How Do I Control My Anxious Thoughts?

By Annabelle Parr, MA, AMFT

The human mind is a meaning making machine; it searches for patterns (even where there are none) and does it’s best to make sense of the world around us so that it can help keep as safe and surviving. But if you are reading this, I’m guessing while you are surviving, you might not feel like you are thriving. Because sometimes the thoughts our minds generate feel less than helpful. Sometimes, they get us stuck.

Anxiety tells us all kinds of stories about ourselves and the world around us.

If you’ve ever experienced anxiety, you are probably familiar with all the catastrophic stories your mind can generate in a difficult moment, from “I’m going to fail” to “nobody likes me” to “this is going to be a disaster!” Anxiety disorders, OCD, and PTSD all include sticky thoughts that tend to govern and restrict behavior and continue to drive the anxiety and emotional difficulties. And it makes sense that if your anxious thoughts seem to be controlling your life that you might want to control your anxious thoughts for a change.

So what do we do when our thoughts seem to be holding us back or getting us stuck? We have a couple of options.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy works on changing the content of our thoughts.

From a traditional Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) perspective, we might try what is known as cognitive restructuring. CBT challenges sticky thoughts, examining evidence for and against the thought, and then replacing it with a new, more balanced thought in place of the original. In addition, CBT asks you to act in new ways that might allow you to directly experience evidence that challenges your thought.

For example, say you are stuck on the thought, “I always fail at everything I do.” CBT might invite you to consider that although you did fail your last 2 math tests, you aced your last 5 history tests, you are great at taking care of your dog, and you make a mean lasagna. Significantly, this isn’t just about “thinking positive.” And you aren’t replacing the thought with it’s complete opposite (“I will never fail at anything I do” or “I am the best at everything”). Those thoughts would not be helpful or true either. You are instead aiming for a more balanced and helpful way of viewing the situation: “I failed this time, but that doesn’t mean I have or will always fail at everything.

What if I can’t control my thoughts?

But what if you have tried to challenge those thoughts that tell you how incapable you are or how dangerous the world is, and no matter how many times you try to replace the old thought and control your pesky mind, it doesn’t seem to work? What if trying to change your thoughts only makes you feel like even more of a failure because it’s not helping? Some thoughts are too sticky to challenge. You might be able to come up with a more balanced thought, but you still may have trouble believing it to be true. And guess what? The more we try not to think something, the more present and entrenched it tends to become. (For example, DO NOT THINK ABOUT PUPPIES. SERIOUSLY. DON’T THINK ABOUT A BUNCH OF CUTE, FLUFFY, SNUGGLY PUPPIES…I bet you just thought about puppies.)

Maybe you don’t have to fight with your mind.


Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) comes at our thoughts from a different angle. ACT says that the problem is not that your mind has thoughts, but rather that you believe that those thoughts reflect the truth about how things are and you behave accordingly. ACT is not concerned with whether a thought is factually correct or incorrect. Instead, ACT asks, is this thought workable? Does it help you to move around in your life effectively? Does it move you closer to what matters most? Or is listening to it preventing you from engaging in your life in important, meaningful ways?

Getting a little distance from your mind is different from controlling it.

In ACT, rather than trying to “correct” a thought or control the content of your mind, the focus is on helping you to step back, get some space from those sticky thoughts, and observe them for what they are: words. This process is known as cognitive defusion.


A simple trick to get some space from your mind is to refer to it as a separate entity. So when you have a sticky thought, you might think, “my mind is telling me that I can’t handle this.” Or you might give your mind a name: “Neville is telling me that I can’t handle this.” Then, rather than trying to convince yourself that you can in fact handle it, you would focus on connecting with what matters to you, and choose to act in service of your values regardless. Because the thing is, you can have a thought and choose to behave in direct opposition to it. And this can be really powerful. Let’s try it right now. Say to yourself, “Self, I cannot raise my hand.” And raise your hand. See? No matter how sticky the thought is in your mind, it doesn’t have to keep you stuck with it.

If you can change your mind, great! If you can’t, no problem.

Whether you choose to replace a sticky thought with a new, more balanced thought or whether you choose to remind yourself that a thought is just your brain trying to make sense of the world, you do not need to fight with your mind. You just need to give it a little wiggle room. Minds can change. But what matters is that you know that your thoughts are not in control, even when it feels like they are. No matter what your mind is saying at any given moment, it is the YOU that has those thoughts that gets to decide what you do.

CSAM Is Here to Help

If you or someone you love needs support and might benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) for anxiety, panic, phobias, stress, PTSD, OCD, or stress related to COVID-19, or if you would like more information about our telehealth services, please contact us at (858) 354-4077 or at

By: Jill Stoddard
Title: How Do I Control My Anxious Thoughts?
Sourced From:
Published Date: Thu, 06 Aug 2020 20:40:00 +0000

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