When you are feeling anxious, there are a number of symptoms that you might experience. You may notice your heart racing, your stomach feeling like it’s tied up in knots, tingly fingers or sweaty palms or even a dry mouth or throat.
You may also have noticed that when you are feeling anxious and your heart is racing, your thoughts tend to be racing as well.
You may find concentration to be a challenge and might have trouble remembering things. Often, thoughts that accompany anxiety are thoughts that are “what if” thoughts- “What if I fail my exam?” or “What if I lose my job?”. You might have heard of these “What if” thoughts described as automatic thoughts.
A way to think of these thoughts might be to imagine them like spam on your email account or junk mail that arrives in your mailbox.
Spam and Junk mail are annoyances that everyone deals with- they are unsolicited messages, usually not very important, but made to appear very important. Think about the spam messages you get when you check your emails. They are messages that make you up sit up and pay attention. Maybe the subject line tells you “You have won the lottery” or “Your banking information has been compromised”. Responding to your spam or junk mail can have some undesired outcomes. It is likely you will start to get more of these messages, you will notice they all seem a bit similar in nature and they will start to take up a lot of your time.
Automatic thoughts can be just like that- unsolicited thoughts that seem to pop out of nowhere making us feel as though we have to deal with an emergency!
It might feel like we are getting stuck in our “what if” thoughts and we start to take a lot of time trying to understand them or even trying to problem solve. Some people recognize they are having these kinds of thoughts and try not to think them. But trying not to think “what if” thoughts is like trying to stop junk mail from showing up in your mailbox. Even when you have a “no junk mail” note plastered on your mailbox, you are still likely to get junk mail. It may feel like you are in a “no win” situation, realizing that your thoughts are contributing to your anxiety but feeling like you can’t stop them.
There is good news! Even though you can’t stop automatic thoughts, you can begin to recognize them.
Just like you have learned to recognize what spam and junk mail looks like, you can recognize your automatic thoughts and begin to respond to them differently. You can begin by “catching” yourself with these thoughts and labeling them as “mental spam”.