Have you ever stopped to wonder whether the way you think – and the beliefs you hold – could be causing your anxiety? Here, psychotherapist and author Daniel Fryer talks us through the four unhelpful thoughts that could be giving you anxiety – and how we can go about changing them.
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues experienced by adults in the UK. According to statistics from Anxiety UK, more than one in 10 people are likely to deal with a “disabling anxiety disorder” at some point in their life, and the number of people experiencing an anxiety-related mental health disorder rose by 12.8% between 1993 and 2007.
It’s not exactly surprising when you consider just how many stressors we encounter on a day to day basis, whether they come in the form of a particularly upsetting news story, pressure at work or people on social media. It makes sense then, with all of this considered, that we’re constantly on the look out for something to help us feel calm.
Whether it’s a new meditation technique, breathing exercise, fitness class or morning routine, we’re prioritising our mental health more than ever before. And while that is, of course, fantastic news, there’s something else we all need to take into consideration when it comes to our anxiety – the root of the problem.
According to Daniel Fryer, a psychotherapist who specialises in a form of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) called Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), our anxiety could be stemming from the way we think. Instead of identifying the thoughts that are causing our anxiety and challenging them by looking at the evidence in front of us – as you would in CBT – Fryer’s REBT approach encourages us to focus on the messages we tell ourselves, and challenge the philosophy behind those thoughts.
In his new book, The Four Thoughts That F*ck You Up… and How To Fix Them, Fryer identifies four of the main thoughts that are causing us to feel more anxious:
- “Dogmatic demands”: holding onto rigid beliefs (for example, that everyone – including our co-worker Jessica – needs to like us)
- “Doing a drama”: catastrophising and blowing a situation out of proportion (thinking that because Jessica dislikes us the whole world does)
- “The ‘I can’t copes’”: telling ourselves we can’t cope or deal with something (saying we’ll never be able to deal with work again if Jessica’s there)
- “Pejorative put-downs”: putting ourselves or the world down (“I’M A HORRIBLE PERSON IF JESSICA DOESN’T LIKE ME”)
If any one of those thoughts sounds scarily familiar to you, don’t worry – you’re not alone. However, while identifying those thoughts is a massive step forward, there’s another, trickier step we need to take: challenging those pre-existing thought patterns.
“If you can identify any of those unhealthy beliefs – so if you can identify demand, or if you realise that you are blowing things out of proportion, that you are telling yourself you can’t stand something or if you’re putting yourself or other people down, the very, very first step is to just challenge your thoughts objectively,” Fryer explains. “Is this thought or is this belief true? Do I have any evidence to support it?
“Let’s say you’ve got the demand that people mustn’t judge you. Well, for that statement to be true, you’ve got to be able to prove that nobody has ever judged you or that nobody ever would. Because it’s like this little unbreakable law in your head. But you can’t do it – because people judge all the time.
“The next one is to ask is, is it a sensible belief to hold? Just because I don’t want to be judged, does it make sense to say I mustn’t be. And then the next connective thought is to go, okay well, if this belief isn’t true and this belief doesn’t make sense, is it actually helping me? Because if it isn’t, why are you walking around holding a belief that isn’t true, doesn’t make sense and doesn’t help you.”
In this way, Fryer suggests turning those thoughts into more mentally healthy alternatives – including turning your demands into flexible preferences, and accepting that it’s OK if the things we want to happen… don’t.
“If you say I prefer to be judged [instead of saying you can’t be judged] that is a much better approach, because you’re saying what you want to happen, but you’re accepting that the opposite could happen. If you can accept it, it means you’re more likely to be calm and confident, and more likely to accept people’s judgements, good or bad – and just get on with it.
“So the very, very first step is to always take a step back and question things objectively. Can I prove this belief? Does this belief make sense? Does this belief help me?”
Of course, it would be great if getting rid of our anxiety was as easy as challenging our thoughts once or twice and moving on with life. However, whether it’s turning our demands into preferences (as Fryer demonstrates above), putting things into perspective to avoid catastrophising, telling ourselves we can cope and accepting ourselves and the world for what it is, it’s the challenge to those thoughts that’s the most difficult step to master – especially because those thoughts are often pretty entrenched in the way we live our lives, right?
“Absolutely,” acknowledges Fryer. “That objective challenge is the absolute foundation stone of everything. It’s what we always do first because without that objective challenge, you’re never going to be able to chip away at the emotional grab that it has on you.”
His advice? Repetition – and lots of it.
“You have to keep [challenging your thoughts] repeatedly. It’s the only way to affect a change. You have to say to yourself, ‘well, if it isn’t helping me, then what is it doing? It’s making me anxious. Where is it making me anxious? Well, it’s stopping me from doing A or B, and it’s ridiculous – I don’t want to be like that anymore’.
“You have to keep going through that in your head – over and over again – until this new way of thinking becomes a new established pattern.”
The Four Thoughts That F*ck You Up… And How To Fix Them, is out now.