When I was five, my mom had my little brother. I think there was some confusion on my end about who the mother was, though, because for the next 10 years, I treated that baby like he was my own. Which was cute, but also drove my parents crazy, because I was a very anxious child.
I'll never forget when we were out skiing one day and I asked my older sister where my little brother was. She told me he had skiied back to our friend's condo to watch TV. I immediately started to have a freak out, ("How do we know he got back OK? Was he alone? What if he fell and no one knows?) and told my sister we should go back to the condo to make sure he was alright. My sister responded with something I have not forgotten to this day,
"You can have as crazy of thoughts as you want, but you can't act on them. So we're going to keep skiing."
This struck a chord with me. The idea that I could let an anxious thought come and go in the way my sister suggested made me feel pretty confused. On the one hand, it seemed liberating, but on the other...I was convinced my little brother was horribly injured somewhere in the woods, and here she was telling me NOT to go and check.
I didn't realize at the time was that my "concern" for my little brother was often irrational and resulted in a lot of unnecessary "checking". My sister clearly did.
We did not go check on my brother and it killed me. I waited with baited breath until it was time to go back to the condo, and of course, he was there, safe and sound. My sister had subjected me to my first lesson in letting go of my obsessive negative thoughts, a training I would continue for the next 15 years of my life, and a training I will try and sum up here in an attempt to help anyone who struggles with negative thoughts the way I do.
The key, as my sister showed me at my young age, is to take away the power of your negative thoughts. There are a few specific things I employ to help me do this. These are things I often repeat to myself when I get overcome by an anxious thought.
- You do not have to believe everything you think- This goes for "my brother is definitely injured alone in the woods' just as much as it goes for "I'm worthless", "I'm stupid" and "I'll never be happy."
- Positive thoughts are just as "real" as negative thoughts-For some reason I like to give more weight and meaning to our negative fears than we do our positive hopes. Why does "Something horrible probably happened" sound realistic to me but "He's probably fine" sound like a wish? When you suffer from negative thoughts and anxiety, you need to work harder than others to shift your perspective and redefine what feels "true" or "untrue."
- Everyone stresses about ________ (money, kids, health) sometimes- This is something I tell myself when I'm feeling like a failure because I have a problem in my life. It's sometimes nice to be reminded that you are never going to be able to completely avoid dealing with issues sometimes: these are the problems of life and just part of the human experience.
- Remember how stressed you felt about _____(insert stressful event) a few months ago?- And now it's resolved. Same will be true for this. This too shall pass. Cliche, but there's so much truth to it.
- Accept your inability to control and know everything- Of course there was a chance that my brother was actually hurt, or that something horrible had randomly happened. But this is true every minute of every day. For me, a lot of letting go of obsessive thoughts has been a larger exercise of accepting my vulnerable place in this mysterious world. Things are going to happen, and you can only do the best you can. Accepting this helps you to divide things more clearly into what would be productive to worry about, and what are unhelpful thoughts that you need to just let go of.
- If a thought disturbs you, put it back and pick a new one- There are a million and one ways to view a problem or situation. If one way of looking at something traps you in panic, simply stop and choose to look at it in a different way. Being trapped in a state of total panic is never helpful.
- Let it be and move on- Trying to "stop" intrusive thoughts can only make them more powerful. We can only control what we think to a certain extent. However, by not reacting to the intrusive thought, whether by believing it or by actually acting on it like my sister taught me, you take away the thoughts power and ability to disrupt your life. And if you do this enough times, eventually you will stop taking your negative thoughts seriously and begin to replace them with more positive ones.