Anxiety and depression: how to manage obsessive thoughts and feelings

We can learn to manage our feelings by developing awareness, acceptance, self-compassion and the ability to reframe our context. Photo by Brock Wegner on Unsplash

When we are anxious or depressed, our minds are more vulnerable.  Part of that vulnerability is a reduced ability to stop ourselves ‘going there’ – exposing ourselves to obsessive thoughts that may not be good for us.


The pattern of these obsessive thoughts may have an origin in childhood.  For instance, if we lost a parent when young, then in adulthood we may return to a sense of abandonment when life risks mirroring those circumstances.  Even if life isn’t directly threatening us, we can start to feel vulnerable.   An invisible internal narrative is at work, saying to us ‘I’m going to be abandoned again’.  At such times, we can give those close to us a hard time.

Viewed from the angle of survival, there is a logic to all this.  The young self was hurt, and so the older self is making damn sure that hurt can’t repeat itself.  In a way, it is the young self stepping in, and trying to take over the older self’s life.

It’s very kind of the young self to do this.  But, unfortunately, there are side-effects to this over-helpfulness, and this hyper-vigilance to risk.  We can feel taken over by a very suspicious and paranoid self that we don’t recognise.  That young self was very hurt, and its negative narratives can invade our lives.

Equally, our human evolution means we inherit hyper-vigilance.   Our ancestors survived by being reactive and thinking the worst, which requires a good alarm system.  Anxiety is the residue of that alarm system.  When we are over-anxious, it means that our old ‘animal brain’ is trying to protect us, but is doing it clumsily.


When hypervigilant, we can start to sense a negative inner narrative that goes something like these statements:

  • my relationship/job/health/financial situation is going to go wrong
  • something bad is going to happen
  • that person is secretly disliking me
  • they’re going to leave me/be mean to me


On the one hand, we want to do something to correct the imagined situation.  So we check constantly, ask for reassurance constantly.  We read and re-read messages sent to us, examining them meticulously for meanings, trying to interpret whether we are loved reliably.  We may even badger loved ones with requests for reassurance, asking them to confirm (for the thousandth time) that they feel positively towards us.  We become good at disguising our neediness, and others may never guess how we feel.


On the other hand, despite all this checking and thinking, we feel powerless to correct the imagined situation.  After all, we couldn’t stop the abandonment before, so why should we be able to stop it now?

This combination of obsessive concern, and felt helplessness, can feel very toxic.  We know that we are probably being paranoid, but equally the distrust of others, and the constant watchfulness, feel very real.  We wish that we could switch it all off, and stop being so hypervigilant.  But we can’t.


How can we begin to get a handle on this kind of obsessive thinking, which is often rooted in an earlier experience or trauma, and therefore easily triggered under certain circumstances?  Solutions are often deeply personal, and can be worked our in collaboration with a good counsellor.  But here are a few suggestions for making a start.


Many people find it easier to get busy, than to dwell on things.  This is why I am suggesting external action first.

  1. Distracting activities.  The easiest way to try to cancel obsessive thinking is to get involved in an easy activity that provides a distraction.  This can include being in others’ company (cafes, publics spaces), or being on one’s own (social media, housework, TV, radio).
  2. Focused activities.  If we are willing to get out of our comfort zone, we can increase the level of focus and depth of the activity (group events, targeted exercise, a personalised hobby, home improvement).
  3. Selfish activities.  One of my favourite things to work with clients on, is finding activities which they genuinely enjoy.  It needs experimentation, but we can discover new activities which we didn’t realise we enjoyed, and then steal time for them.
  4. Altruistic activities.  As humans, we are social beings, and a surprising amount of our fulfilment is around collaborating with and helping others.  Happiness research backs this up, and it is well worth getting involved in caring for other people to maximise distraction from our own obsessions.


The above activities engage our attention on something that is intentional, and therefore within our conscious control.  This means that we can rediscover a sense of agency, and feel less helpless.  The relative predictability of such activities also means that we get a rest from the constant speculation that haunts us when we are left to our own devices.


The problem with external work, and getting busy, is that it doesn’t really get to the root of our discomfort.  With external work, we are trying to cure our sore feet by building expensive paths.  It is easier to put on a pair of good shoes to walk with.    For those who want to work internally, the following mindful process can be helpful when dealing with emotions.  It is a process which slows emotional arousal down, and brings it back within our control.


Any time we have a few seconds, we can repeat the following steps.

  1. Noticing an emotion.  In step one, I complete the sentence ‘I am feeling…’  choose a word – angry, sad, happy, comfortable, uncomfortable, fearful, or something else.  I try to be truthful, even if the feeling is not one which I like to admit to myself.
  2. Accepting emotions.  In step two, I ask myself, ‘do I accept my anger, sadness, etc?’  I then relax, and welcome the emotion, instead of fighting it. This often provides a sense of relief.
  3. Self-compassion.  In step three, I complete the sentence ‘my anger, sadness, etc is understandable, because…’  I then offer at least one reason why it’s understandable to feel the way I am feeling.  I don’t try to judge, I just try to understand.
  4. Positive reframing.  In step four, I offer myself a narrative that puts the situation in a positive context.  For instance, I might describe myself as on a journey, and the situation is an understandable passing phase.

This four-step process might initially take a few minutes, but eventually it can become second nature, and take only a few seconds. The trick is to develop fluidity and familiarity, as though we were learning to play a piano piece.


Normally, humans just have their emotions, and don’t really reflect on them.  When we are angry, we hit out; when sad, we go quiet.  This means that we are slaves to our emotions, acting on them without control, and not really consciously involved in the process.  It’s an automatic thing, very reactive and animalistic.

The four-step process teaches us to manage our emotions instead of being their victim.  We are copying the process that a good parent undertakes when comforting a child.  First we create an awareness of what is felt; then we accept the feelings; then we show we understand them; and finally we offer a positive context to make life more liveable.

Imagine a parent who is blind to what their child is feeling, rejects displays of emotion when they are offered, fails to understand what causes their child’s emotions, and constantly offers negative narratives.  The child remembers all this, and grows up treating themselves the same way – unable to watch, accept, explain or positively contextualise their own emotions.  In this way, depression, a profound failure of empathy, can be passed from generation to generation.

Working on our own emotions can reverse this unhealthy chain of bad relationships.  When we learn to catch and master our own emotions with compassion, we can then relate more compassionately and positively with other people.  What used to be a chain of neglect and animosity, becomes an environment of positive attention and kindness.


For those who want to go further, there are two long-established practices that help individuals to develop themselves and their emotional life.


Firstly, meditation is the art of being able to sit in awareness and acceptance, which are the first two of the four steps to managing emotions.

A regular meditation practice will be difficult at first, because our emotions run our lives, dominating our moods, and telling our thoughts where to go.  It’s common for beginners to have trouble sitting for more than a few seconds without getting distracted onto the usual obsessive thoughts and concerns.

But, eventually, regular meditation practice keeps us peaceful and compassionate, because we have the capacity to manage our reactions to events.  We used to be like a car without suspension, feeling every bump in the road.  But meditation can help us become like a car with good suspension, more balanced and comfortable.


Counselling and therapy usually involve talking, and are therefore a more active and relational way to achieve a good reflective process.  Normally, a client speaks with a counsellor regularly, and the interaction facilitates a better process of awareness, acceptance, understanding and positive framing.

If counselling works well, the four-stage process can be internalised by the client, who then becomes able to live life in better control of their emotions, loving and understanding themselves more, and feeling freer from negative emotions.  Anxious clients can become less anxious.  Depressed clients can become less depressed.  Both can develop a greater sense of personal agency and peace.