Thoughts are just thoughts, and they come and go. The thoughts may be warnings, and warnings are natural and valid. But we experience anxiety when we focus on certain thoughts and warnings too much. As we focus on them, we allow our minds to go racing faster and faster, building more and more anxiety.
Of course, some anxiety—specifically clinical anxiety—has neurological differences. It’s neurologically more difficult for some people to not focus on these thoughts; that’s a fact! But the process, regardless of how much anxiety someone is experiencing, is the same: our process of overthinking sends us into a fight-or-flight mode (big or small), resulting in anxiety.
It’s good to know why we go into that fight-or-flight mode and what’s physically and mentally going on.
Past Trauma. Sometimes we trigger from something that reminds us of a negative past experience and sends us thoughts from the past.
Changes. Living in a new place, having a new job, and similar changes create stress and send lots of worrisome thoughts.
Pregnancy/giving birth. Babies are a big responsibility, and they are also very taxing on the body. Pregnancy and post-partum cause stress, and being tired from a baby adds to the likelihood of focusing on negative thoughts.
Loss of a loved one. This difficult change can affect many aspects of life, and it creates lots of thoughts that are hard to not focus on.
Empathy. Sometimes the anxiety we feel isn’t even our own; some individuals pick up the vibes of those around them and feel anxiety for them, especially when it comes to family members. People think about their spouses and children, and they worry for them. If you see that your family has a hard time with your empathy, that adds even more anxiety because you often focus on not letting them worry that you’re worried.
So here’s a tip if you have empathetic anxiety: recognize when you start to take others’ anxieties upon yourself, and instead, let it go. You need to help them be stronger by helping them let it go. If you take their stressors away from them, they can’t practice that skill, and you’ll both end up feeling anxious.
Narcissism. When other people are narcissistic, people around them may feel anxious. The narcissist may coolly and calmly stay in control while confusing you and making you question your actions. That frustration and confusion lead to anxiety. You overthink the thoughts they feed you. If narcissism is causing your anxiety, don’t let the narcissist’s negativity change how you feel about and view yourself. Learn more from Dr. Les Carter about narcissists here.
Physical Causes. Sometimes, we’ll even think we’re feeling anxiety when it really is a heart condition or something else. (If you think this could be your case, read this article.)
Redirecting Your Thoughts
The list of causes is not comprehensive. But whether your anxiety is caused by one of the above reasons or not, you will benefit from understanding the psychological process of anxiety and how to redirect your thoughts.
We feel anxiety when our present thoughts focus too much on the past or the future. Really, we can only live in the present. But, in the present, we can feel stress, guilt, or shame from the past or nervousness or anxiety about the future. We imagine scenarios of injury or judgment or inadequacy, and we feel those worries in our bodies.
It’s good to recognize that some anxiety is good and healthy. But it’s when we focus too much on the past or future that we get stuck. That’s why I like picturing it this way: focus 80% on the present, 10% on the past, and 10% on the future.
Allowing ourselves to focus 10% on the past allows us to learn from the past. As people say: if we forget our history, we’ll we will repeat it.
Focusing 10% on the future allows us to make healthy goals and plan. It gives us direction, satisfaction, and something to look forward to. We can prepare. If you have a test, some focus on that is necessary. And imagining some scenarios or picturing how we’ll do something can be good practice for a performance or difficult situation. But when we go overboard and hit anxiety, then we can get stuck in the worrisome loop and have a panic attack.
We need to balance out our thoughts and live in the now. Again, focusing 80% on the present is a healthy goal. In today’s vernacular, this focus is often called “mindfulness.” With confidence, we focus on the now.
Reacting in the Fight or Flight
If we really are in a dangerous situation, we’re in the fight or flight mode. And you need to just choose one, knowing that it’ll be okay. In fight or flight, usually the trick isn’t so much choosing the right one so much as choosing one in general.
It’s like sitting in the driver’s seat and holding your left foot on the brake and your right foot on the accelerator. You’re not going to get anywhere; you’re just revving up the engine. It’s a lot of expended energy (and a lot of expensive gas!). Keep your breathing long and slow and experience the moment. If you’re not going anywhere, just take your feet off both the accelerator and the brake, turn the motor off, and relax. Or make a commitment, take your foot off the brake, and take action!
Rodney Limb has always enjoyed listening to people and helping them work out problems and struggles. As a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC), Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and a Nationally Licensed Hypnotherapist for over 20 years, he has helped hundreds of couples create a happy and thriving marriage out of disaster. He also provides counseling for anxiety, depression, stress, PTSD, and overcoming various behavioral addictions.
A Deeper Look into Spiritual Truths
“Our usual worries can be classified into these categories: (1) 40 percent never happen, (2) 30 percent are over and past and can’t be changed, (3) 12 percent are needless health worries, (4) 10 percent are miscellaneous problems, (5) 8 percent are real problems, of which 95 percent can be solved.” — (The Treasure Chest, ed. Charles L. Wallis, quoted in “Do Things That Make a Difference” by M. Russell Ballard)
“When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy.” — Psalm 94:19 NIV
My daughter-in-law moved right as Covid began to shut everything down for the first time in her area. She didn’t know a single person at her new place, and she was scared with all of the current events. She was very busy, but when she had just a moment, she used it to read just a verse of the scriptures. She opened randomly to the words of Isaiah: “God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid” (Isaiah 12:2 KJV). Whenever we are feeling anxious, God can comfort us. We can trust in God’s plan. And we can turn to the scriptures.