One of the most powerful techniques for managing anxiety is a simple matter of labeling. You start by noticing a particular thought that is causing anxiety or serving as a vessel for it, and then you label this thought as an “anxiety thought.” The mere act of classifying — the mere act of saying, “That’s an anxiety thought” — can have profound consequences.

When we recognize that a certain thought is an “anxiety thought,” we can cut to the chase and assume it’s a bad investment. We don’t have to question whether the thought is worth our energy and attention; we can quickly conclude that it isn’t.

But the ability to do this — the ability to recognize a thought as an “anxiety thought” and to stop fueling it with our attention — depends on our having a certain outlook — a certain perspective on our thoughts that allows us to regard them as investments.

We may not be used to conceiving of our thoughts as investments, because our thoughts are ephemeral. They seem to be free and abundant; they seem to be inconsequential unless we turn them into action. And of course, they’re spontaneous and often involuntary — they can take us by surprise. We don’t plan them ahead of time, we don’t pick and choose which thoughts will pop into our minds.

Think of a daffodil. Think of an elephant. Think of a star. Think of a feather. That wasn’t hard, right? A person can have four thoughts, or maybe dozens, in the span of a few seconds. Thoughts of this sort don’t cost a thing. They come and go in a flash. They don’t seem like investments at all.

But now think of your most embarrassing moment. Your worst nightmare. Your greatest disappointment. Your deepest source of frustration. The worst argument you’ve ever been involved in. There’s something in that constellation of thoughts, quite likely, that you’ll be tempted to linger on, once you re-open the subject. You’ll want to explore it further, to see if you can “get somewhere” with it this time. As you ruminate on this disturbing topic, you’ll experience enough stress that the thought can no longer be considered free or fleeting. Now it’s sticky. It won’t leave you alone. Entertaining this thought becomes a significant expenditure of time and energy, and there’s an opportunity cost as well: this thought keeps you from dedicating your attention to other things. You may not conceive of it as an investment, but this thought is very much a thing you’re investing in. And the question is, what are the returns?

If you keep investing, perhaps you’ll get something back — some new insight or understanding, maybe even a solution to the problem that’s troubling you. There are reasons to expect as much. But you’ve covered this ground before. You’ve tried this investment before. And each time, the investment has left you worse off than you were before. Tired, stressed, and not any wiser. Investing in this thought — investing in this kind of thought — doesn’t really help you, it just sets you back. It’s an “anxiety thought.” It’s powered by anxiety, it carries anxiety, it creates more anxiety. And guess what? Such thoughts are totally natural and commonplace, so it shouldn’t be a shock that you’re having one.

An anxiety thought is hard to relinquish, for all the same reasons why you might have trouble giving up any kind of investment — a material one, a financial one, a social one. Think of a flashy outfit that doesn’t fit you but which you can’t bear to give away. Think of a fancy car which is costing more than you can afford in maintenance but which you can’t bring yourself to sell. Think of a risky stock that once seemed so promising. There’s a sunken cost, a price you’ve already paid, and now you’d like to get some value out of it. You’ve bonded with the thought — it’s your thought. To some extent, the thought is stimulating, exciting — it has a narrative — it puts you on a roller coaster — it distracts you from other topics, and you might want that distraction. To give it up now would feel too abrupt. You need to resolve some things about it first, draw some interim conclusions, create a graceful off-ramp. You’re concerned that if you don’t sort out what’s bothering you now, or at least make some kind of progress, you’ll be “running away” or shoving it under the rug and it’ll come back to haunt you.

You might sense that your anxiety thought is expensive and you might wonder how something so expensive could have no value. If it riles you up, it must be significant, right? You’d like to believe that the things in your mind are worthwhile, especially the things you’re focusing on. You don’t want to believe that something that’s occupying so much space in your mind is actually worthless or unnecessary.

