Change Your Anxious Thoughts by Breaking the Rules

It would be nice to change your anxious thoughts because they often cause great misery. It can be annoying when ideas crashing around in our brain cause anxiety. These crashing and rumbling ideas are known as automatic negative thoughts (ANTs). They often overpower all other thoughts so we believe that our ANTs are true and reliable, and anxiety grows bigger and stronger. Negative, anxious thoughts further control how we interpret the world by imposing a bunch of rules on how we think and what we do. Knowing the rules will help you break the rules so you can move away from anxiety's control and change your anxious thoughts. 

Break the Rules to Change Anxious Thoughts

Negative thoughts come in numerous varieties. They each have unique styles and characteristics that chip away at rational thoughts and beliefs and replace them with anxious ones. These three examples of ANTs illustrate how their rules affect our anxiety.

  1. "Shoulds" and "shouldn'ts"--These thoughts dictate things we must do--people we must not try to talk to, how we are supposed to feel, and more. Worry and what-ifs are a common reaction to the rule of "should." You "should" be a better parent. You "shouldn't" go to the party because you'll make a fool of yourself.  
  2. All-or-nothing thinking--This is the rule of absolutes. Something or someone is either all good or all bad, according to this ANT. Believing that there are only two extremes, two ways of interpreting the world can cause anxiety. If you have a problem at work, the all-or-nothing rule orders you to either quit or put up with it quietly.
  3. Discounting the positive--This rule tells you that you are not to see the good in yourself or in any situation. It's the "yes-but" rule. Yes, there might be this positive thing, but there are more negatives, and they're right. Yes, you might see that your worry about your child getting in trouble at school doesn't always come true, but it usually happens and your child is on the teacher's "bad list." 

The phrase "rules are meant to be broken" exists for a reason. For your mental health and anxiety-free life, it's necessary to break the rules imposed by your automatic negative thoughts. Anxious thoughts aren't based in reality, which means you're not obligated to let them control you any longer. 

Wanting to break the rules is easier than actually breaking them. Wanting to change your anxious thoughts is easier than changing them. These anxious thoughts are deeply rooted and stubborn. They're used to being the boss of you, so it takes a consistent, methodical approach to break the rules and break free of anxiety.

There are multiple ways to break your ANTs' rules, so you can choose what makes sense and is effective for you. Try these three techniques.

  1. Identify, challenge, and change your thoughts. Get to know your thought patterns. What rules do they impose on you? Stand up to them. Challenge your anxious thoughts, debating them with evidence to the contrary. Replace the negative thoughts with new ones.
  2. Accept, commit, and do it. You don't have to fight with your thoughts. It can be effective to acknowledge them and accept that they exist (without buying into them). Make a commitment to yourself to move past anxious thoughts, and do so anyway, despite the fact that your anxious thoughts are still there for now. They don't have to be gone for you to go forward.
  3. Decline, stay present, and practice gratitude. When ANTs "invite" you to follow their rules, turn them down. You can decline to follow rules that you don't like to change your anxious thoughts. Then, use mindfulness to be fully present in your moment. Paying attention to real things in this moment helps you turn away from anxious thoughts. Also, break the rule that tells you to see what is wrong in your life by developing a gratitude practice. It's hard to pay attention to the negative when you're finding and appreciating the positive. 

Changing your anxious thoughts will help you cope with anxiety. You can break the rules of your negative thoughts in a way that works for you and enjoy freedom from controlling anxiety. 

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2019, August 8). Change Your Anxious Thoughts by Breaking the Rules, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, May 28 from

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, and Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps. She has also written five critically acclaimed, award-winning novels about life with mental health challenges. She delivers workshops for all ages and provides online and in-person mental health education for youth. She has shared information about creating a quality life on podcasts, summits, print and online interviews and articles, and at speaking events. Tanya is a Diplomate of the American Institution of Stress helping to educate others about stress and provide useful tools for handling it well in order to live a healthy and vibrant life. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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