In order to overcome anxiety, we first have to define it. Anxiety is categorised as a mental health disorder and the number of people suffering from anxiety is rising each year. Anxiety is also an emotional state. We often think that anxiety is all in the mind. However, anxiety is really a disorder of the nervous system (overuse of the sympathetic nervous system to be exact).
When we feel anxious, the sensations that are felt in the body, the activation of the fight, flight or freeze response, is created by your sympathetic nervous system. In order to tackle anxiety, we must retrain our nervous systems to feel calmer. In this article, you will learn 10 strategies to both overcome anxiety
Remember that anxiety is a healthy and natural response to certain situations. It is when it starts to impact on our daily lives that it becomes unhealthy. Give yourself 10 minutes now to absorb the following strategies and get your anxiety back under control
You probably haven’t heard of anchoring before and yet it is something that you do all the time. An anchor is simply an association between a state in the body (anxiety, stress, calm, happy, elated, fearful, excited, etc) and a sensory trigger from any of our 5 senses. Everything we respond to is based on associations and they can be both conscious or unconscious. When you feel anxious it’s because your brain has identified a perceived threat and told your nervous system to be prepared (fight, flight or freeze) to respond.
For example, if you become anxious around dogs, its because at some point in your life you linked a negative experience to dogs. Whenever you see a dog you become anxious without ever having to know why. Your brain has identified dogs as a threat, therefore every time a dog is seen (trigger) the brain tells the nervous system that it is a threat and to be ready (association). Rationally you may know that the dog isn’t a threat, but associations aren’t based on logic, they are based on emotions.
So, if negative anchors can create anxiety, then surely creating positive anchors can help control our state and allow us to feel calm instead. All that is needed is a desired state and a trigger.
When you begin to feel anxious, it’s safe to assume that feeling calm or relaxed would be a far more desirable state to experience. At this point it is important to note that your brain cannot tell the difference between something that has happened and something that has been vividly imagined. Therefore, you can feel anxious just thinking about an event.
Close your eyes and spend a few minutes just imagining your favourite place of relaxation. Engage all your senses and experience it as vividly as you can. It’s amazing how relaxed you can become just spending a minute or two imagining a place or a memory or even a made-up experience. Once you have done this it’s time to decide on a trigger. A trigger can be anything sensory. It could be something you see, something you hear such as a word, a smell, taste or a physical sensation.
I always teach anchoring as a physical sensation as I find it’s the easiest trigger to recreate. Squeezing together the thumb and index finger on one of your hands is a popular example of a trigger, but it could also be making a clenched first, tensing a toe, or any other physical sensation you can recreate. The important part is that it is the same trigger each time.
Now we have a trigger (pinching finger and thumb) and a state (relaxation from our favourite place) we want to associate or anchor to this trigger. The more intense the emotion, the stronger the association. T
Close your eyes and reimagine that favourite place of relaxation. As the experience begins to reach the height of its intensity, squeeze the thumb and finger together so you can feel it. As the strength beings to fade, immediately release the anchor. When we catch an emotion as it’s strongest, we get the best connection. Practice this 5 or 6 times each day for the next 7 days.
Just practicing this for 2 minutes each day can create a powerful trigger for relaxation and fully associate it into your nervous system. Then the next time you being to feel anxious, you can squeeze your thumb and finger together and the intensity of that association will trigger the calm and relaxed feelings within your body because you can’t be anxious and calm at the same time.
2. Question your beliefs
Often, those who struggle with anxiety disorders have an overwhelming amount of limiting beliefs and very few empowering ones.
Beliefs are mainly established in our childhood as we learn and experience everything for the first time. They can be learned through action or through modelling (copying a parent, relative, friend, etc). Although we can carry a lot of limiting beliefs, we often aren’t aware of what they are.
Examples of limiting beliefs:
- I can’t be the real me in case I am judged
- If I try, I might fail and let down my family and friends
- I’m too old to make a change
If you are reading this now, then either you are struggling with anxiety or are trying to help someone who is struggling. Just stop reading for 5 minutes and find something to write with, either a pen and paper or on your laptop or phone. Make a list of all the empowering and limiting beliefs you hold about yourself. When I first completed this exercise, I was astounded by the amount of limiting beliefs I held about myself. And can you guess how many empowering beliefs I identified? The answer is zero, not a single empowering belief.