If you relinquish the thought now, you’ll be left to face your own uncomfortable feeling — the agitation the thought has created inside you — without having something to blame that feeling on anymore. So you keep giving the thought more of your attention. And it keeps convincing you that it’s worth your attention, it keeps selling itself to you as a good, a worthy, an important investment that you can’t abandon now. It asks for more, more, more, and keeps making promises to return something soon.

But the return never comes. Does an anxiety thought really help us prepare for anything? When was the last time you faced a difficult situation and said, “I’m so ready for this! I was ruminating about this very thing the other day! I’m so glad I logged those two full hours of worry.” You can worry about something and be less prepared when it happens, because the stress has taken a toll.

We invest in anxiety thoughts without considering the consequences, just like when we’re sitting in front of a TV flipping channels, we don’t always foresee the consequences of picking one show over another. The shows don’t cost us anything, and it’s so easy to flip between them. Yes, we’re paying for electricity and we had to buy the TV and maybe we have a cable plan with a recurring charge, but for all intents and purpose it’s equally “free” to watch a football game or a sitcom or a soap opera or a horror movie. We’ve got an hour or two to kill — does it really matter which show we put on, as long as it entertains us for a little while? If we get bored with one show, we can try another one. That might be true, but only true until we’ve gotten so involved in a program that we can’t turn away anymore, even though it’s upsetting us, annoying us, disappointing us, and we wish we had never started watching. Now it’s an investment. A bad investment.

When we’re fed up with the TV, we can shut it off. It’s got a button for that. When we recognize we’re having an anxiety thought, we can’t press a button to stop it, but we can still do something transformative. We can recognize the pathways of engaging further with this thought and choose not to pursue them. For example, we might be tempted to ask, “Why am I having this thought? What does it say about me that I’m having this thought?” That’s a way of engaging. It seems innocent enough — we’re just looking for self-understanding. Maybe if we know why we’re having this thought, we’ll gain control over it? But the question of why we’re having the thought is going to keep leading us back to content of the thought itself. It’s a trap.

We might be tempted to ask, “Is the problem I’m worrying about really as bad as I think it is?” That’s a way of engaging. Again, it seems innocent enough — we’re just trying to put things in perspective. We’re trying to downplay our fear. But to convince ourselves that something isn’t as bad as we fear it might be, we have to keep thinking about that thing itself. As we do that, perhaps we’ll encounter reasons why it’s worse than we fear. It’s a trap.

We might be tempted to ask, “What risks do I face if I ignore this? What bad things could happen if I don’t stay on guard?” That’s a way of engaging. We’ve got to get over the conviction that disengaging from the thought would mean ignoring something important, or hiding, or running away, or shoving something under the rug that we should be paying attention to now.

We might lament that we’ve been harboring this thought for so long. We might regret the way this thought has taken so much time and caused so much stress. But that regret is yet another way of engaging. Eventually, the regret will lead us back to the very thought that we’re regretting having.

The key to disengaging from an anxiety thought is to stop identifying the thought as a part of the self. Don’t think of it as “your” thought. It’s just a thought, a construct that got formed in a mind that happens to be yours. But that’s what minds do — they form thoughts — big deal! Sometimes a mind generates pure garbage. Expensive garbage.

But this is not to say that all anxiety thoughts are devoid of substance. They might be very substantial. You might be having an anxiety thought about the perils of climate change. You might be having an anxiety thought about social injustice, corruption, war. You might be having an anxiety thought about the possibility of nuclear armageddon. You might be having an anxiety thought about a severe health issue, or the illness of a loved one. There’s a lot of substance to all of those thoughts. But they can still be terrible investments for you at a particular time, because they’re not yielding any returns. The subjects are weighty and important, but your thoughts about those weighty subjects are not making you more informed, better prepared, more resilient, more ready to face these challenges or to work for positive change. The thoughts are just draining you and eventually making you indifferent.

