Taming Anxiety with Simple Thought Strategies

Posted 03/30/21

4 cognitive strategies to try when anxiety takes over

When it comes to easing anxiety, the old saying “mind over matter” holds some truth. While you can’t think away anxiety with brain power, you can ease yourself out of its grip with cognitive strategies. We talked to Marc Kaplan, D.O., Sweetser Medical Director, to round up some tried-and-true approaches.

Look for evidence.

When your brain locks onto a negative vibe and you can’t stop brooding — say, you’re worried about your 8th grader slipping behind in math and never getting into college — pause. Ask yourself, what’s true here? Why am I so convinced this bad thing will happen?

“When you’re anxious, you can paint a very distorted picture,” notes Kaplan. And when you unpack the situation and think about what could really unfold, you might find you’ve made the issue bigger than it is — or convinced yourself of some unlikely consequences.

Forgive yourself.

Anxious people tend to compound anxiety by layering on judgement, telling themselves they should be strong enough to cope or they deserve to be in this mess for one reason or another. But that only  adds self-destructive fuel to the fire.

“Instead, give yourself a break,” says Kaplan. “Tell yourself, I’m scared now and that’s ok. Or, I don’t like what I’m doing but I’m doing the best I can right now.” After all, no one wakes up in the morning and decides they want to feel like they want to feel frazzled and jangly all day.

Helpful or harmful?

Anxiety has a real function. It’s like a warning system designed to save us from unhappy consequences – spurring you to dash out of the way of an errant car or get an important report done on time. But sometimes anxiety is no help at all. “It’s like the fire alarm that keeps blaring long after the drill is over, leaving you in a state of worry and hypervigilance,” Kaplan says.

When this happens, ask yourself whether the anxiety you’re feeling is helping or hurting. This can shift your perspective and allow you to set anxiety aside.

Distract yourself.

When no matter what you try, you just can’t turn off the worry, try to short circuit it. Tell yourself, hey, that’s my anxiety talking — I need to do something to turn off the warning signal. Go outside for a walk or a run. Scrub your kitchen. Play fetch with your dog.

“This helps you nourish the commonsense part of yourself and turn the volume down on the anxiety part,” Kaplan explains.

As you start practicing these strategies, be patient. It takes time before they become second nature. Try using visual cues – like sticky notes posted around your home and workspace – as reminders.

And remember all the other arrows in your quiver. Staying physically active, getting plenty of sleep, eating right, and using mindfulness techniques are all helpful and important considerations for taming anxiety.