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Dealing with Recurring Fears and Thoughts

Alexandra Richards, DClinPsy
Dealing with Recurring Fears and Thoughts

One of the issues that plagues those with anxiety is the inability to shake recurring thoughts. Once a negative thought pops into your head, it becomes very hard to convince yourself that the thought is wrong.

People may tell you not to think about it, but that's impossible. In fact, psychological studies have shown that if you try to avoid thinking about something, you'll actually end up thinking about it _more_. Why? Because in order to remember not to think about it, you have to keep thinking about it. The effort we put into not thinking the thought actually makes it more likely to appear.

For the remainder of this article, actively try not to think about a purple monkey riding a skateboard. Good luck.

The reality is that when you have a thought that bothers you, you unintentionally try to remember it. This may occur for a variety of reasons:

Anxiety has a way of altering the way you think, and recurring thoughts are one example of this. 

(Note, if you haven't yet, be sure and check out our article on changing your internal dialogue.)

Common Fears and Recurring Thoughts - And How to Control Them

Interestingly, anxiety causes a lot of very similar fears and recurring thoughts that people have a hard time shaking. That's likely because anxiety symptoms can be very similar between individuals. Identifying when you’re having these thoughts is the first step in managing them. Below, we'll look at some of the most common recurring thoughts that occur in those that suffer from anxiety, where they can come from and ways of beginning to challenge them. 

"Something is Wrong - I'm Going to Die."

This is a disturbingly common thought. It's one that affects those that that suffer from panic attacks particularly. It occurs because panic attacks create two things: an intense feeling of doom, and physical symptoms that mimic more serious diseases - like heart attacks and brain tumors. Often these physical symptoms are misinterpreted as signs that you are very ill. It occurs in the moment, but the health anxiety can last long after, convincing people that they have diseases like multiple sclerosis.

This is a very hard thought to handle. But there are several steps you can take. First, make sure you've gone to the doctor. Have them give you a complete checkup to set your mind at ease. Learn about the physical symptoms of anxiety and the fight or flight response. Many of the symptoms you thought were caused by serious illness are actually common to anxiety. 

Next, stop Googling your symptoms. Health anxiety persists when you see all of the "diseases" associated with the anxiety symptoms you experience. Remind yourself that these there are more common explanations for your symptoms. 

Finally, stay active when the attack is over. As soon as you've finished the panic attack, don't dwell on your worries. Remind yourself it's a panic attack and energize yourself to get on with your life.

It's not easy. You also need to start treating your panic attacks as soon as you can - the sooner they stop, the sooner these thoughts leave you.

"I'm Going Crazy."

Anxiety can also create this feeling like your mind is failing you. That's because it's not just about the worries - it's about the entire anxiety experience. It becomes hard to concentrate, your heartbeat goes up - you may even feel dizzy, or feel like something is off in your thought processes. It can cause this feeling of going crazy.

This thought persists because it causes anxiety itself, and the anxiety it causes leads to associated symptoms. Similarly, anxiety that seems uncontrollable raises feelings of self-doubt, and that doubt can make you feel like something is wrong with you.

The reality is that millions upon millions of people deal with severe anxiety on a regular basis. They simply don't talk about it with others. A good way to help yourself feel like you're not going crazy is to participate in forums or support groups for others with anxiety. Also, the more you learn about anxiety, the more you'll realize what you're experiencing is normal.

"What Will They Think of Me?"

Many people worry about how their anxiety will be seen by others. They're worried it will make them seem weak or troubled. It's human nature to judge, and many people with anxiety worry that they're going to be judged. Anxious people often value other people’s opinions very highly and assume that others will judge them negatively.  

There are several things to remember about this, however:

  1. Who cares what other people think?
  2. Your anxiety is probably far more obvious to you than others. 

People have opinions, of course, and you may even meet someone that judges you for your anxiety. But if you do, why let what they think bother you? Chances are it makes them a negative and judgemental person, not you. In addition, worrying what people think causes anxiety itself. So if worrying that other people may judge you makes your anxiety worse, how much worse would it be if others found out?

The best way to make this a less recurring thought is to be more open about your anxiety problems. You don't need to go telling everyone you know about it, but when you're having anxiety issues, tell the people you're with openly. You'll find very quickly that they don't judge you, and that you had nothing to worry about.

"What's Going to Happen if I Go?"

Another thought - although it comes in many variations - is worst-case-scenario thinking. It occurs when you always think about the negative thing that can or "will" happen at an event or activity, and so in the end you either fear the problem the entire time or ignore it altogether.

It's very common in those with panic attacks and social phobia, but plays a role in nearly every type of anxiety disorder. This thought occurs when you worry that if you go to a function, or participate in an activity, etc., something very bad will happen, and as hard as you try you can't shake that thought. In some cases, this can trigger so much anxiety that you essentially guarantee the event will confirm much of your fears.

What's the trick to control this thought? Always going right away, and actively trying to make sure that you have a good time regardless of your anxiousness. In a way, the best way to cancel this thought is to acknowledge your fear, and decide you're okay with it and that you're going to try to have a good time anyway. You can also remind yourself of all of the times you and others have been in these situations without anything disastrous happening.

"I'm Hopeless"

Finally, one of the key issues that those with anxiety struggle with is the feeling of being helpless to control their anxiety. It's not uncommon to simply give up on trying to cure your anxiety symptoms, believing that no matter how hard you try there is simply no way that you're going to effectively rid yourself of anxiety forever.

The best strategy to control this thought is to immediately - right now - start working to manage your anxiety symptoms. Perhaps begin with a small step, starting to record triggers for your anxiety or practicing a relaxation strategy. This may give you a little relief and make you feel more informed. Then you'll realize that no one is ever hopeless, and no one has to live with anxiety forever.

Article Resources
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  3. Bart Verkuil, Jos F. Brosschot, Julian F. Thayer, Capturing worry in daily life: Are trait questionnaires sufficient?, Behaviour Research and Therapy, Volume 45, Issue 8, August 2007, Pages 1835-1844, ISSN 0005-7967, 10.1016/j.brat.2007.02.004.
  4. Simard S, Savard J, Ivers H. Fear of cancer recurrence: specific profiles and nature of intrusive thoughts. J Cancer Surviv. 2010 Dec;4(4):361-71. Epub 2010 Jul 10. PubMed PMID: 20617394. 
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