Mental-Cognitive Symptoms
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Anxiety and Negative Thoughts

Henry Vyner, MD, Psychiatrist
Anxiety and Negative Thoughts

We all have negative thoughts sometime, but when they cycle through your mind over and over again, they can cause problems and they can be a sign that you have a more fundamental problem for which you need to seek help. Recurring negative thoughts can be a symptom of both anxiety and depressive disorders.

Science has recognized two different forms of repetitive negative thoughts: rumination and worry. 

Worry is defined as having recurring thoughts that create apprehension within you and an expectation that surely something negative will occur in the future. Worry is worry about the future. You might worry about what will happen the next time you see that person you are interested in dating. Or you might worry about whether or not the shortness of breath you are experiencing is a sign of heart disease.  For decades now, science has seen worry as a symptom of anxiety. But it definitely occurs in depression as well.

Rumination is slightly different and is characterized as having negative thoughts about something that happened in the past. It typically involves thinking about how you were not as good at something as you would like to be. In rumination, you might think over and over again about how badly you played in that last tennis match; or how badly you feel about ignoring someone at the opera last night. Rumination has been seen as more of a symptom of depression, but it also occurs in anxiety. 

Worry and rumination are different, but they are also similar in that they are both form of repetitive thoughts that are unproductive. They both involve having intrusive, repetitive, prolonged and uncontrollable thoughts about future or past experiences. More than that, they often occur together in the same person.

In other words, rumination and worry are both symptoms of anxiety. And they are also a problem that can be improved with treatment. 

Examples of Negative Thoughts

There are many kinds of negative thoughts, and if you learn how to recognize them, it will easier to diminish them and the impact they have upon you. Here are some examples of negative thoughts:

Repetitive Negative Thoughts Create Negative Emotions

There is an emerging stream of research that is showing that recurring negative thoughts can cause anxiety and depression. Try doing it consciously. Think about and remember a negative situation that happened to you recently — maybe an upsetting argument with a friend or someone in your family. Remembering that argument will make you feel bad.

On the other hand, if you sit down and purposefully think positive thoughts — maybe you imagine the day of your marriage to the person you love, and that will make you feel happy and good inside.

So your thoughts do play a role in determining your mood, and scientific studies have shown that there is an association between negative thoughts and anxiety and depression. In other words, people who have a recurring cycles of negative thoughts, are more likely to be anxious or depressed. However, if you think positive thoughts, you will be more likely to be happy.

Your negative thoughts don’t cause you have have a bad mood in the first place. But what they do is this: once you are in a bad mood — be it anxiety, depression or both — your negative thoughts will maintain and deepen your bad mood.

This is a good reason to find a way to diminish the power your negative thought have over your life. You can either try to stop having negative thoughts, replace your negative thoughts with positive or most of all, to simply stop believing your negative thoughts.

Recurring Negative Thoughts Create Stories and Then You Live in Those Stories 

Recurring cycles of negative thoughts creates stories. They are just like films inside of your mind. Maybe a stream of thoughts will create a story in which everyone thinks you’re stupid. Or maybe a stream of thoughts will create a story in which criticize yourself for something you said to your boss the other day.

Streams of negative thoughts also distort and tarnish the good intentions of your true self. Negative thoughts create negative stories, and you live in those stories instead of being your true self. 

Suppose, for example, you see a tourist being abusive and superior to a person who lives in the country he is visiting. He is ordering the local person around and criticizing them. You have the impulse — out of goodness — to stop this abuse. You walk over to the tourist, and in a kind and respectful manner ask him to be kind and gentle, and although he is a bit abashed, everything works out just fine. The tourist realizes he is being unkind and stops.

But suppose you are in the same situation and a stream of negative thoughts is running through your mind that depicts the tourist as a bad person who is typical of the people who come from his country, and you get angry. You march over to the tourist, and in the full flush of your righteous indignation you are haughty and critical with him, and he becomes resentful and defiant. Now he turns on you.

In that moment, you were living in a story created by your negative thoughts and the anger they generated, and by acting out that story, you created another problem.

This is a second reason to find a way to diminish the power of your negative thoughts.

There are Good Techniques for Disempowering Your Negative Thoughts

Recurring negative thoughts are a problem when you believe they are true. If you are aware of your negative thoughts and don’t believe them, they will not cause any problems. They will just float by in your stream of consciousness and dissolve.

However, if you are not aware of your thoughts and they remain unconscious, then you do believe them. This is just the way the mind works. If you are not aware of your thoughts you believe.the contents of those thoughts.

By the same token, if can be aware of your negative thoughts and you believe them too. 

In both of these situations, you sink into and get lost in your thoughts and the stories they create. If your unconscious thoughts are telling you that you are worthless, you believe them. If your unconscious  thoughts are telling you that you are the most beautiful woman in the room, you believe them.

The import of understanding that it is the act of believing your thoughts that makes them problematic and pathogenic is that most of the therapeutic techniques for treating and disempowering negative thoughts are techniques that help pull you away from believing those thoughts. Here’s a explanatory list of those techniques:

By standing outside of your stream of thoughts, you remove yourself from the midst of those thoughts, and this gives your the opportunity to stop believing them. You can just watch them go by without believing them. This will both diminish and disempower your negative thoughts. Less negative thoughts will arise, and when they do arise you will have the option of not believing them. 

The first step in this process is to learn to meditate on an object and let your stream of thoughts go by without repressing or holding onto any of them. Next you can learn to identify the negative stories that your thoughts are telling you. And that sets you up to just stop believing that they are true. This is liberating.

Cognitive restructuring is a process in which you identify your negative thought patterns and then dispute them. In other words, cognitive restructuring is a process in which you investigate your negative thoughts and establish that they are not true.

There are five stages to cognitive restructuring:

A Couple of Things Not to Do

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