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3 Cognitive Coping Techniques to Combat Anxious Thinking

Updated: Jan 5, 2022

A common symptom of anxiety is a difficulty or inability to let go of worry thoughts. These worry thoughts are usually unwanted, based in fear, and/or persistently race through one’s mind. It’s easy to feel paralyzed by these thoughts if we don’t address them or place some structure to them. Below are three techniques that I often use when addressing the cognitive symptoms of anxiety.

When You’re Having Unrealistic Thoughts: Put Your Thoughts “On Trial”

Sometimes our anxious thoughts are not always based in reality. If these thoughts are not kept in check, they can impact our moods and behaviors. For example, an anxious thought I may be having is “I suck at my job! I’m probably going to be fired soon.” If I think this thought, I may feel discouraged, helpless, and generally low about myself. This may also influence my behavior. If I think that I suck at my job, I may not try as hard or self-sabotage (such as by showing up late or missing meetings).

To do this exercise, write the anxious thought down on the top part of a piece of paper. Then create 2 columns below that thought. On the left side, write out the “defense” or evidence in support of this thought. On the right side, write out the “prosecution” or the evidence against this thought. (Therapist Aid has a great printable worksheet.) Really evaluate the evidence that you list out. Is it a verifiable fact, or is it an opinion or a guess? Only the verifiable facts would hold up in court.

When You’re Struggling with Making a Decision: Use Decisional Balance

I’ve written about using decisional balance in a previous blog post within the context of addressing harmful or self-sabotaging behaviors. However, I’ve seen how anxiety can lead to “analysis paralysis” or overthinking a decision out of fear. Decisional balance involves writing out the benefits and drawbacks of potential choices. This can help us to gain more clarity, relieve the pressure of making a “wrong choice”, and gain more confidence in making a decision. For more details on how to use the technique, access my blog post here.

When You’re Stuck in an Anxious Spiral: Consider Worst/Best/Likely Scenarios

It can be easy to get stuck in catastrophic thinking and to not consider other possibilities. I find that this is especially true in situations where it may feel that a lot is on the line. As an example, let’s say that I receive a request from my boss to meet with her in her office first thing tomorrow morning. I may catastrophize and jump to the conclusion that I’m going to get fired. However, if I work through the anxious thoughts in a structured way, I can gain clarity and see the situation from different angles.

  • Worst case scenario: I’ve made a huge mistake at work and I’m about to get chewed out, maybe even fired. I won’t be able to find a new job because of how badly I messed up.

  • Best case scenario: My boss wants to share some good news with me. Maybe she is pregnant or I’m being offered a promotion.

  • Most likely scenario: My boss needs to share sensitive information with me. Perhaps I did make a mistake and she wants to address it with me individually. Perhaps there is some important news, such as somebody leaving the company. And if I am getting laid off, I know it will be hard, but I can always find new work.

In my experience (both in doing this activity myself and in working with clients through this activity), this can be helpful in allowing the anxiety to run its course and then considering either more positive or realistic scenarios. The more outcomes we can see in a stressful situation, the more empowered we may feel to deal with them.

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