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How to transform anxious thoughts into productive actions

Mental health experts share their strategies for shifting your worries into something healthier and more productive.
Image: Woman writing in notebook
Just as journaling can benefit a gratitude, positivity or self-care practice, it can help us get anxious thoughts out of our head and on to paper. Hero Images / Getty Images/Hero Images

With the fervor of the midterm elections, the time change, the barrage of tragic news stories in addition to just, you know, normal life stuff, many of us are feeling more anxious than usual.

Though some of us suffer from anxiety disorders, often requiring treatment, anxiety in itself isn’t abnormal; it’s actually quite natural, existing in part to motivate us to get out in the world and do our best.

“Everyone has a little bit of anxiety,” says Dr. Kate Cummins, a licensed clinical psychologist. “It’s the reason you get up and out of bed and ready in the mornings when your alarm goes off [and] the reason you prepare well for an interview or meeting at work.”

We spoke with mental health experts to learn their best strategies for transforming anxious thoughts into tools that can be, as Cummins says, “your best friend in performance rather than a detriment, and move forward into action instead of allowing it to block you.”

Take a few deep breaths right away

It would be lovely if we could just take our anxiety and immediately shift it into productivity, but it’s best we calm down first.

“Once the [anxious] thought has been noticed, I like to ask my clients to take a few deep breaths,” says Melissa Coats, a licensed professional counselor. “This helps calm the body and let it know it is not in immediate danger. Anxiety is fear and those anxious thoughts are trying to protect us from something horrible. So instead of being hard on ourselves about these thoughts, thank them for what they are trying to do and make a decision on how to proceed in a much clearer state of mind.”

Download a meditation/mindfulness app

“Apps like Headspace or Calm are interactive, supportive, and help to hold you accountable,” says Katie Krimer, a licensed clinical social worker. “They are an active way to productively address your anxious thoughts and increase self-awareness. At best, your anxiety is minimized, at worst, you've taken some time to gently observe how busy your mind is.”

Get grounded in your space

Natalie Finegood Goldberg, a licensed marriage and family therapist recommends practicing physical grounding.

“This means shifting out of your head and into your body,” Goldberg explains. “This can be done by throwing a tennis ball against a wall, standing in place and shifting your weight back and forth, or any act that allows you to focus on the connection of your body to anything physical. In doing so, you create a shift in the nervous system that allows your body to slow down so you can return to a healthy equilibrium that allows for rational thought.”

Shift your thoughts to your surroundings

Another way of grounding yourself is by shifting your attention to your physical surroundings.

“When we are engaging in a lot of anxious thinking, we are over-identifying with those thoughts and getting caught up in their content,” says Krimer. “The practice of stepping back and acknowledging objective reality (i.e. labeling items in the room using your five senses), it can help create space from those thoughts.”

Write it out

Just as journaling can benefit a gratitude, positivity or self-care practice, it can help us get anxious thoughts out of our head and on to paper.

“One of the main benefits is that journaling helps you work on having a deeper understanding of your triggers so that you are more prepared on how to deal with them,” says Celeste Viciere, a licensed mental health clinicial.

If you’re feeling blocked looking at a blank page, try guided journaling, or google “journal prompts for anxiety” and you’ll find tons of cues to get you started.

Log (and dispute) the bad thoughts

You can also use a journal to log and refute anxious thoughts.

“Write your anxious thought down, e.g. ‘I am a loser.’ Then refute that thought, e.g. ‘It is true that I have indeed lost many things before, but I have also won and succeeded at many things,’” says Dr. Nancy Irwin, a psychologist with Seasons in Malibu. “The more you log these anxious thoughts and respond to them in a logical fashion, the less of those unhelpful thoughts you will have. Your brain starts to short-circuit the unnecessary thoughts, and you begin having fewer and less severe anxious thoughts.”

Do some art: Discipline downshifts the nervous system

One of licensed professional counselor Essence Cohen Fields’ top recommendations to clients dealing with anxious thoughts is to express themselves through art.

“Take up a new instrument, paint or write poetry,” she says. “Focusing on an activity that requires discipline allows you to channel your anxiety and excessive energy into something more useful.”

You can even engage in something very simple, like coloring.

“Adult coloring books [and apps] are great for relieving anxiety. Or make some homemade play-doh or a glitter jar,” say Goldberg. The sensory experience is great for downshifting your nervous system.”

Create positive alternatives to worrying unknowns

“Anxiety tends to make people feel like there is one thought or conscious stream of thoughts that has only one answer to a problem,” notes Cummins. “The goal with anxious thoughts is to assess the thoughts that are the loudest, and create alternative thoughts that are productive. For example, are you stuck on worry or concern that is negative? If you come up with positive alternatives, you access the ability to link your emotion to positive alternative thoughts.”

Create a mantra that soothes the anxiety

“When we get in our heads, we worry a lot about the ‘what ifs’,” says Evanye Lawson, licensed professional counselor. “When we get in that space it gets harder for us to take action or move forward, so one way to combat this is the tell yourself ‘when this is over, I will be glad I did it,’ or ‘it may be hard now, but it will get better or easier over time. I will keep trying.’”

Designate a friend who will just simply listen

Ask a friend if they would be willing to sit with you on the phone or in person and let you speak about all the issues you have without trying to offer advice, their opinions or their judgments unless you ask for it,” says Lawson. “If that friend says yes, then when you are in a moment where you need that friend, reach out to them by first asking if they are free to hold space for you while you tell them about the things making you anxious. Your friend will automatically know what to do since you previously told them how you needed and now you can rest assured that you have support. Remember consent is important in this tip.”

Schedule ‘worry time’

One of the trickiest traits of anxiety is the sense of urgency it brings. Remind yourself that you'll have time for thinking later (when you’re in a clearer state of mind), and schedule time to do just that.

“Set aside a time during the day during which you give yourself permission to worry — you can even have a reminder in your calendar,” says Krimer. “Acknowledge that thinking will happen whether you like it or not, and some of it might be anxious. In the mean time, remember how good it will feel to turn those anxious thoughts into productivity and positive action. Even doing something small and positive to address the underlying anxiety can have a profound effect on alleviating it. Either way, you'll feel as though you've done more than just worry.”


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