Anxiety is more than just a mental health disorder. Anxiety changes your brain chemistry, and has the ability to affect the way you think. Anxiety does this in such a natural way that you may not even realize it's happening, which is why one of the main concerns about living with anxiety is the idea that it can cause you to have bad thoughts.
Bad, negative thoughts are a common symptom of anxiety, and unfortunately these bad thoughts tend to create more anxiety, making it harder to cure without help. This article explores the causes of bad thoughts and what you can do to try to stop them.
Are Your Bad Thoughts From Anxiety?
Having the occasional weird or bad thought isn't something you need to worry about. And if you do have bad thoughts, it doesn't mean anything about who you are. But there's no denying that bad thoughts can be stressful. We strongly recommend you take our free 7 minute anxiety test to find out more about the type of anxiety you may have, the severity, and what will work best for treatment.
What Defines a "Bad Thought"?
It's important to realize that there is more than one type of "Bad Thought." Different types of anxiety can lead to different types of negative thinking. But "bad" thoughts are common with all types of anxiety disorders. Take my anxiety test before reading onward.
There is some crossover in the way bad thought occur, but in general the best way to understand these thoughts is to connect them to the type of disorder. These include:
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder OCD is directly connected to strange thoughts, which are referred to as "obsessions." Obsessions are when unusual, negative, violent, or simply disconcerting thoughts enter your head constantly, with no apparent cause or trigger. For example, an image of yourself hurting someone you love, or a worry that you left the lights on in the kitchen even though you know you didn't.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder GAD is slightly different. These types of bad thoughts are all simply worries, and are often (although not always) triggered by the situation. For example, if you're out late you may worry that you'll get in trouble with your spouse if you don't rush home, or you'll worry about your talking to your boss tomorrow about your project.
- Panic Disorder The bad thoughts in panic disorder are usually around health, or the fear of being unable to escape. Health fears are often fueled by basic knowledge, such as "I may have a heart problem" or "I have the symptoms of multiple sclerosis." Internet research often fuels these thoughts, and most come from trying to find a non-anxiety explanation for your symptoms.
- Social Anxiety The bad thoughts in social anxiety are generally tailored to social faux pas. A person will have a severe fear of embarrassment, and may even imagine the worst happening to them in every social situation.
Again, none of these are set in stone, and there is often a great deal of crossover. The key thing to take away from this is that anxiety does cause a great deal of negative and otherwise "bad" thinking. Only a psychologist can tell you exactly why you're having these bad thoughts and whether or not they're caused by anxiety, but millions of people with anxiety have some type of bad thoughts all the time as a symptom.
Bad Thoughts Create More Bad Thoughts
It's also important to realize that the more you have these thoughts and the more you try to fight them, the more likely they are to occur. Many people with negative thinking find that when they try as hard as they can to fight their thoughts, they seem to have them more.
This is because the anxious brain does something very frustrating - it reminds you of these thoughts so that you know what thoughts you _don't_ want to have. In other words, the more you try to fight a thought away and the more shame you feel over having the thought, the more likely it will come back.
How to Stop Having These Thoughts
This makes stopping these thoughts more difficult, but ultimately something you can decrease if you're willing to commit to it. Learning to control anxiety is the ideal first step. If you don't experience as much anxiety, you're unlikely to experience as many negative or bad thoughts. But there are several other tools you can try as well:
Write The Thoughts Out
When you have a thought, it is natural to want to try as hard as you can to forget it. But that's not necessarily what you should be doing. What you should be doing is making sure that your brain knows you don't need to remember it, because it's already permanently on paper.
It may sound strange, but writing out a thought that's bothering you is actually a great way to take it off your mind. It won't prevent the thought completely, but many people find that it helps them stop focusing on the thought itself. Their brain essentially says "okay, I can forget about this" because it knows that the thought is on paper.
Stop Shaming or Blaming Yourself
You will also need to do something very important - you will need to be okay with having the thought.
This can be very hard for people, especially if the thought is particularly troubling. So many people try to fight it away, or feel that the thought says something about themselves. But you need to realize that these thoughts are caused strictly by your anxiety, and until you cure your anxiety you won't be able to wish the thought away.
The more you try to fight it, the worse it gets. That's why you need to get into a mindset that recognizes that these thoughts are a normal part of anxiety, and are something that say nothing about you as a person. It can be stressful having a negative thought, but it's more stressful if you try to fight that thought away when your anxiety is pulling it back.
So teach yourself to accept the thoughts you can't control, and know that when your anxiety is better these thoughts will go away.
Thinking These Bad Thoughts on Purpose
Another strategy that you may never have considered is trying to think of these negative thoughts on purpose. This relates back to the idea that fighting these thoughts are one of the reasons they affect you so often.
Generally, when you have a bad thought, your first reaction is anxiety. That anxiety causes you to not want the thought, which causes more anxiety, and causes more bad thoughts. It's a cycle that is often hard to break. It's also a cycle that gives the thought a great deal of power.
But if you think of the thought like you would any fear or phobia, then if you get used to the anxiety that you get while having that thought, the thought shouldn't bother you as much. You can do this in a similar way that psychologists help with phobias. For example, if you're afraid of spiders:
- Your psychologist may put you in a room with a spider (or a picture of a spider).
- You'll feel a lot of fear. But the spider isn't going anywhere and you cannot escape.
- Time will pass, and soon you'll be used to the spider around.
- Eventually, your anxiety over the spider will fade.
- In the future, spiders will cause less anxiety.
It's not quite this simple, of course, but this type of strategy does work. Think of it like anxiety boredom. If you're in the presence of something that causes you anxiety for too long, eventually you'll be less anxious because nothing happens. You'll simply become bored of the situation.
You can do the same thing with your bad thoughts. If you think about them on purpose and let them cause anxiety, then keep thinking about them until the thought doesn't bother you anymore, then eventually the thought itself will cause less anxiety and hold less power over you. It's generally recommended that you perform this exercise in the presence of a trained professional, but it's something you can consider if you think you can handle it.
Finally, distracting yourself from the thought can be difficult, but it's not impossible. Ideally, whenever you have these bad thoughts you'll find a way to keep yourself so busy that you can't think about the thought as much even if you tried.
Consider jogging. Jogging naturally tires the mind and makes it harder to feel tense when you're stressed. You may not be able to stop the negative thought completely, but by jogging you should at least be able to decrease the thought's power.
Positive television (no dramas or horrors), funny podcasts, skipping stones at the park - there are a lot of different ways to distract yourself from your anxiety, and these distractions can help you stop focusing too much on the thoughts that bring you stress.
Curing Bad Thoughts Completely
In the end, the only way that you can confidently stop any and all bad thoughts is to stop the anxiety that causes these thoughts. Only by receiving the right treatment can you hope to stop your anxiety, and ultimately the thoughts that come with it.
Start with our free 7 minute anxiety test. This test will give you graphs of your anxiety symptoms and severity, help you figure out more about the anxiety you may be struggling with, and give you recommendations on what you can do to stop the bad thoughts forever.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.