“There’s that look from the boss again. I just know I’m going to be fired.”
“John hasn’t called. What if he’s been in an accident?”
Do you sometimes find yourself fearing the worst and fretting about it, even experiencing severe anxiety over it? Are you “catastrophizing?”
Cognitive therapy expert David Burns writes about this kind of distorted thinking in The Feeling Good Handbook. “Your thoughts and attitudes – and not external events,” he says, “create your moods.” Negative thoughts lead to anxiety and depression. But you can learn techniques to free yourself of these patterns and feel better.
We’re hard-wired to worry, to some extent, in anticipation of physical danger, says Dr Simon Rego, Associate Director of Psychology Training, Montefiore Medical Center in New York. “If a truck is bearing down on you on the highway, you need to be worried about the consequences of not getting out of its way.”
But exaggerated fears can keep you feeling anxious and miserable.
You can learn new ways of thinking with techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy – using strategies to rethink what you tell yourself, says Rego.
Steps for taking control of your worrying
Practice these steps that can help when you’re worrying about something bad happening:
1. Examine what you’re telling yourself. What is the thought that is making you anxious? “I’m afraid my boss is going to fire me because I’ve seen him frowning twice this week.”
2. Gather evidence that supports or refutes the thought. “There were cutbacks last year. But he just complimented me on my work last week.”
3. Think of other possibilities. The worry will have less power over you. “Maybe the boss seemed irritable because he has his own problems.”
4. Think back: How many times has the worst case scenario come true? Truth is, it almost never happens. “Most of the time, my worries turn out to be unnecessary.”
5. Ask yourself what it is costing you to think this way? Is it making you anxious, irritable or unable to sleep at night? “I was so worried about being fired, I almost stayed home from work today.”
6. Do something positive and productive if you’re feeling stuck. “I’m going to do that extra project and do my best work.”
7. Practice mindfulness: Take a few minutes to focus on the present, using all your senses to be aware of your environment in the here and now. Listen to your breathing.
8. Don’t just try not to think about the worry. It won’t make it go away. Instead, think about the worry for a fixed amount of time. The anxiety will burn off.
“A thought is just a thought,” says Rego, “not necessarily reality. It’s just a thought until I believe it to be true. But we can learn to think in a more balanced and rational way, so that we feel less anxious.”
Dr. Rego recommends these books for learning to reduce anxiety:
- The Worry Cure, Robert L. Leahy
- The Feeling Good Handbook, David D. Burns
- Mind Over Mood, Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky
Cognitive behavior therapy
Feeling Good-The New Mood Therapy
Simon A. Rego, PsyD, Associate Director of Psychology Training, Montefiore Medical Center - Department of Psychiatry, Bronx, New York
The Feeling Good Handbook by David D. Burns, MD
Page updated on March 1, 2010