But limiting beliefs can be overcome with new evidence and by changing the meaning. At one point in human history, we believed that the earth was in the middle of the solar system and the sun and planets orbited the earth. With new evidence, we now no longer hold this belief. Remember, your brain is always looking to prove you right, so if you believe you are an awful person your brain will be looking for all the reasons why that is correct. But ultimately, if you start looking for all the reason why you are a good and caring individual, your brain will find the evidence. It’s a wonderfully empowering experience.
Now that you have identified your beliefs, begin looking for alternate empowering ones to replace them. The vocabulary you use to describe yourself can have an amazing emotional impact and simply
- I can’t be the real me in case I am judged. I am who I am and not everyone is going to accept that and that is ok.
- If I try, I might fail and let down my family and friends.There is no such thing as failure. If I “fail” then I have learned a lesson and know to change my approach next time.
- I’m too old to make a change. It is never too late to make a change.
3. Breathing Techniques
Breathing techniques seem simple enough but they can be incredibly powerful for reducing anxiety in the moment. When we experience anxiety, the brain becomes concerned between the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide within the body. Therefore, when we are anxious, we tend to take quicker, shallower breaths. Taking the time to become aware of our breathing is the first step. The next step is to inform your brain that the body has the right amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
There are many different breathing techniques you can try, and it is best to try out a few and find the best fit for you. The important part to remember here is that the breaths must be deep and slow. A common example is 7-11 breathing. This is where you breathe in slowly to the count of 7 and then breathe out slowly to the count of 11. The elongated-out breath helps balance the oxygen levels quicker than having both inhalation and exhalation the same rate. If you find this is too difficult then try breathing out through your mouth. There is more control when breathing out through the mouth.
Another example is box breathing. This involves breathing into the count of 4, holding it for another 4, breathing out to the count of 4 and then holding for another count of 4. Imagine drawing each side of a box with each component part.
Ultimately it is important to persist. Breathing techniques won’t cause an instant change, but if you persist, after around 4 minutes you will notice a marked change in your state and begin to feel more in control.
Note: If you are experiencing a panic attack, then the opposite issue is happening. Breathing as described above will not help. Holding your breath for 15-30 seconds helps to calm a panic attack.
Another simple technique but incredibly effective. When we become anxious, we almost lose sight of the external world and become very internally focused. This is understandable as we may be having thoughts, dealing with bodily sensations or scanning wildly for the meaning behind the cause of the anxiety.
Grounding is a technique that brings us back into the external world and back into the moment because ultimately the only moment we ever experience is this exact moment we are in now.
Grounding is about engaging all our senses in order to bring us back into the moment. Like breathing techniques, grounding has many different variations you can try. The best variation I have found is the 5-4-3-2-1 technique.
This goes as follows:
- Name 5 things you can see right now. Depending on where you are this could be anything but as you identify each item say its name out loud (or out loud in your mind) and then identify the next item.
- Name 4 things you can feel. Become aware of where your body is right now. As I sit writing this, I am aware of 1) my back resting against the chair, 2) my left foot placed on the ground and my right foot resting on top of it, 3) my elbows and forearms resting on the table and 4) the sensations of my fingers pressing each key
- Name 3 things you can hear. You can only focus on between 5 and 9 things at any one time. When you begin to pay more attention in one sense, you notice more. If you were to close your eyes now and turn off your vision, you would free up more space to hear and ultimately hear more of the noises that have been going on outside of your awareness.
- Name 2 things you can smell. Now there may not be two things you can smell but just by paying some attention to your sense of smell, you may be surprised by just how many smells there are to experience.
- Name 1 thing you can taste. Just become aware of your mouth and tongue. Can you experience any tastes? If not, how is your tongue resting in your mouth? Just spend a moment being aware.
- Finally, if you haven’t begun to feel calmer start at step 1 again and name another 5 things you can see. Repetition and time are the key factors here but if you persist you will be rewarded.
