An Exercise to Reduce Anxiety and Depression

If you suffer from anxiety or depression, ruminating on negative thoughts could be to blame. Below is a step-by-step exercise commonly used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that, if done regularly, will calm your anxiety and lift your mood.

First, notice the negative thoughts when they arise. A good signifier of negative thoughts is a low or anxious mood that comes seemingly “out of nowhere.” These feelings are a signal that you need to turn inward and examine your thoughts. A good example of this is if you’ve ever seen a photo of yourself and then minutes later noticed you feel depressed “for no reason.” Upon examining your thoughts, they could be something along the lines of: “My stomach is huge,” or “I’m so unattractive,” or “I will never be pretty enough.” These thoughts are not only irrational, they are also anxiety-provoking and depressing—it’s no wonder you’d feel depressed and/or anxious after having them!

Second, make the connection between behaviors, thoughts and feelings. Realize that you can use that same phenomenon that leads to your depression or anxiety to your advantage. For instance, knowing that a thought such as, “I will never be pretty enough” makes you feel depressed, it is also true that a thought such as, “I am enough,” will make you feel calm and fulfilled. As much as it may feel otherwise, you have the control.

Third, inquire about the validity of the thought while at the same time dismissing it. For example, you could say something like, “Wow, that’s pretty extreme/all-or-nothing/irrational/unhealthy thinking,” or, “that’s old thinking that no longer serves me,” or simply, “that type of thinking is not helpful.” Don’t spend too much time getting angry at yourself for having the thought, or trying to “not think” the thought—both of which will make the thought more persistent. Just a quick realization of its ridiculousness, followed by a quick dismissal will do.

Fourth, say something (either out loud or to yourself) that would elicit a positive emotional response in you. In the case of seeing a photo of yourself that triggers negative self-talk, you could say something like, “What really contributes to life fulfillment is how much fun I had in those moments and being present with the people I love—not my waist size.” Or simply, “I’m a good person who’s lovable and does good.” In other words, insert thoughts that are more calming, comforting and “even-keeled.” Doing this fourth step may feel very unnatural and downright “fake” in the beginning, but this will quickly change if practiced regularly.

Lastly, turn this process of responding rationally and positively into a habit—as opposed to letting the emotion spiral you into potentially more negative thoughts, emotions and/or behaviors. Over a short time, speaking to yourself in a more loving, compassionate and realistic manner will lift your “default mood,” making you more calm and optimistic 24/7 without putting forth any deliberate effort. This shift in self-talk will positively affect all aspects of your life.