Saturday, 11 May 2013

Why trying to stop anxious thoughts doesn't work.

We all know that telling yourself to stop worrying doesn't work, at least in the long term. In fact, the opposite often happens. Trying to banish worrying thoughts often makes them stronger and more persistent. You may be able to distract yourself or suppress anxious thoughts momentarily. But thought-stopping doesn't work because it forces you to pay extra attention to the very thought you want to avoid. Because you are always looking out for it, this very emphasis makes it seem even more important.

But there is something you can do. You can try the strategy of postponing. Rather than trying to stop or reject an anxious thought, allow yourself to have it, but put off further thinking until later. Here's some practical advice on how to go about it.

Create a worry period. Allocate a set time and place for worrying. Say 30 minutes at the end of the afternoon. During your worry period, allow yourself to worry about whatever's on your mind.

Make the rest of the day a worry-free zone. If an anxious thought or worry comes into your head during the day, write it down and postpone it to your worry period. Making a record of the thought is important because it means you don't have to try and remember it, which would only bring it back to your conscious attention. Remember, you are not abandoning the worry, simply saving it for later consideration.

Reflect on your anxiety list during the worry period. When you read through your list, if a particular thought is still bothering you, allow yourself to worry about it, but only during the time you've allocated. If certain worries don't seem important any more, drop them from your list and enjoy anxiety-free living for the remainder of your day.

Because postponing breaks the habit of dwelling on worries, it's an effective form of anxiety relief. And because there's no struggle to suppress thoughts (only save them for later), you'll start to realise that you have more control over your anxiety than you thought.