targets all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking. This type of thinking is especially dangerous because it spills over, seeping past the single upsetting thought ("I made a mistake and now I'm worthless as an employee") into other areas of your mind and self-concept. When you believe, for example, that making a mistake makes you a worthless employee, it bleeds into other life areas, making you feel worthless as a parent, child, friend, and general human being. This becomes hugely overwhelming, and it's easy to believe that all your other anxious thoughts are true and that things will never get better (more all-or-nothing thinking). 

Try this exercise to catch and change anxious, black-and-white thinking.

  • Reflect on the all-or-nothing thinking that is behind many of your worries, writing them down in a journal, notebook, or even a document on your computer. 
  • Choose one thought and write it in black ink (or font) and the top of a blank page.
  • Using markers, colored pencils, or different colored fonts, list as many alternate thoughts and possibilities as you can to disrupt the black-and-white thought. (If you are worried about a mistake and believe that you are worthless because of it, start by jotting down things that you've done well today, ways you nurture others, contributions you make, strengths you have, etc.)
  • Use a different color for each idea on your list to make them boldly stand out from the black-and-white pattern.

The idea of this exercise is to add more color, more variety to your thoughts to loosen yourself from anxiety's strong hold and expand not just your thinking but your life. The more often you do it, the more naturally you'll be able to catch yourself thinking in black-and-white terms and shift to different thoughts and new possibilities. Anxious thoughts are only automatic until we recognize them and take action to change them. Then, our possibilities are rich, colorful, and liberating. 

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2021, March 11). A Colorful Exercise to Change Your Anxious Thoughts, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, September 26 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2021/3/a-colorful-exercise-to-change-your-anxious-thoughts



Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, and Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps. She has also written five critically acclaimed, award-winning novels about life with mental health challenges. She delivers workshops for all ages and provides online and in-person mental health education for youth. She has shared information about creating a quality life on podcasts, summits, print and online interviews and articles, and at speaking events. Tanya is a Diplomate of the American Institution of Stress helping to educate others about stress and provide useful tools for handling it well in order to live a healthy and vibrant life. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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