We all suffer from anxiety from time to time and for some of us this can become chronic. You may think of yourself as someone that is pretty resilient and generally not anxious, but I bet if you took an honest look at your thoughts and feelings you would see a lot of low level anxiety hanging around, just below the surface, that you aren’t really consciously aware of.
This might only present itself as something feeling out of place that you just can’t quite put your finger on, or a feeling of being unsettled, or you could be suffering from full-blown anxiety that is crippling you emotionally and impacting your capacity to function in the world. Either way, anxiety and worry stop us enjoying life and aren’t beneficial us in any way.
If you’ve ever seen the film ‘Bridge of Spies’, Tom Hank’s character is talking to Mark Rylance’s character: a convicted KGB spy about to be returned to Russia in exchange for a captured fighter pilot. Tom says to Mark “Aren’t you worried [about the exchange]?” And Marks says “No. Would it help?”
I love that scene in the film and whenever I manage to catch myself noticing that I’ve got some anxious or worrisome thinking going on, I stop and ask myself “Is this helping?” I have never been able to answer ‘yes’ to that question. Instead I am struck by the absurdity that I feel I need to worry, especially given that 99.9% of the time our fears are about something happening (or not happening) in the future and therefore it is our thoughts that are making us worried (not a real thing).
Next time you notice yourself feeling anxious, try these three techniques to lessen the emotional charge and reset yourself in the moment.
As obvious as this sounds, our breathing is often something we are not conscious of and yet the way we breathe affects our autonomic nervous system in a big way, so consciously breathing can have a real impact in the moment.
When we are stressed and anxious, our breathing becomes shallow and we tend to breathe only in the upper part of the chest, rather than through the diaphragm (so that we can see our belly rising and falling). When we breathe deeply, there are receptors in the base of the lungs that are activated and send signals to the brain to say that we feel safe. When we consciously breathe more slowly and deeply (into the belly rather than the upper chest), say for a count of 5 seconds in and 5 seconds out, we make our heart rhythms more coherent and ordered, and the body responds by producing less adrenaline and cortisol. The heart also produces a more coherent rhythm of Heart Rate Variability or HRV (this is simply the natural speeding up and slowing down of the heart). The more coherent our HRV, the more coherent our brain waves and other bodily systems, so resetting our physiology in this way helps to quieten the mind and reduce the volume and pattern of our thoughts from anxiety to calm.
Ask yourself: Is this worry /anxiety helping?
This is a such a good way to stop yourself buying into your anxious thinking and take practical action instead. When I am worried or anxious about something I often have the sense that I need to worry, that the thing I am anxious about is worth all of my attention in the moment. But if you think about it, what benefit do you actually get from worry or anxiety? I caught myself the other day worrying about one of my children. They weren’t home and I couldn’t reach them on their cell phone. I immediately thought to myself “I need to worry about this” and could feel that familiar tightening in my gut, a slightly sick feeling and my heart rate going up. Physically I felt my whole body change and it didn’t feel good. Then I listened to what I had just thought – “I need to worry about this” and it struck me how absurd that statement was. I could see how worry would have no positive impact on the situation, all that was happening was that the anxiety was clouding my thinking and having a detrimental impact on my body, especially my gut and my heart, and loads of cortisol was being generated. I asked myself “How will worrying help here?” And I couldn’t find one single reason. In fact every time I have repeated this exercise I have never been able to find a benefit for anxiety/worry in the moment.
Once you can see that worrying won’t help it is much easier to think more clearly and see whether there is actually any practical action you can take or whether your fears are just something you need to try and let go of in that moment instead.
Expand your focus.
When we are worried and anxious we tend to narrow our thinking to focus on one thing – whatever it is we are anxious about in that moment. We obsess about the (perceived) issue and the mind frantically goes through every possible scenario as it tries to work out solutions to resolve the situation or prevent it from happening. The mind is in overdrive as it thinks of what you could do and what you do not want to happen, and yet in reality we have little or no control over how the world and other people behave! When we narrow our focus like this, we miss the bigger picture and obvious solutions or courses of action evade our consciousness and thus won’t materialise because we are blind to them – we have instead diverted all of our energy to focus on the issue instead. It’s so crazy!
So, next time you find yourself hyper focusing on a worry or issue, stop, and challenge yourself to think of 5 other possible outcomes other than the one you are worrying about. This will help quieten your racing mind and give you a bit of space to take a step back and not get sucked into the emotions.
For example, let’s say your partner hasn’t called you back one afternoon so you try calling them on their cellphone and can’t get through. You start to feel that familiar feeling of anxiety rise inside you and you keep trying. After the tenth time of ringing and texting you are starting to really worry. “What if something terrible has happened? What if they have had an accident? Who will look after the children if I have to rush to the hospital? What will I tell the kids?” And on it goes, with you visualising the scene where a police officer rings on your doorbell to tell you some fateful news. It’s actually very funny when you look at this from the outside in, but we have all been there.
So, instead, as you feel your heart rate and blood pressure going up and that familiar feeling in your stomach, think of other things that could have happened instead of the worst case scenario, e.g. they have lost their phone, their phone is in the locker at the gym and they are working out, they are in an area without any signal, their battery is dead, they are in an important meeting and their phone is on Do Not Disturb. As you can see these are all possibilities and by bringing them into your awareness you can keep your anxiety in check. From a place of clearer thinking you can more easily see any appropriate response or action to take, or whether you just need to sit things out.
Anxiety is always something that is generated from the inside out, even though it may feel like an external event is to be blame. And when you can really see that, life gets a whole lot easier, because the only thing in life you can control is you. What a relief.