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How to stop anxious thoughts; Core beliefs in CBT

stop anxious thoughts

This article will help you stop anxious thought patterns by challenging the typical anxious-themed thoughts that interfere with your daily life. Just because you have a thought doesn’t mean it is accurate.

Stop Anxious thoughts

When you are anxious, a harmless thought can escalate in a matter of moments, growing into a catastrophe, and become a reality for you in this anxious state. You will learn how to stop that today by studying your thought processes and learning how you jump to conclusions and end up with extreme thinking.

You text your friend in the morning about meeting up later tonight, and she hasn’t replied by lunchtime. Your thoughts can rage from she hasn’t seen the text so she’s ignoring me on purpose and doesn’t like me.

Your partner did not call to say they had arrived, and your anxious mind can jump to they’ve been in an accident. 

After texting something nice to your husband and they don’t reply, anxiety-themed thoughts can reach the heights of being with someone else; they do not love me anymore.

An important point to note is that once you have reached anxious thoughts, you react to the thought as if it were real. You respond both physically and emotionally.

I remember hearing an anecdote about a man borrowing a spade from his neighbour. He kept forgetting to return it. After six months, he returned it, and on the walk over, he kept thinking.

  • He probably thought I had kept it or damaged it
  • he needed it all this time and is upset with me for not giving it back, or worse, he had to buy a new one and is out of pocket for replacing an item he already owned.
  • He resents me for this; why did he not ask? Stupid man and I would have given it back. It’s his fault.

By the time the man walked up to his neighbour’s path, he was raging.

Here’s your bloody spade and shoved it at his neighbour was his opening line when the neighbour answered the door.

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Practice. How to watch and observe.

What to do if your anxious thoughts are spiralling.

Your friend doesn’t reply to a text; rather than thinking, they don’t like me, try this instead. I am having a thought about my friend.

If your heart is beating fast from anxiety, and you are thinking, my heart will give up, observe it and try this instead. Use a factual statement; I can feel my heart beating.

When your partner doesn’t call to say they have arrived, you panic and think they’ve had an accident. Try this instead; I am having a thought that something is wrong.

There is a difference between having a thought and reality. Thinking something does not mean it is happening.

These exercises help you differentiate between having a thought and reacting to it like a gospel.

If you read my working with anxiety series, you will have already monitored your thoughts and can identify inaccurate thought patterns.

Today we shall find out what is behind your negative thoughts by looking are core beliefs.

Downward arrow technique

The downward arrow technique is a critical component of CBT, as it identifies the beliefs behind your anxious thoughts.

When your belief system is triggered, your brain seeks information that helps to support and strengthen the belief and ignores the information that goes against it.

For example, Kate has a belief system that she is not good enough, which is a belief system that I carried with me for most of my adult life.

When she is anxious and about to hand in a piece of work to her line manager, she can only see one spelling error on her 2000-word document. Her thoughts flow from being a mess, not good enough, to getting fired.

She cannot see that her work is good and cannot hear the praise and thanks from her line manager.

Belief systems are like a warped filter that information goes through in your brain.

Identifying and understanding the impact of core beliefs stops them from taking hold and worsening your anxiety.

Types of core beliefs

As a rule of thumb, core beliefs in CBT can fall under two broad categories.

Unloveable core beliefs

  • I’m unlovable
  • I’m unlikeable
  • I’m not wanted
  • I’m a bad person
  • I’m worthless

Not good enough core beliefs

  • I’m not good enough
  • I’m a failure
  • I’m useless

How to find your own core belief

Choose a negative automatic thought from the records you have already been keeping, and ask yourself if that thought is true. What would that say about me?

Worked example of downward arrow technique
In the example above, Kate was worried about one spelling mistake in her work and initially thought it was a mess.

  • It’s a mess
  • If that were true, what does that say about you?
  • I didn’t work hard enough
  • If that were true, what does that say about you?
  • My manager will think I am a fraud
  • If that were true, what does that say about you?
  • I didn’t perform my job
  • If that were true, what does that say about you?
  • I’m not good enough

You keep going with the downward arrow technique until you cannot go further.

The last answer will be a core belief.

John was upset when he found out some of his friends had gone out without him and his first negative automatic thought was they didn’t want me to come.

  • If that were true, what does that say about you?
  • They find me annoying.
  • If that were true, what does that say about you?
  • nobody likes me
  • If that were true, what does that say about you?
  • I’m unlikeable as a person.

John has always felt unlikeable and feels it more when experiencing negative emotions.

Identifying your core belief can be upsetting, but try not to linger on any associated emotions, as it will not be an accurate reflection of you. It’s a faulty belief system that I will now show you how to change.

How to change your belief system in CBT

Kate’s belief system of I’m not good enough.

I would ask Kate for an example of when this belief system might not be accurate 100% of the time.

When doing this for yourself, ask yourself the same question. If the belief is strong, it’s hard to find examples; ask yourself what a friend would say if this happened to you.

Kate struggled to look for examples but stated her friends might think she was a good enough friend. I would ask for a more concrete example to prove that her belief system might not be true all the time.

She stated she looked after her friend’s daughter once a week while the friend went to night class.

What about an example from work? She stated she was promoted six months ago; this is a concrete example that her belief of not being good enough might not be true.

Looking for a more accurate belief

A crucial part of CBT is coming up with an alternative belief about yourself; this is the opposite of your current belief.

  • I’m not good enough becomes I’m good enough
  • I’m not likeable, becomes I’m likeable.

Changing your beliefs involves behavioural experiments.

Behavioural experiments are part of cognitive behavioural therapy and will help to strengthen more accurate appraisals of yourself.

I asked Kate to look for evidence in all aspects of her life that supported being good enough.

For example, at work, she had to note any time she received praise and remind herself this was evidence that her work was good enough.

Getting to the end of the workweek with no reprimands (as many bosses do not dish out praise daily) meant that her work was good enough.

I asked John to start some extra activities as part of his behavioural experiments to provide evidence that he was likeable as a person.

He started a pub quiz, even though it took him out of his comfort zone. Being asked to come back the following week was evidence that he was likeable as a person.

Concluding comments on changing core beliefs.

Unhelpful belief systems will have been part of your life for a long time, and attempting to change them can go against the grain and make you feel silly or upset. Keep in mind, it took a long time to form the original belief system and will take time to create a new one, but the result will change your life and stop you from being at the mercy of a faulty belief system that can hurt you when anxious, sad or upset.

Further reading

WebMD; how to ease anxiety

Article information: All articles written by Dr Elaine Ryan

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