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  • Elizabeth McMahon Ph.D.

Practical Tips on Changing Anxious Thoughts

Learn a powerful way to explore, question, and change worries and fears.

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  • Challenging distorted thinking is hard when dealing with the emotional whirlwind of worry, fear, or panic.

  • Help your reacting brain and thinking brain talk to each other before getting caught up in anxiety.

  • A fears vs. facts dialogue table helps you effectively challenge worries and fears.

We know that challenging distorted or “irrational” thinking reduces anxiety. But how exactly do you do that? It is hard to believe logical thoughts when your body and emotions are screaming at you.

Intellectually recognizing that a fear is based on something that isn't true, that you don’t need to panic, or that you worry too much, can make no difference when your body and your emotions say you are in danger.

If it feels like your mind is fighting with itself, that’s because it is!

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Your Two Brains

Your amygdala, or as I like to call it your reacting brain, reacts instantly and automatically when it thinks you are threatened. This is terrific and life-saving in the right circumstances. The trouble is it overreacts, triggering unnecessary worry, fear, or panic.

The more developed upper part of your brain, the cerebral cortex or thinking brain, is smarter. Unfortunately, it is slower than your primitive, bodyguard brain.

Because the reacting brain is faster, you get flooded with adrenaline. Your body reacts as if you may need to fight or flee.

Your mind gets a primitive message of “DANGER!!!” You feel worried or panicky. Your mind starts looking for possible threats. If it sees no threat from outside, it may decide your physical sensations, your thoughts, or the intensity of your emotions are dangerous.

Successfully navigating this emotional whirlwind is hard. Your activated reacting brain needs to be heard, but also be willing to listen. Your thinking brain needs to look at the whole picture, not just search for danger.

The parts of your brain need to talk to each other, and they are far more able to do this when you are anxious if they have practiced ahead of time when you are calm.

This post and the next take you step-by-step through how to successfully listen, explore, and re-evaluate fears and worries.

Help Your Two Brains Talk to Each Other

Create a written fears vs. facts dialogue table. This skill was introduced in my post “Listening to Worries Can Actually Make You Less Anxious”.

Make a table with two columns and several rows. Label the left column “Worries, Fears, Distressing Thoughts”. Label the right column “Facts, Evidence, Logic, Perspective”.

Creating your dialogue table on a computer lets you easily add more thoughts as you go along.

Uncovering your reacting brain’s fears and questioning them in a way that is credible and convincing to you is harder than it looks. Here are the first three tips.

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Tip 1: Listen Before Reassuring

Fill out the left side first. This is important.

If you jump to the right side and start refuting your worries , the reacting brain feels unheard. Instead of a dialogue, you have a “he said,” “she said” argument.

Reacting brain: “This is dangerous!” Thinking brain: “No, it’s not.” “Is too!” “Is not!” “Is too.” “Is not.”

This type of discussion goes nowhere.

Reflect on your own experience. When you are anxious or afraid and people say, “Don’t worry. Don’t be scared.” Do you feel convinced or not heard?

Even if one part of your brain knows there’s no threat, the other part believes there is. Listen attentively to everything that scares or worries your bodyguard brain.

Tip 2: Get the Details

What exactly does your fear predict will happen if you don’t do what it says? What if you don’t act based on fear or worry? What might happen if you don’t leave or avoid the frightening situation? What might happen if you do not stay alert or fight your reaction? What if you do not do something special to stay safe?

Put into words everything the fear or worry says. State these explicitly.

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Tip 3: Look Below the Surface

What would actually justify being afraid? What underlying beliefs make anxiety feel like an appropriate response? What unhelpful lessons from the past contribute to present worries?

Drag these unspoken assumptions and beliefs into the light and write them down. Write what the fear assumes about you, other people, the situation, or the world.

You may remember Jonathan from “3 Ways to Tell if Worry Is Helpful.” He worried constantly about his car and the risk of car accidents, so together we created a dialogue table.

After writing the worries that came easiest to mind, he reflected on lessons he learned growing up with an abusive alcoholic father. He realized old assumptions fed his anxieties. Notice how those general beliefs easily lead to specific worries.

Jonathan’s Dialogue Table

In the first column, "Worries, Fears, Distressing Thoughts," he wrote:

There is something seriously wrong with the car.

Every sound means there’s a problem and I will have an accident.

I can’t trust the mechanic; he missed something.

You can’t trust anyone.

Bad things happen all the time without warning.

You must stay on the alert for possible dangers at all times.

Your Personal Dialogue Table

Start writing your own fears vs. facts dialogue table. Fill out the left column. Read my next post for tips on completing the right column.

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Thinking logically when you are scared is hard. You need to practice ahead of time. Creating a fears vs. facts dialogue table helps the two parts of the brain listen and talk to each other. Start by listening. Get details and look below the surface. The next post gives tips on how to convincingly evaluate and change anxious thinking.

Elizabeth McMahon, Ph.D., - Website -


McMahon, E. (2019). Overcoming Anxiety and Panic interactive guide. San Francisco, CA: Hands-on-Guide.

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