In a time when our existential anxiety is running wild – thanks, coronavirus pandemic – many of us have been scrambling to learn how to deal.
Luckily, there’s a wide range of therapeutic mechanisms out there we can equip ourselves with to cope with existential anxious thoughts. And while there’s a lot we can’t control right now, if you’re someone drowning in a sea of anxieties, learning to re-frame your thoughts is a great place to start easing the burden just a little.
Before we dive into what that means, let’s talk about why “re-framing our thoughts” is needed in the first place. As humans with feelings and anxieties, we often fall into the habit of assuming that our thoughts are automatically true when, in fact, we’re all susceptible to unhealthy and unhelpful thought patterns known as cognitive distortions. We’ll get into some specific examples throughout the article, but the important thing to know up top is that when our emotions get involved, our brains can turn into annoying liars and warp reality, making us feel worse.
These cognitive distortions are the main target of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), an action-oriented type of talk therapy that teaches you to recognize and correct the negative thinking patterns that hurt your mental health. Re-framing your thoughts is pretty much the MVP of your CBT tool kit. “The idea of re-framing your thoughts starts with accepting that not all your thoughts are true just because you have them,” licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Long Island Behavioral Regine Galanti, Ph.D., tells SELF. “A thought is like a pair of sunglasses. If you look at the world through sunglasses, things look a little different. Re-framing your thoughts is like taking off your sunglasses or putting on another pair with a different lens. You’re asking, ‘How can I look at this a different way?’”
So let’s talk about a few different answers to that question. Keep in mind that certain tips will be more helpful in one situation than another, and what works best for someone else might not help you as much.
Re-framing your thoughts in a way that feels helpful and believable to you is a deeply personalized experience, so it might take some trial and error. With that in mind, here are some things you can try.
1. Write down your thoughts.
In order to re-frame your thoughts, you have to know what you’re thinking to begin with. If re-framing your thoughts is a new skill for you, awareness is an important first step. “When you catch yourself feeling a strong emotion like anxiety at the pit of your stomach, stop yourself and ask, ‘What am I thinking right now?’ Then write it down,” says Galanti. Not only will this give you something solid to work with when it comes time to re-frame, but it also can provide you with a log of what kind of thinking patterns you tend to fall into over time. Plus, avoiding a thought instead of facing it head-on can often make you more anxious, says Galanti, so the act of acknowledging it by writing it down can be anxiety-reducing in and of itself.
2. Start fact-checking yourself.
Many cognitive distortions push us to believe thoughts that straight-up aren’t true, so try to get in the habit of asking yourself, “What’s the proof that I have for this thought?” This will hone your ability to better identify and quickly shut down the lies your anxiety tells you, says Galanti.
For example, maybe you’re spiraling and thinking, “I have to go to the grocery store, but if I go, I’ll get sick.” But that’s you assuming the worst-case scenario is going to happen, also known as catastrophizing. To re-frame that thought, you might start by asking, “Okay, what proof do I have that I’ll definitely get sick if I go to the store?” In response, you can remind yourself of the safety measures in place (such as stores limiting the number of people allowed inside at a time) and preventive tools you have at your disposal (like using hand sanitizer as soon as you leave the store then washing your hands as soon as you get home).
This tip can also look like separating objective facts from emotional opinions. For example, a lot of my anxieties lately revolve around the loneliness of isolation as a single person. When I catch myself anxiously thinking, I’m going to die alone!!! I try to re-frame it as a factual statement instead of an emotional one. These days, that looks like, It’s understandable that my feelings of loneliness have exploded under the circumstances, but I have no reason to believe the pandemic will impact my ability to find love in the long run. (In fact, I actually think it might give me new opportunities to try, but that’s another story.)
3. Switch from asking, “Is this true?” to “Is this helpful?”
If you’re anything like me, when you hear, “Not all thoughts are true,” your first thought is, BUT WHAT ABOUT RIGHT NOW IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PANDEMIC? Because let’s face it: A lot of our current anxieties are more grounded in reality than they typically would be. Sometimes, fact-checking can lead to more anxiety because, well, you’re just finding proof to support your worries or there are too many uncertainties to make a strong argument against your anxieties.
In cases like that, you have to remind yourself that there’s still a spectrum of truth, according to Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and author of Detox Your Thoughts: Quit Negative Self-Talk for Good and Discover the Life You’ve Always Wanted. “Because our anxiety baseline is so high right now, for understandable reasons, we are overestimating threat and falling into all-or-nothing thinking,” she tells SELF. “Even if there’s truth to a thought – like there’s a chance of infection if you go to the grocery store – not all thoughts that are partly true are functional and helpful.”
That’s where “Is this helpful?” comes in. If you need to go to the grocery store regardless, it’s not helpful to spiral about what might happen there. Instead, Bonior suggests thinking about how your thoughts can help you gain insight and strategize. In this case, a thought can be more helpful than anxiety-inducing if you use it to plan ways to mitigate risk when you go shopping.
4. Ask yourself what you’d say to a friend with the same thought.
As a general rule, we tend to be kinder to the people we love than we are to ourselves. Think back to the last time you engaged in some negative self-talk and thought some things about yourself that you’d never dream of thinking about (much less saying to) a friend. Similarly, asking yourself how you’d talk down a friend stuck in an anxious thought loop can be an effective way to extend yourself the same compassion. If it helps to imagine the advice coming straight from that friend, more power to you.
We can also use our more rational, less worry-prone friends as role models. “If I have a good friend who thinks about the world in a different, less anxious way, what would they say if they had this same thought?” says Galanti. “How would they judge this thought? How would their response be different than mine?”
