As I wrote about here, the five questions I recommend asking yourself when your anxiety starts to take over are:
Am I predicting, fortunetelling, or mind-reading right now?
What do I know to be true?
What do I need right now?
What can I do right now?
What does my body need right now?
Let’s dive in to that first question:
Am I predicting, fortune-telling, or mind-reading right now?
What might this predicting or mind-reading look like? Often, when we’re anxious, if we take a moment to pay attention to what our mind is telling us, we might find that we’re thinking things like:
“My boss definitely thinks I’m an idiot.”
“I’m never going to feel better!”
“She’s not texting me back because she thinks I’m boring.”
“None of my friend’s actually want to see me.”
“I’m going to make a fool of myself in my interview tomorrow.”
“He doesn’t ever want to go out with me again.”
These negative thoughts often feel so real. And 100% true. But—are they? If you add a phrase like “I’m imagining that...” to every one of those statements above, they sound a bit different:
“I’m imagining that my boss thinks I’m an idiot.”
“I’m imagining that none of my friend’s want to see me.”
and so on.
Taking a step back from our thoughts in this way, reminding ourselves that we are making something up, can help us to recognize that these negative, scary, critical thoughts—as painful as they often are in the moment—are in fact only words, guesses, and stories that we are telling ourselves. And yes, it’s possible that maybe, sometimes, some of these stories come true, or our prediction ends up being accurate. But in the moment when you are gripped by fear and anxiety and are actually having the thought, you don’t actually know that it’s true, and that is the key. It might be true, but it might not be.
Anxiety, plus the fact that we, as humans, are intelligent beings with the capacity for language and fantasy (a blessing and a curse), leads us very easily down the misguided path of assuming, without a hint of doubt, that our thoughts equal reality. However, this is very often not the case! We can say “My friends don’t really like me, they’re just pitying me when they hang out with me.” But having that thought does not make those words true.
Try this for an easy example of what I mean:
Say “I will never be able to lift my arm again” while you lift your arm above your head.
This is an example of how our minds can tell us any and everything, regardless of its accuracy or link to our real, lived experience. This ability is what allows us to be creative, artistic, and innovative, and it’s also how we often end up feeling scared, anxious, and stuck.
Asking yourself if you are, in essence, making things up as your brain starts telling you that everything is terrible, or is going to be, is the first step toward taking the power away from your anxiety. Just because you had a thought, predicted an outcome, or attempted to be a mind reader, does not make any of those things real, at least not yet! So, next time you find yourself entering that cycle of worry, fear, or dread about something in your life, ask yourself what story you are telling.
Next up: After we begin to recognize what our mind is telling us that’s not necessarily real, we then need to work on paying attention to what is “real”, in that (this) exact moment. More on that next time, in Part 3.