How to Control Your Anxious Thoughts

Struggling with unwanted intrusive and anxious thoughts?

Good news:

There are practical steps you can take to stop negative/anxious thoughts!

In this article, Jesse discusses 5 practical strategies for managing anxiety thinking.

In This Article

  1. Deep Breathing
  2. Prayer
  3. Self-Care
  4. Know Your Limits
  5. Make A List

About the Author

This article is based on scientific evidence and clinical experience, written by a licensed professional and fact-checked by experts.

Jesse Masson MA, LPC is a licensed professional counselor specializing in marriage counseling, anxiety, and depression treatment. You can schedule an appointment with Jesse for online counseling or in-person at our Kansas City, Missouri counseling center.

Controlling Your Anxious Thoughts

Sometimes life can feel as though you are “spinning your tires in the mud” and can’t get anywhere. Failure is inevitable if you give up – but it also appears that if you keep trying, your “engine” will overheat. What do you do?
Anxiety is when you feel pressed between a “rock and a hard place” and are unsure how to move forward. These moments can be related to school, work projects, relationships, or your individual well-being. Regardless, the anxious client in my office is worried about an important matter and feels “stuck” despite his given efforts. We have all felt this before, so why is this so hard to figure out? 
Although no magic pill (or natural oil) will ensure one’s immunity from life’s stressors, we actually can be confident in managing anxious moments when those arise. Allow me to walk you through a few practical steps that can alleviate your anxious thinking.

Practical Steps:

1) Deep Breathing

You don’t even have to have a yoga mat. Sitting in a relaxed (but straight) position, use your stomach (not shoulders/chest) to inhale deeply through the nose for a count of 4 seconds – hold for 4 seconds – then slowly exhale through the mouth for 4 seconds. Repeat 3-5 times. This actually has a positive bio-physiological response on your anxiety. In short, by forcing the breathing to slow down, and getting oxygen-enriched breaths of air, the heart will not have to work as hard to get the same amount of oxygen into your bloodstream. You will notice your heart rate slow down and your thinking clear up. This also gives some time and space between the emotion and the response needed for the situation.

2) Prayer 

There is no formulaic ‘Hail Mary’ to utter when feeling anxious, but that does not negate our rightly-placed trust in God with our concerns. I would be amiss if I did not stress the importance of trusting God with your heart, and sharing your concerns with Him. In the Christian faith, Scripture calls us to be prayerful in these moments. The Bible invites us to: “Cast all of your anxiety upon Him, because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7), and “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). We can have confidence that God hears us when we communicate our heart’s concerns through prayer. It is comforting to trust Him to be Sovereign over all things and matters of this world – to work for the purpose and good of His Will (Romans 8:28) – especially when situations are distressing and out of our control.

3) Self-care 

Far too many people do not understand the value of this. Self-care is ensuring that your holistic health (mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual) is in proper balance and not ‘running on fumes.’ This can be done in a variety of ways: eating healthy, good sleep, reading for enjoyment, socializing, prayer, Bible-reading, journaling, going to the doctor, counseling, etc. When you take care of yourself, you are less likely to disregard aspects of your health. This includes your emotional health and examining what feelings you have attached (unknowingly maybe) to the anxiety you are experiencing.

4) Know your limits

Especially when feeling anxious, it is important to realize that your worrying does not bring about quicker resolution to the situation at hand. (Although it traps us into thinking that!) If you’re familiar with the phrase, “Haste makes waste,” or “A stitch in time saves you nine,” then you know that its worth your time to slow down and reflect on what internal conflict is occurring. Emotions are a natural signal for your body. Anxiety simply tells your body that the situation at hand is needing some care and understanding. In part with your limitations, you must be able to have “acceptance” for what actions you may (or may not) control  – as well as your emotions! Most clients do not accept their emotions because those emotions are closely associated with the negative circumstance. Accepting the emotion does not mean that you like the feeling, rather it means you can recognize what is going on internally. When a person fails to recognize why the anxiety is occurring, there are often compounded feelings that persist (i.e. fear, grief, anger, etc.). This is the confusing part for many; looking so hard to find what external factor can be changed, one neglects to care for himself enough to evaluate what internal feelings are buried. Part of knowing your limits is not only taking steps to changthe factors that are within your control, but also dealing with the emotions at hand. Slow down and accept where you’re at – both externally (circumstance) and internally (feelings). If you find yourself avoiding certain emotions, that may be an indicator that you need help sorting through your thoughts and feelings. 

5) Make A List

Sometimes it seems that our minds have too much of a “mental load” – or as I think of it – too many clowns in the car. Its hard to focus on an action step when so many tasks seem to be demanding attention. This may be due to external tasks that are overlapping in an untimely fashion. The problem may be an imbalance between what you want and what you need to do. One step that may be helpful is to write a list of everything that is important for you. Then go back and asterisk the items that you:
  1. Can effectively act toward changing
  2. Differentiate as responsibilities;
  3. Know to be fulfilling for you; and
  4. Have the capacity to do.
For example, when I realize the pressure of multiple tasks that are required of me in a week, I can start to feel anxious (or distressed). I may use the above rubric to sift through what is important to me and what I can effectively work toward in my given amount of time. When items seem to be tasks that only have importance in my mind, and canceling them won’t impact those around me, I then remove those items from my list (i.e. haircut, mow the lawn, respond to my 20 emails from friends). That is much healthier than thinking I have to accomplish everything that other people suggest (or I assume).
On the other hand, if I realize that my work project is due this Friday — the same day that I have a social lunch meeting — I need to prioritize my work and focus on that instead of my other social agenda items.

In Quick Summary:

Instead of allowing the circumstance to ruin your future outlook, a plan of action would be to: 
1) breathe – and intentionally slow down your thoughts; 
2) reflect on what feelings you notice in yourself – and why those exist for you;
3) make a list of situational choices that you have control over; 
4) take a logical “next step” toward your goal; and 
5) act with “self-care” in all you do. 
Its not the end of the world when you find yourself feeling anxious. Just remember what you can do to stop spinning your wheels in the mud and not wear yourself out of time and energy. Be healthy in how you approach the situation – and that begins with self-care. The temptation is to perceive the situation as bigger than reality. But the truth is that you do have control over how you think, and how you can react with your identified emotions. Do not neglect your feelings just because they seem ambiguous or overwhelming in the moment. You are capable of facing your issue and either processing your hidden fears, or choosing to seek counseling to help you face those doubts. 

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  1. Wells, A., & King, P. (2006). Metacognitive therapy for generalized anxiety disorder: An open trial. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry37(3), 206-212. [1]
  2. 9 Ways to Calm Your Anxious Mind [2]

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