Thoughts about Thinking: How to Worry Less by Developing ‘Metacognitive Awareness’

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    Worried thoughts become like a sticky film that wrap themselves around our personal identity. We become the thoughts.

-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark 

Have you ever told yourself that it’s a good thing that you worry so much or else everything in your life would fall apart? Or maybe you believe that once you start worrying, there’s no way you can stop yourself?

These kinds of beliefs are referred to as ‘metacognitions,’ which are thoughts about our own patterns of thinking.  

Studies have now shown that dysfunctional beliefs about our thinking (e.g., I can’t ignore my anxious thoughts) are associated with a number of negative outcomes, including poor concentration and less emotional wellbeing. And talk therapies that target these metacognitions have been found to be superior to those that focus solely on challenging the content of specific thoughts (e.g., scrutinizing a pervasive negative belief like ‘I’m no good’).

There are 5 different types of unhelpful beliefs people are prone to have about their own thinking:

  • Beliefs that thoughts are uncontrollable and dangerous. Examples: I can’t ignore my worried thoughts; Worrying could make me go crazy.
  • Positive beliefs about worry. Examples: Worrying is a helpful coping strategy; I need to worry to perform at my best.
  • Lack of confidence in one’s thinking. Examples: My memory can mislead me; I can’t trust that I’ll remember what I’m supposed to do.
  • Self-consciousness about thinking. Examples: I have to constantly examine my thoughts; It’s important to always monitor my thinking.
  • Need to control thoughts. Examples: I’ll pay later for not controlling certain thoughts;  It’s bad to have certain thoughts.

So, what can you do if you notice yourself having a lot of these kinds of thoughts about your thinking? Instead of focusing on all the negative and anxious thoughts you’re having, which in some ways can serve to make them more important in your life, metacognitive therapy takes a step back and works on creating some distance between you and your thinking.

From this perspective, problems arise when people become too fused with their ruminations. Worried thoughts become like a sticky film that wrap themselves around our personal identity. We become the thoughts.  

In reality, however, our identity encompasses far more than the scripts that run through our head, which are often a byproduct of our personal histories (e.g., messages repeated throughout childhood) and evolutionary past (e.g., the pull of the brain to hone in on perceived threats).

And we have the power to shift our focus and detach from the tired scripts that play in our head.

Metacognitive awareness means being more attuned to the way you’re thinking. It involves cultivating a healthy skepticism for beliefs that maintain worry (e.g., worrying protects me from danger) and developing an ability to mindfully watch your thoughts without completely attaching yourself to them. You can try it yourself using our Mindfulness Meditation Audio Guide for Beginners.

 TRY FOR YOURSELF: Mindfulness Meditation Audio Guide for Beginners

When you notice worried or negative thoughts pop up during the meditation exercise, avoid the temptation to react strongly to them. Just notice them for a moment and appreciate that there’s a larger ‘I’ that can sit back and watch the mind as it bounces around from here to there.

As best you can, simply step back and observe these thoughts as they pass by like leaves rolling down a quiet stream. And when you become aware of one of them, resist the urge to make a lot of judgements about it (e.g., by beating yourself up for having yet another worried thought). Simply redirect your focus back to the breath and repeat the process for as many times as necessary.

Good luck! And if you give it a try, let us know how it goes in the comments below.


Further Reading:
















Kraft, B., Jonassen, R., Stiles, T. C., & Landrø, N. I. (2017). Dysfunctional metacognitive beliefs are associated with decreased executive control. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 593.

Normann, N., Emmerik, A. A., & Morina, N. (2014). The efficacy of metacognitive therapy for anxiety and depression: A meta‐analytic review. Depression and Anxiety, 31, 402-411.

Wells, A. (2005). Detached mindfulness in cognitive therapy: A metacognitive analysis and ten techniques. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 23, 337-355.

Wells, A. (2007). Cognition about cognition: Metacognitive therapy and change in generalized anxiety disorder and social phobia. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 14, 18-25.

Wells, A., & Cartwright-Hatton, S. (2004). A short form of the metacognitions questionnaire: properties of the MCQ-30. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 42, 385-396.


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