Click play to hear Barry explain this anxiety sensation.
Anxiety almost always comes with a level of disturbing thoughts. You might be driving with your children and then get a flash thought of losing control and driving into an oncoming car. Another example is looking down from a bridge and suddenly getting terrified by the idea that you might lose all control of your senses and jump.
If you experience such thoughts, I want to reassure you that, regardless of how extreme, don’t worry about them. They’re the result of an active imagination coupled with anxiety and, often, something or someone about which you care deeply. These thoughts persist because you react so strongly to them. If you didn’t have a strong reaction, the thoughts would never bother you.
The scary thoughts are like a small five-year-old looking for attention and targeting something you care about to get a reaction from you. They occur to people who would never dream of doing what they think about. It’s just the very fact of having the thoughts that shocks people and leads them to believe they’re bad in some way.
The truth is that these thoughts are the by-product of an overactive imagination mixed with a good dollop of anxiety. It’s the anxious reaction to the thoughts that keeps them going around and around, as if you’re tense inside and the thoughts speed up. I’ve outlined this process in Stage 2, but here’s a quick reminder.
Visually, it’s like this. Thoughts float up in front of us all the time during our waking day. Normally, we ignore most thoughts and continue what we’re doing. Other times, we really get stuck into the thought and examine it in detail, such as “what I have to do today” thoughts. When anxious thoughts enter, people generally whack them away and try to run from them. This never works, because the energy put into hitting away the thought instead powers it to rebound with even more force and intensity.
For the moment, your best way to deal with this is to accept the chain of thoughts as they happen. When “terrible idea X” enters your mind. you simply go:
There you are again! I’m getting totally bored by all this scare-mongering. It’s not relevant to me or my life—but sure, go ahead and tell the awful idea again if it makes you feel better.
Talk to the thoughts as if they’re visitors that have no relationship to your real self and you’re simply being polite by letting them run. Don’t force them away—that creates the rebound effect—but don’t feel you have to pay too much attention either. The goal is to move your attention to what you want to focus on without reacting to the scary thought. That way, your energy goes into what you want and not into what you don’t want.
You know who you are and that these thoughts don’t represent you, so don’t worry—the very fact that you get so upset by the thoughts shows how different you are from the ideas that torment you. Another way to view the thoughts is as if they were school bullies trying to upset you by saying awful things about, for example, people close to you. If you get scared, the bully continues to taunt even more. If you laugh and say, “Sure, whatever,” then walk away, the bully loses interest.
Acceptance is key. Getting upset by the thoughts only fuels the inner tension further because you add more worry and stress to the problem. If you say to yourself that this is a period you’re moving through and that it will work out fine, you’ll move into that acceptance more easily.
“Switching off” the anxious thoughts is best achieved by saying, “Oh, very scary! Are you done yet?” Then continuously bring yourself back to the moment or task at hand without getting annoyed for having these thoughts. What you really need to adopt is an attitude that all is well. And it is. These fears are just a nuisance, but they’ll pass.