Sometimes we already know we’re worrying too much for our own good. If we’re going on a blind date, or preparing for a talk, we might say, “I wish I weren’t so nervous about this.” In these situations, perhaps it’s obvious to us that our anxiety thoughts aren’t helping us, that they aren’t good investments. But in other cases, we have no idea we’re entertaining an anxiety thought until we finally stop to notice what’s happening in our mind, if we ever do. More likely, we assume we’re thinking about something important and we don’t realize it’s an “anxiety thought.” That’s where labeling can be particularly helpful. Any time you feel an obligation to pursue a line of thinking that’s stressing you out, it’s quite possibly an anxiety thought.

One slippery pathway into an anxiety thought might go like this: you’re checking the day’s news. You read a distressing article about a famine affecting millions of people. You’re saddened and outraged, but you feel powerless to do anything about. Your heart goes out to the victims. As you think of their situation, you begin wondering how it would feel to be in that terrible situation yourself, to be one of those unfortunate people without access to basic resources. Now it becomes about you. You begin wondering what such a terrible situation would bring out in you. Would you be someone who offers their rations to others in greater need? Or would you be one of those people stealing from their neighbors to survive? How intense would your suffering have to be so that you would break your ties with society, abandon the values you thought you held dear, and fight against those who were your once your friends? Now you’re involved in a kind of philosophical “daymare” — questioning your own character and the durability of your personal values, in such a way where no conclusion is possible, because you aren’t in that terrible situation and you really have no idea what it’s like. It all seems weighty and significant and worth your attention, but guess what? It’s a big anxiety thought.

How did you get into this quandary? Each step was natural, right? You checked the news because you wanted to be informed about the world you inhabit. When you heard about the suffering of others, you tried to put yourself in their shoes because that’s how we stay connected with each other as human beings, right? As soon as you began trying to empathize, it led to a host of questions, and you began considering them one by one. And now you feel an obligation to continue exploring those questions — why? To get “somewhere.” To reach some kind of conclusion. But that conclusion isn’t going to come. You’re conjuring scenarios in your mind, trying to find some sense in them, all while feeling worse and worse, holding your breath — not even aware that you’re worrying. And if at the very end of the day, you feel drained, you feel stressed out, you won’t even remember that you spent five minutes in the morning imagining how you’d behave in famine conditions. That’s because in the morning, when you invested in an anxiety thought, you did so without noticing you were doing it, and then you forgot about it when you had to get to work.

This is of course not to say we should be apathetic to the profound suffering and grave peril in our world. It is just to say that our thoughts about that suffering and peril are not automatically valuable to us or to anyone else. In fact, those thoughts can backfire and make us numb. We need to think about these topics, yes, but just because we happen to thinking about them at a particular time, doesn’t mean we need to be thinking about them specifically then. It’s all too possible for these topics to become mere conduits for anxiety, where we keep thinking about them out of an urge to keep our anxiety alive, without ever doing anything about the underlying problems that gave rise to it.

Next time you find yourself caught up in a long inner dialogue or a long session of exploring various stressful or even terrifying scenarios, consider whether you might be having an anxiety thought, whether you might be making an investment that doesn’t serve you. And if you want a way of practicing relinquishing anxiety thoughts, try meditation. Meditation is a general version of the disengagement technique we’ve been describing here. We’ve been talking about recognizing certain thoughts as “anxiety thoughts” and disengaging from those ones specifically. In meditation, we do this more broadly. We label any thought that comes into mind as “a thought,” and we disengage, no matter what kind of thought it is. Whether it’s an anxiety thought, a factual observation, a prayer, a celebratory reflection, we say “That’s a thought.” We view the thought impartially and let it pass. (Of course, meditation doesn’t make us apathetic. On the contrary, by giving us respite for a time, it prepares us to engage more fully later on.) When we’re not meditating, but going about our daily lives, we can’t disengage from all thoughts — we need our thoughts. But we can still use the same disengagement technique we practice in meditation. We can use that technique when we notice that a certain thought — one that’s causing stress without helping us or anyone else — is in fact an “anxiety thought.” ■

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