5. Go for realistic, not positive.
A lot of people hear “reframe your thoughts” and assume it means taking a bad thought and finding a positive spin on it. But the opposite of an unhelpful thought isn’t a positive thought, it’s a realistic thought. “If I currently have no symptoms or reason to believe I have coronavirus and am consumed with thoughts that coronavirus is going to kill me, re-framing that thought isn’t, I’m never going to get coronavirus and will be totally fine,” says Galanti. Instead, it might be, I don’t feel sick right now and there’s a low chance that I’ll catch the disease because I’ve been socially isolated for 40 days. Or whatever is true for you.
This is also helpful when trying to fortune-tell about an uncertain future in general, not just the possibility of getting sick. What will my life look like after this pandemic? Who knows, but I certainly spend most of my time worrying about how it will be absolutely ruined! In that way, I think of re-framing as giving myself space to explore okay-case scenarios. Yes, a lot of things I was looking forward to are off the table right now, but no, that probably doesn’t mean I won’t recover from this roadblock, either.
And if you want to throw a few best-case scenarios in there too for balance, hey, those are often just as likely as the worst-case scenarios. “It might be that your life will never be the same, but it also could be that things will get better for you than they were before, because we really have no idea,” says Bonior.
6. Swap “finding the bright side” with “finding meaning.”
Now might not be the time for – finding the bright side – of the pandemic. For many people, bright sides can feel forced and uncomfortable. That said, there can be value in finding meaning in our experiences. Say, for example, you can’t stop worrying about the long-term impact of this crisis. You think: My finances will never recover from this. My career will be set back after all my hard work. My kids’ childhoods are ruined. My life is going to look irreparably different after this. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
For one, there’s a lot of all-or-nothing thinking in these thoughts, which we talked about earlier, so remember to call yourself out on that. But just as importantly, this kind of thinking presents an opportunity to connect with meaning. “The heart of getting through grief and loss is connecting with meaning. Be on the lookout for, ‘What can I get from this?’ That doesn’t have to turn into, ‘I’ve got to learn a second language and reorganize my closet,’” says Bonior. “Maybe this experience lends you more compassion for other people or connects you with what your priorities really are based on what you miss most. Maybe you get laid off, and that’s awful, but it’s an opportunity to take a reset period. Maybe you learn about resilience you didn’t know you had. We wouldn’t have chosen this experience, but we can get something of value from it.”
Also, if finding small things to be grateful for amid chaos does work for you, that’s awesome. Leaning into the bright side where you can find it – such as the chance to spend more time with your kids—is a valid way of re-framing your experiences in a time of anxiety. It doesn’t cancel out your negative feelings, and besides, gratitude is a pillar of positive mental health. “Finding things to be grateful for doesn’t mean you’re grateful that this is happening,” says Bonior.
7. Turn a thought into an action you think will make you feel better.
If your anxious thoughts stem from comparing your situation to others—and consequently feeling guilty about your privilege relative to people who have it worse off—first things first, be wary of what Bonior calls the “distress yardstick.” It’s never helpful to spiral about how you should be feeling when we’re all going through something right now.
“There’s no good to come from invalidating your feelings,” says Bonior. “That spiral never ends. Someone always has it worse. Someone who lost their job can say, ‘At least I didn’t lose a loved one.’ A person who lost one loved one could say, ‘Well, at least I didn’t lose two loved ones like somebody else did.’ That doesn’t do any good to just add more guilt and anxiety onto an already anxiety-provoking situation.”
However, shutting down comparisons completely is easier said than done (as is shutting down anxiety in general), so you might find it helpful to take an anxious thought and turn it into action. “Re-framing your thoughts here means asking yourself, ‘What can this thought teach me?’ ” says Bonior. “Maybe it’s trying to tell me that I will feel better if I donate a little bit of time or a little bit of money to people who don’t have it as good at me instead of sitting around feeling anxious and guilty.”
8. Stick with re-framing strategies for at least a week before switching it up.
Experts often say you need to experiment in order to find the right mental health techniques for you, and while that’s true, it’s important to remember that it takes time for these tools to start working. It’s extremely common for them to feel awkward, stupid, and unproductive at first.
“It isn’t automatic,” says Galanti. “Re-framing a thought doesn’t lift a weight off my shoulders and make me think, I’m good now. It’s a begrudging process. You have to try things out a bunch of times. And if it doesn’t work out, then you can use a different strategy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a toolbox, so if one tool doesn’t work, you try another.”
9. Know when “re-framing” isn’t the best tool.
Like we talked about up top, re-framing your thoughts is only one of many tools that can help combat all the anxiety we’re currently dealing with. And sometimes it’s not the most effective tool. For one, the re-framing technique is rarely effective against a more physical anxiety spiral. “The mind and the body go hand in hand in our anxiety response, and when one of them spikes out of control, it affects our ability to deal with the other,” says Bonior. Translation? If you’re having trouble breathing, sweating, feeling your heart racing, or otherwise panicking, your brain won’t be super equipped to handle the situation. Instead, grounding exercises like deep breathing, getting a glass of water, muscle relaxation, or visualizations will likely be more effective.
Past that, though, it’s also just personal. If you find that re-framing your thoughts isn’t helping right now, it’s okay to table it and try something new. It’s a worthy skill to put time and energy into (and something I still work on with my therapist to this day!), but these might not be the ideal circumstances under which to force yourself to try new therapeutic skills. If it’s not working, maybe try again another day, but make sure to be kind to yourself and give yourself space to experiment, whether that’s returning to reliable coping mechanisms that have worked in the past or seeing if there’s a different new skill that feels better for you right now.