There are lots of strategies you can use to help manage anxiety in the long-term, whether that’s daily practise of mindfulness or tapping the stress-relieving benefits of running.
But what about when worrying thoughts flare up in the moment? When your mind falls into a spiral of “what ifs?” it’s hard to break free – which is why, in its strongest form, rumination is linked to anxiety and depression.
Thoughts become repetitive, like a stuck record, setting into play a negative cycle that affects your interpretation of current and future events. Research shows this cognitive chain paralyzes the brain’s problem-solving skills, meaning people often feel trapped in their own heads.
The good news is, there are some simple techniques that can be used to ease the pressure of over-thinking, and help stem troubling thoughts before they escalate.
Like anything when it comes to mental health, these tips don’t offer a golden cure; nor will they always be effective. But, used in combination with other good wellbeing practices, they can help to promote a little distance from the worries that threaten to sweep you away:
Name it to tame it
By defining what exactly your worry is, you bring it out into the open. This gives you crucial distance from the whirlpool of your mind. Say to yourself exactly how you are feeling, and how that sensation takes hold physically. For example, “I am feeling nervous and my heart is racing”. Say this in your head, out loud or even better, write it down.
Doing this gives perspective, and it also moves the troubling thought from an abstract worry to a problem that needs to be solved. This means you transition to a place of positive action. Instead of obsessing over “what ifs”, you start coming up with solutions and consequences – a process that will also expose which fears are irrational, and which ones you can take action on.
“One you have a defined problem you can generate some possible solutions, and think through the likely consequences of each,” says psychologist Melanie Greenberg, writing in Psychology Today.
There’s a reason why this non-dominant handwriting trick works for fear of flying. Anything that can get you out of your head, and also focused on a simple physical activity, is great for easing whirring thoughts.
Doodling is especially helpful as it hones the creative mind and encourages you to think in a slightly different way. By visually engaging with information, you fire up dormant networks in your brain that are separate to the cognitive process associated with worrying.
You’re anchored to the task at hand, providing a welcome distraction, and you’re also able to express your thoughts in an alternate manner, which gives you distance from whatever’s troubling you.
Other physical activities that engage both your brain and an element of creativity work in a similar fashion. Take knitting, which has been shown to lower heart rate and induce “an enhanced state of calm”. Or pottery, a hobby that eases stress and encourages connection to the moment.
Don’t fight how you feel
When talking about anxiety, therapists often reference the beach ball analogy. If you try and push it under water, it will always pop back up again. So the trick is to resist your impulse to control your worrying thoughts.
This concept of acceptance certainly rings true for journalist Kate Townshend, who – over a lifetime of experiencing anxiety – has come to realise that worrying thoughts have a rhythm of their own. There’s no point trying to fight those feelings, or label them. Instead she draws on the knowledge that they will pass eventually. She also takes comfort from the fact that her tendency to overthink is related to positive qualities as well, such as empathy and creativity.
“This permission to give up constantly fighting against my anxiety, or to see it in a purely negative light, has been a huge relief, ” she writes in Stylist. “It may seem counterintuitive, but there’s no point in constantly restarting an argument you never get to win. Anxiety is still hard and miserable, and it still manages to send me into a blurry, wide-eyed spin. But I no longer end up exhausted and weeping under the dining room table having tried so hard to force myself to feel better, and to force my worries to flee.”
Try comfort listening
This one’s especially useful for when night-time anxiety kicks in. Minor worries can easily spiral out of control in the early hours, and before you know it, you’re in a tailspin of worst-case fears.
Comfort listening offers a powerful way out. Much like feel-good films, uplifting podcasts and audiobooks have a way of lulling you into a warm sense of security. Only there’s none of the sneaky blue light interference that comes from screen time and firing up Netflix.
This technique explains why series such as the Calm app’s Sleep Stories have become so popular. By popping on something comforting and familiar, you are distracted from your own catastrophization. That 3am tendency your mind has to snowball problems out of all proportion is stopped in its tracks, as you remind yourself that the world is actually a pretty good place.
Choose the right listening material and you may succeed in calming yourself back to sleep, too. It’s a surprisingly effective ritual, because it conjures up that exact same sense of warmth and safety that you associate with the bedtime stories of your childhood.
Stretch into a yoga pose
Now, yoga has become a catch-all response for stress – but there’s a reason why mental health campaigners constantly shout its virtues.
“A tense body means a tense mind,” author and mental health advocate Rachel Kelly writes in Stylist. “Equally, if you are physically relaxed, it is impossible to be anything other than mentally relaxed. Relaxing our muscles calms the central nervous system, reduces the production of adrenaline and directs oxygen away from an overly active brain.
“On those days when I can’t control my racing thoughts and struggle to calm my mind, it is a relief to approach the problem a different way, by relaxing my body instead,” she says. “It’s less a case of mind over body, and more body over mind.”
When negative thoughts are threatening to take over the mic, try a series of simple yoga moves. You can start with the child’s pose:
Kneel on a mat or rug. Bring your knees together, lower your buttocks onto your feet and lean forward to rest your torso on your knees, so your forehead touches the mat. A variation of this, which many prefer, is to open out your knees which means your chest is lowered in the space between them.
Place your arms alongside and behind you or outstretched in front of you for an extra back stretch. Be aware of your breathing.
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