tree-of-life-4Anxiety feeds on itself.

Anxious feelings can lead to anxious thoughts, which then reinforce the anxious feelings and can fuel a downward spiral of anxiety. (Wow, talk about an anxiety-producing sentence!)

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Researchers have developed an effective way for us to disrupt that spiral by challenging the thoughts that are feeding our anxiety.

Anxiety-driven thoughts are very often irrational. The good news is that they’re irrational in some pretty predictable ways, so we can learn to recognize and refute them.

Cognitive psychologists have found that the process of identifying and disputing irrational thoughts is a very effective way to short-circuit the anxiety cycle so we can regain our equilibrium, think more clearly, and feel a lot better.

So next time you’re feeling anxious, walk yourself through these three steps.

1. Remind yourself that anxiety naturally fuels irrational thoughts that then reinforce the anxiety. Ask yourself if that’s happening to you.

2. Identify the anxiety-driven thoughts. “I’m telling myself that I know the doctor is going to give me bad news. That sounds like my anxiety talking.”

3. Challenge the faulty reasoning“Do I really have enough evidence to be so sure? What are some of the other possibilities?”

That’s it. And once you’ve done it, turn your attention to something else. It doesn’t matter if it’s something fun,  something difficult, or something active — just do something that occupies your mind with thoughts other than the ones being fueled by your anxiety. And if those anxious thoughts return, there’s no need to feel defeated. Just repeat the process as often as you need to.

Seems pretty simple, right? The trick here is consistency. The more often we go through the process of identifying and disputing irrational, anxiety-fueling thoughts, the easier it will get and the more effective it will become.

Here are some of the most common anxiety-fueled thought patterns, plus some specific ways you can recognize and dispute them. If some of these sound familiar to you, put them into your mental tool kit so you can take them out when you need them.

    Making dire predictions as if they’re facts.

If you’re telling yourself:

“I know my sales pitch is going to go badly.”

“I’m sure she won’t want to go out with me.”

Stop and ask yourself:

Can I really predict the future, or is this my anxiety talking? What are some other possible outcomes?

What’s one thing I can do to increase my chances of success?

     Treating anxiety as if it’s a reliable indicator of how things are going.

If you’re telling yourself:

“I’m feeling really anxious and uncomfortable. That means this isn’t going well.”

Stop and ask yourself:

Is my anxiety level always a good gauge of how things are really going?

Do things ever turn out to have gone better than I thought they were going at the time?

      Seeing only the negative and ignoring the positive.

If you’re telling yourself:

“One of the people in the audience is checking his watch. I’m failing up here.”

“I forgot to chill the white wine. The party is ruined.”

Stop and ask yourself:

Is my anxiety causing me to ignore anything important?

What do things look like if I expand my focus and try to see the whole picture?

What can I focus on that is going well?

     Deciding the causes of a disappointment or failure are permanent and pervasive rather than temporary and specific.

If you’re telling yourself:

“That was a disaster. I have no talent for it, and I never will.”

Stop and ask yourself:

Can I think of one specific part of it that went pretty well?

What strengths and resources do I have that I can use to build on that one pretty good part so it goes even better next time?

     Deciding that the outcomes of a disappointment or failure are permanent and pervasive rather than temporary and specific.

If you’re telling yourself:

“Now I’ll never get a promotion. I’ll be lucky if I keep my job.”

“She turned me down. I might as well give up. Nobody is ever going to want to go out with me.”

Stop and ask yourself:

Is it possible that my anxiety is causing me to over-react?

Is this one event really powerful enough to determine the course of the rest of my life?

If your anxious thoughts don’t quite fit into any of these categories, don’t worry. The important thing is that you notice the specific irrational thoughts that are fueling your own anxiety, and dispute them any way you can, even with a simple: “That’s not reality. That’s my anxiety talking.”

The key to success with this process is to practice it consistently and keep doing it over the long term. If you do, you can have a significant impact on your thoughts, your anxiety, and the quality of your life.




Wallace-259 5x7Lynda Wallace is a highly sought-after career, life, and executive coach who meets with local clients in her sunny office in Montclair, NJ, and with clients from around the world by phone and video. She wrote the best-selling book A Short Course in Happiness, and teaches her evidence-based coaching methods to hundreds of coaches every year. Lynda spent twenty years as a senior executive at Johnson & Johnson, holds an MBA from the Wharton School, and is a Certified Positive Psychology Coach.

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