Updated: Feb 11, 2022
Become more aware of the role of thoughts in your anxiety and how getting to know them will help you begin to take back some control.
"Watch your thoughts; they become words, watch your words; they become actions, watch your actions; they become habits, watch your habits; they become character, watch your character; it becomes your destiny"
Our thoughts can be pretty powerful. There's no clear cut way of deciphering what comes first; the thought or the emotion, because it is so interlinked and part of a blueprint that our brain uses to operate from based on previous experiences.
But there is no denying, whether or not we have a feeling, emotion or thought first, that thoughts can drive our states and escalate how we feel - both positively and negatively.
Many of our thoughts are automatic
Most of our thoughts automatically pop up, many are not consciously registered but even those which we don't tune into, can drive our actions and behaviour. This is what we know as "being on autopilot". Although helpful sometimes, this can mean that we miss opportunities to change behaviours and emotions which might be working together to keep us stuck in patterns that we would really like to change.
These thoughts are often influencing our anxiety levels, but if they remain unknown then we can struggle to know how to manage the anxiety we are feeling, or even to understand what it is about.
So often we become trapped in feelings of anxiety, which end up becoming a narrative that turns into a full blown story we are telling ourselves about how life is and our place in it. These 'stories' can be very convincing and even stop us from doing the things we really want.
If we are operating in automatic pilot a lot then we might not realise that we are operating from a place of anxiety also known as 'threat mode'. It usually kicks in when we are particularly stressed as well, by which point we are more likely to be wrapped up in what we are doing and not paying attention to the quality of our thoughts.
But what's the point in getting to know thoughts?
You may ask; "why is it important for me to even know what my thoughts are? If I feel anxious then I must need to get on with finding a solution or getting stuff sorted out so the anxiety goes away"
That is a prime example of our behaviour being driven by ‘threat mode’… we must get it done, we must sort it out, we must get rid of this horrible feeling.
But what if you are able to tune into the thoughts associated with the anxious feelings? So that instead of instinctively reacting to the emotion, you are able to get more understanding about what is actually happening and if the perceived threat is as dangerous as you feel it is.
By becoming more aware of our thoughts, we can create a gap where, instead of instantly reacting, and in doing so we can learn to step back. This can feel much more empowering than pushing through at full speed because when we have a gap, we can make a choice: “hmmm, if I buy into this thought, will it be helpful in taking me in the direction I want/need to go? Will it help me in living my values?”
So how can I become more aware?
By making time to quieten your mind. This may sound counterintuitive, as many people assume that the point of meditation is to 'get rid' of thoughts, so how can be tune into them if we are trying to get rid of them?! The truth is, that thoughts remain even with the most seasoned meditator! The key is just to notice. Perhaps when you are focused on your breath or a body scan, you notice your mind being taken elsewhere by thoughts. In the first instance just notice these thoughts without labelling or judging them. You can choose if you want to record what comes up for reference if helpful and turn your attention back to your breath or body. This is a useful way to become aware of the automatic thoughts which dominate your mind, whilst also practising the skill of choosing where to put your attention.
Tuning into your emotions. This can be a guide to also getting to know your thoughts. It can be hard to tune in objectively when you are in a highly emotional state, but once you get some distance, see if you can consider what was going on from an observer point of view - a wise observer that maybe has a good overview. You could consider points such as: what is under this feeling? What am I thinking? are there any images or memories associated with this feeling? Does it trigger a memory? Is it linked to something else which is triggering my thought process, for example a sensation and what do I think about that sensation? These questions can help us to understand if the way we are thinking/perceiving/interpreting something is actually fuelling certain emotional states.
Become more aware of your behaviour and urges. Automatic thoughts lead to automatic behaviours! Behaviours we might regret or be fed up with... maybe we question ourselves "why can't I seem to stop doing that?". Try to tune into the moments where you connect with yourself engaging in behaviour which doesn't feel helpful (rather than passively accepting - "this is how it is, I have to do it"). Be curious about what comes up when you connect to it and how you feel about it. What thoughts are associated with it - and also what thoughts come up when you consider not engaging in it! That can be quite telling too. You can also use this to engage with positive behaviours and being able to access what helps you to feel motivated and energised.
These are the first steps to becoming more aware of thoughts and the impact they have on our day to day life. There are often many layers to this. Once we have more of an understanding of it, we can consider how helpful they are, but first it’s about getting to know them!