How anxiety works: The Thought Stream
To free ourselves from anxious thoughts it helps to have an understanding of how anxiety and fear develops and builds.
Let's take a really simple example - for instance, lots of people tell me they are afraid of spiders - and maybe, as you are reading this, you are already thinking “That's me! I’m afraid of spiders!” And simply by having read these words you can feel the hairs on the back of your neck standing up, you can imagine how a spider looks, how it moves, where one might be hiding and you may even begin to feel those panicky sensations rising up in you.
But the truth is - if simply reading about spiders is making you feel scared, then it’s NOT the spider you are afraid of. After all, there’s no spider here at the moment, right?
So it’s simply the thought of a spider that is causing this reaction.
You can think of your thoughts a little bit like sticks flowing through a river - most of them are the unconscious thoughts which float through our minds unnoticed, but every now and then one gets stuck, perhaps on a rock or the side of the river bed, and because it's stuck, we notice what we are thinking.
Now here’s the really important bit -
All thoughts are neutral until we give them meaning.
Read that again - all thoughts are neutral until we give them meaning.
So when a thought gets stuck in the flow of that river and comes to your attention, what you choose to think next is really important. If you choose to attach an unhelpful meaning, that stick is going to stay stuck a lot longer. Whereas if you choose not to attach any meaning to that thought, it will come unstuck naturally and continue flowing down the river and out of your thought stream.
Stuck thoughts tend to become the focus of our attention. They can grow disproportionately and become big, frightening thoughts very quickly. Our fight or flight response kicks in due to the perceived danger, and we may feel the physical effects of fear - heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, sweating etc.
Sometimes this can happen so quickly that we don’t even realise that there was a thought which triggered this response - it can feel as thought it’s come on out of the blue. This then gives power to our belief that it was an outside event that caused the response.
But an outside event does not have the power to make us feel ANYTHING … it’s only what we are thinking about it that can do that.
Here's a little exercise you can do the next time you become aware of an unhelpful thought.
Ask yourself the following questions:
Is this thought true?
Is it helpful to me?
How will I benefit from holding onto this thought?
And if the answer is “I won’t benefit!” - practice letting that thought drift on through your thought stream. You then have the opportunity to refocus on a different thought that IS more helpful to you. The more often you do this with an unhelpful though, the more your mind recognises that this is something which is no longer of importance to you, and the quicker that thought will pass.