“What exactly is anxiety and how is it related to thinking?” I often ask myself.  Clearly there is a contemporary pandemic of anxiety, and in my book anxiety is a clinical term for what most people call “worry.”  And isn’t worrying a form of negative thinking? What are the relationships between thinking, worrying and anxiety?  Some definitions may help us negotiate this quagmire.

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary online, “thinking” is a noun defined as “the action of using one’s mind to produce thoughts.” Hence, thinking consists in taking mental action.  That sounds right.  But the tricky part of the issue is this: who or what is taking the action?  Is the person creating the action purposefully, or is the action happening spontaneously and/or unconsciously?  Herein lies an important problem.

Let’s consider a related concept called “ANTS,” which stands for “automatic negative thoughts.”  I was introduced to this concept by Dr. Daniel Amen when watching his video series called “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life,” which I highly recommend to anyone with psychological/emotional issues and/or with substance use/addiction issues.  ANTS are the thoughts that get generated by the mind spontaneously and repetitively, the kind of thoughts that fuel anxiety.

To me this is the root of the anxiety problem: people are having lots of negative, automatic thoughts, and then having feelings and behaviors as a result of those thoughts.  It is like a train heading up the tracks with no one driving it, and with no one driving it, the train keeps going and gradually picks up speed. This is where Eckhardt Tolle is helpful.  In his wonderful little treatise on the human mind The Power of Now, he explains that the mind is a tool; a very complicated one, but a tool nonetheless.  You are not your mind, he says.  You have a mind, and that mind is full of all kinds of things which you can learn to manage.  This is a concept I teach my clients, because I have found that most people do not know that they are not their mind, and that their mind is a complicated tool that they can learn to manage; otherwise, it manages them. And that, to me, is anxiety: the mind going on and on along a negative train of thought and creating fear.  I have analyzed the difference between fear and anxiety.  What I have found out is that fear is a natural response to an immediate threat.  Anxiety is an unnatural response to an imagined threat set in the future.  Fear is happening in the moment to tell us that something is wrong and that we must take some kind of action to remain safe.  Anxiety is a fantasy scenario projected into the future, which tells us that something negative is going to happen to us but it is imaginary and not based on current evidence.  That is why anxiety is harder to deal with, because it is about the future and based on something that has not yet happened, and yet we are experiencing fear in the present.

Thinking is a complicated process.  It generally includes judging, reasoning, problem solving, concept formation, deliberation, and other mental processes like having an idea or a memory and using one’s imagination.  Deepak Chopra said in one of his lectures that the average person has about 60,000 thoughts per day.  He then said such a number of thoughts is not a problem.  The problem lies in the fact that most people are having the same thoughts today that they had yesterday.  You can see that if many of a person’s thoughts are negative, falling into the category of worry, those thoughts resurface day after day.  And so the question becomes, “how can I learn to manage my mind so that I am not worrying?”

Going back to the dictionary definition, let’s look again at thinking as a mental action.  Did you ever notice that some thoughts you can consciously generate if you intend to think along a certain track, but many thoughts seem to generate themselves?  You aren’t trying to think them, they just show up.  Sometimes you are taking the mental action to think something, but other times the thoughts keep getting generated without your intention to have those thoughts.  Those are the ones that tend to be problematic.  The ones that get generated without your consent.  And those are the ones that tend to be the negative, anxiety provoking kind of thoughts.  And as Dr. Chopra said, the ones you are having today are for the most part the same ones you had yesterday.   How to manage this?

Most of us are familiar with the concept of mindfulness.  Mindfulness is the practice of watching the mind, observing the mental actions of the mind and not judging them.  It is about becoming aware of one’s thoughts, worries, fantasies and not holding on to them.  Watching them come and go.  Watching the actions of the mind.  That is mindfulness.  What can mindfulness do for us?  It can allow us to have some leverage over the negative actions of the mind, its tendency to go off on its own and entertain negative thoughts.  By watching the mind, you can become conscious of its mental actions, and this can give you some leverage to change thoughts, slow the mind down, reign it in, and direct it in more productive ways.  When I did a yoga teacher training some years ago, one day our instructor made a statement that seemed so important that I thought “I have to remember this.”  His statement was: “Your mind is like a kite, and your breath is the string.”  The mind when anxious is like a kite flying in the wind, being tossed and turned, doing somersaults.  How can you get some leverage over it, and get it to settle down and become controlled?  Through the conscious action of your breath.  Conscious, intentional, controlled breathing is the way to reign in the anxious mind.  With this kind of breathing, the mind settles down.  With the practice of mindfulness and conscious, intentional breathing, one can gradually learn to manage the mind, redirect it, change negative thoughts to positive ones, and hence feel better and produce more intentional and constructive actions.

Resources mentioned above:

By, Terry McMaster, LMSW, EAP Counselor