“I just feel anxious. I’m not thinking anything.”
Negative self-talk is behind anxious feelings. Your thoughts impact your feelings. Your feelings affect your view of the world, and that view negatively affects your thoughts. This vicious cycle keeps anxiety going. In order to stop anxiety, you’ve got to learn to stop anxious thoughts.
The work is to replace negative self-talk with positive talk.
Most anxious people think, “What if…”
Change the “What if…” to “So what,” and you’ll reduce anxiety.
Does this sound easy? It usually takes practice to break the habit of negativity. Anxious thoughts are automatic for people with anxiety problems. You feel anxious and are unaware of preceding thoughts. The first step is to identify your thoughts prior to an oncoming anxious feeling. The thought won’t always be obvious.
For example, Pat sat in a meeting with several of his superiors. He was nervous about his presentation and flashed back to a time early on in his career when he botched a presentation. These thoughts started running through Pat’s head, “What if I mess up again? I could get fired. I will embarrass myself.” The more Pat allowed these thoughts, the more anxious he became. By the time he stood up to give his presentation, he was close to panic.
Had Pat used his self-talk in a positive way, he may have warded off anxiety. “I messed up early on in my career. I’m much more experienced. I have done these presentations many times with good outcomes. I have every reason to believe these people will like what I have to say and be impressed.”
Do you hear the difference in self-talk? The first creates or reinforces anxious feelings. The second example dismisses anxious thoughts and builds confidence. Self-talk is that powerful.
If your self-talk is has these themes, time to make changes:
…I should have, I have to…You are the classic perfectionist who always falls short of the job and worries about your failures.
…I can’t believe I did that, How stupid, What an idiot I am…You are far too critical of yourself and need to give yourself a break! You need a shot of self-esteem.
…I can’t, I don’t have what it takes, I won’t be able to do it…You believe nothing will change and you can’t meet the challenge.
…What about…? You are the classic worrier. Nothing can happen without you bringing out all the possibilities for disaster or problems.
If you find yourself identifying with these statements, you need to change your thoughts. Write down positive statements that will counter the negative possibilities. For example, instead of thinking, “I can’t do that because it’s too scary,” say, “It looks scary but I can meet a new challenge. The worse possible thing that can happen is that I’ll feel scared for a moment and then it will pass. I will have accomplished something new.”
After you’ve written down positive counter statements to your negative thoughts, practice saying the positive statements. Here’s one I give my kids when they tell me they can’t do something, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Is this all things? Yes, so you can do it.”
Next time you feel anxious, stop and ask, what was I thinking before I felt this way? Chances are it was a negative thought that needs changing.