Those that have never had an anxiety disorder often struggle to understand how anxiety can affects the mind and body in so many different ways. Everyone experiences some level of anxiety at some point in their life. Whether it's asking someone out on a date, making a presentation, taking an important test, or getting called into a meeting with the boss, manageable amounts of anxiety represent a normal part of life.
But anxiety disorders are very different, particularly with regard to their intensity. For example, if your anxiety is so persistent and intense that it interferes with your work, social and home lives, then this might be a case of anxiety disorder, rather than just everyday anxiety. Anxiety disorders are associated with many powerful physical and emotional symptoms that can cause significant disruption to your life, and one of the issues that is very common when it comes to anxiety is the presence of "irrational thoughts."
What Makes a Thought "irrational"?
Usually, an irrational thought is one which is not entirely connected to a sense of reason and not based on evidence. An example of a common irrational thought for people with social anxiety is: “I’m going to look stupid and everyone is going to laugh at me”.
Here are some other examples of irrational thoughts:
- Unwanted Images While this is most common in those with obsessive compulsive disorder or PTSD, most forms of anxiety also involve the presence of unwanted thoughts, images, or memories that seem out of place. For example, they may imagine someone in an aggressive sexual situation, or they may imagine some form of severe violence. They may also imagine that they left the front door unlocked, even though they clearly remember locking it. These types of images can be incredibly distressing, but they are very often caused by anxiety.
- Unprompted Worries Some people with anxiety experience strange worries - worries that may make them feel like something unusual is going on within themselves or the world around them. At times, this may play out in the form of a general emotional sense of things not being ok. At other times, the worries might be more specific: “everyone at work thinks I’m bad at my job”. The worries may be recurrent, or they may be random and strange and make you feel uncomfortable.
- Fear of Going Crazy Another form of irrational thought comes from this fear or feeling that you are actually going crazy. Often this happens when the anxiety is so pronounced that it makes your head spin with rapid thoughts that are impossible to control. The fear of going crazy due to anxiety is, by its very nature, an irrational thought, and one that can cause significant distress.
Many thoughts can be considered to be irrational. What makes this worse is that anxiety makes it much, much harder to forget the thought after you've had it. Once a thought causes you stress, anxiety makes you more likely to continue thinking about it in a way that makes it very hard to stop thinking about it in the future. The more distress your "irrational thought" causes you, the more you are going to keep thinking about it and keep thinking about similar thoughts in the future.
How Forcing Yourself to Stop the Thoughts Reinforces Them
Another problem that affects those with anxiety is the impact of trying to force a thought out of your mind. Studies have looked at a phenomenon called "thought suppression," which is the act of trying very hard not to think a certain thought.
Some studies found that those that attempted to suppress a thought were actually _more likely_ to have the thought than those that didn't care one way or another if they had the thought or not. For one reason or another, the act of trying to make a thought go away makes it more likely to come back and continue to cause you stress.
The Best Way to Avoid the Irrational Thoughts
Irrational thoughts are always going to affect you if you suffer from anxiety. Anxiety changes thought patterns. It alters neurotransmitters and changes behaviors. Thoughts are affected by anxiety, and anxiety is affected by thoughts. The two build on each other in ways that make it harder and harder to control.
Based on what we know about these thoughts, there are several tools that you can use to control them. The most important are as follows:
- Don't Fear the Thought Before you even begin, you need to learn not to fear the thought. Your thoughts don't define you, nor do they mean anything about you. Irrational thoughts are natural; and just because you’re having them it doesn’t mean that you necessarily need to act on them. The more you try to prevent the thought the more likely you are to have it, and since there is little reason to fear a thought that has no meaning other than being "weird" or "irrational," you need to accept that you have these thoughts and be okay with them, no matter how disconcerting they may be.
- Creating the Thought Some experts recommend taking that a step further. They recommend intentionally making yourself think the thought over and over again until you don't find it as stressful. The number one way that psychologists deal with fears is exposing the person to the fear until it no longer causes fear, and you can do the same thing with your thoughts - expose yourself to them on purpose until they no longer bother you. If you feel like you’re getting overwhelmed, take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that no harm can come of you in this moment.
- Writing it Out Another activity you can try is taking the thought out of your mind by putting it somewhere on paper. Writing out your thoughts when they bother you and placing them in some type of permanent place may take the pressure off and allow your mind to relax without focusing excessively on the thought. This doesn’t work for everyone, but for some it is very effective.
All of these are useful ways to deal with anxiety-related irrational thoughts. Of course, this is only the first step. You are still going to have these unusual thoughts if you don't learn to control your anxiety, because it's your anxiety that is creating these thoughts in the first place.