One of the main things I have noticed when I’m struggling with anxiety is that I become consumed in my thoughts. I’m always trying to control them, escape them, or use them to escape a problem. When anxiety gets bad, my ‘thoughts’ become my whole world and it can feel impossible to be fully present in my life.
Now one of the first signs I look for when I’m concerned that I’m becoming anxious is overthinking. I will often begin to question every thought that pops into my head. Below are some of the ways that I think, and the kinds of thoughts that I have, when I’m anxious (some of them might resonate with you too if you’re prone to overthinking):
What does that thought mean? – What does that thought mean about me? – If I’m thinking this thought, something must be wrong. – I need to get this thought out of my head. – I need to do something so that this thought goes away. – I need to think my way out of this bad feeling. – I need to mentally prepare for this situation. – I need to think of every possible scenario that might happen. – Does this thought make me a bad person? – I can’t stop thinking about this until the problem goes away. – If I think about this enough, the problem might go away.
Below I’ve written about some of the signs that I try and look out for as symptoms of anxiety in the way I think. To be honest, I’ve got no idea what comes first – unhealthy thinking behaviour, or the feeling of anxiety – but all I know is that if I can notice when I’m thinking in an “anxious” way, I can usually prevent it from getting out of control.
Fear of negative thoughts
At times when I’ve suffered from really bad anxiety, this has been a big one. There were periods where I literally could not bear particular types of negative thoughts from coming into my mind, and the more I tried to drive them away, the more they came back.
In reality, it’s natural for all sorts of thoughts (positive, negative, weird, scary, exciting, abstract, etc) to pop in and out of our minds all day. When I’m feeling good, that’s not usually a problem – most of my thoughts feel relatively harmless and, even if a negative one does pop up, I am aware it’s just a thought and can let it pass.
However, during times of really severe anxiety, I have become TERRIFIED of my own thoughts. These are the times when I have had the absolute worst thinking behaviours, and have had an awful relationship with my own mind (if that makes sense).
Negative thoughts can become scary when we put ‘thoughts’ themselves on a pedestal. The truth is that the subject of your thoughts does not always equal “reality”. You could think about flying to the moon, but it doesn’t mean you can fly. You could think about your pet dying today (sorry, morbid), but it doesn’t mean your pet is going to die today. You could think about pretty much anything, but it doesn’t mean that anything you think about is necessarily true or is going to happen.
Our thoughts are (usually!) really useful tools for getting us through life, but they are not always accurate representations of the “truth”. A really weird fear I developed during a bad episode of anxiety was that I might do something dangerous while I’m asleep. I had become obsessed with controlling my thoughts and behaviour, and when I realised that I can’t consciously control myself while I’m asleep, I was terrified. I thought I might sleep walk in the night (I’ve never sleep walked before) and do something to hurt myself, and I started locking my bedroom door at night so that I couldn’t get out while I was asleep. It was ridiculous. What I didn’t seem to get at the time was that, just because I could imagine this crazy scenario, it doesn’t mean that it was, or ever would be, reality.
I really used to think that whatever I thought was the truth. Now I’ve realised that my thoughts are often wrong, and that they become particularly distorted and inaccurate when I’m experiencing anxiety.
If you’ve become consumed by negative, scary or uncomfortable thoughts, I hope this was helpful in some way, and I urge you to reach out to your doctor or a mental health professional for advice! For me, anxiety.org was a life saver when I was experiencing this, and seeing a therapist helped me to stop giving so much credit to my unhelpful thoughts.
What I mean by this is when I keep getting absorbed in one worry after another. Often, when I’m struggling with anxiety, it can become really difficult to tell the difference between minor concerns and important problems. I then end up feeling really anxious about every little issue that pops up in my life (or, more accurately, my mind).
I’ve developed quite a useful way of managing this recently, and it’s basically by using self awareness and logical reasoning. If I’m feeling really consumed by a worry, I make myself stop and check how I was feeling in the day(s) leading up to that worry. Was I worrying about something else just hours ago, and was I up during the night over-thinking? Or have I been really happy and healthy recently, and could this situation I’m concerned about genuinely have a huge impact on my life? Should I double check with a trusted friend whether they think this is something to be concerned about? Have I jumped to conclusions without knowing all of the facts? Do I know that this is something serious, or should I wait and see what unfolds?
It’s really important to keep an eye on your own behaviour patterns; try to imagine yourself from an outside perspective. Are you a happy and mentally healthy person who has a genuine concern, or have you been constantly worrying and losing sleep all month? If the latter, it’s worth considering that the subject of your worries isn’t really the problem, and maybe it’s the WAY you’re thinking.
For me, if I’m excessively worrying about something, 99% of the time whatever I’m worried about isn’t actually a big deal, and in reality I’ve worried just as much about 15 other things that week. When I realise that I’ve been chronically worrying, I can then look at the reasons for that thinking behaviour. It could be lack of sleep, stress at work, relationship problems, money worries, drinking too much alcohol, suffering from an anxiety disorder, trauma. Sometimes, the true reason you’re worrying isn’t really anything to do with the ‘subject’ of the worry at all.
Regularly losing sleep from over-thinking
Perhaps one of the most obvious signs that my anxiety levels are too high is when I can’t sleep because of over-thinking. We all have times when we lie awake at night unable to sleep because we can’t get something off our mind, or we’re nervous about an exam the next day, or excited about a holiday. The odd sleepless night is fine, but when you’re struggling to sleep every night or every few nights, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better, it’s more of a concern. I’ve suffered from awful, awful insomnia on a number of occasions, and it’s got to be one of the absolute worse side effects of anxiety. If you are losing a lot of sleep – please get in touch with your doctor or a mental health professional for advice!
When I’m feeling anxious during the day, I often go to bed with an uncomfortable feeling – I just don’t quite feel relaxed or sleepy. I’ll start thinking about something, and my mind will analyse it over and over again at a million miles an hour. Something about the darkness and stillness of the night makes it so much harder – there are no distractions and all of your problems seem bigger than they are.
If you’re losing sleep, try and work out what it is specifically that’s keeping you awake. It might be that you’re overthinking about small things, or just everything, because you’re struggling with a mental illness. It might be that you’re usually mentally well, but are going through a difficult time and can’t get the situation out of your mind (you should still reach out for help in this case, as stressful life events can massively affect your mental health!). Is the thing you’re worrying about something that you might be able to solve? Is it likely to go away soon? Keep a check on your mental health, and definitely keep an eye out for when one worry turns into another, and another. Or when one sleepless night becomes a sleepless month.
What I really wanted to get across in this post is that, for me personally, there are some unhealthy thinking behaviours which always flare up when I’m struggling with anxiety. Sometimes, it takes me noticing these to realise that I am struggling and need to get some help.
I also find that if I can pick up on these unhealthy thinking behaviours as soon as they flare up, and do something about them, I’m much less likely to go into a full-blown long-term struggle with anxiety.
I really hope that this was useful in some way if you struggle with anxiety and/or over-thinking! Please let me know if you have any questions or comments.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical or mental health professional. None of the above is professional advice, and I am purely writing about my own experiences in the hope that they will be relatable or helpful to others. If you are struggling with your mental health, please make an appointment with your doctor or a registered mental health professional or service. ❤