This one may not always be possible but if it is it’s a great one to do. When we feel anxious, adrenaline and cortisol are released into our bloodstream. Instead of trying to fight against these chemicals, it is far better to make use of them.
Now you don’t need to go down to the gym for an hour every time this happens, a brisk walk or any type of physical exertions will make use of these chemicals. As you engage in an activity, the body will use up the chemicals and then naturally return to a state of calm.
6. Mindfulness/Self Hypnosis
Like grounding, mindfulness is all about being in the moment. Often it is on focusing on the breath and allowing thoughts to just come and go without judgement. Simply sitting somewhere comfortable, closing your eyes and focusing on your breath helps to return control to the parasympathetic nervous system which instils a calmness in your body (the exact opposite of the fight, flight or freeze response created by the sympathetic nervous system).
Self-hypnosis isn’t a million miles away from mindfulness as both are based around relaxation and focusing the attention. Where mindfulness focuses on the now, self-hypnosis can focus on what is to come.
The simple act of becoming relaxed and focused takes you into a “trance” state whereby you become more open and receptive to new ideas. By utilising positive suggestions on how you would prefer to feel, either now or when dealing with situations in the future, the unconscious mind becomes more open to these suggestions and moves away from its pre-programmed methods in favour of some more empowering alternatives. Visualisations both in and out of hypnosis help train the mind on how to respond to any given situation in the future.
Remember, the brain cannot tell the difference between something that has happened and something that has been vividly imagined.
Simply by mentally rehearsing how you would like to respond to a given situation primes the brain to respond in that way. Positive mental rehearsal is gaining momentum in several mediums including sport and is a simple yet effective way to condition yourself to feel calmer.
You can further enhance relaxation here by completing a progressive muscle relaxation when you begin. Starting either with the feet or the top of your head, work your way through your body, through every muscle allowing each muscle to relax. Some people like to tense each muscle group for a few seconds before releasing them in order to aid the relaxation. Others find that just giving a muscle group some attention allows them to relax. There is no right or wrong, find what is right for you. Progressive muscle relaxations can be done whether you intend to practice mindfulness or self-hypnosis or not.
If you are looking at hypnotherapy to help overcome anxiety, then please take a look at our anxiety hypnosis page. If you would like to listen to a free calming anxiety hypnosis then please click here.
7. Write it down
How often do the same thoughts go around in your head when you feel anxious? Have you ever noticed that it’s the same old thoughts, the same old limiting beliefs that keep popping up? Our brains can only process information in small chunks which means that we can only consciously focus and process 5 to 9 pieces of information at any one time.
Writing down your thoughts does several things. Firstly, it gets it out of your head freeing up some space and allowing you to think more rationally. Secondly, it puts it out there in front of you where you can then begin to look at it objectively. When you start to look at it objectively, you realise that these negative thoughts are very generalised. As you begin to pick them apart and dig for the deeper meaning, you eliminate the emotion that goes with it and find the true reasons on why that particular thought keeps coming to mind. It’s important when picking apart your thoughts not to ask why questions? Why questions lead to a justification answer. We don’t want to justify a thought, we want to break it down so that it no longer has any emotional power.
Asking How and What questions helps to find the deeper meaning. How is this thought negatively effecting you? What could it mean instead? If the thought were to come true, what exactly does it mean for you?
If you identify vocabulary in your thoughts that say you MUST, SHOULD, CAN’T, etc question the vocabulary. “I must be perfect 100% of the time”, well what happens if you aren’t? How does being perfect 100% of the time benefit your life?
Changing your vocabulary with should and must is important too. Ultimately, one of the most powerful methods we have of communicating to ourselves is through language. Stop and look at the vocabulary you use to describe yourself. Would you treat a friend or loved one the same way? Change “should” and “must” into “prefer”. This simple language change can help to reduce anxiety naturally.
8. Direct your own thoughts
We never react to reality, just our perceptions of reality.
What happens in the outside world doesn’t determine what happens in our internal world and what goes on in our internal world belongs solely to us. You have thoughts, we all do but they are personal to us. A lot of our thoughts are based on our beliefs and values. This is why two people can experience the exact same situation and take completely different meanings from it.
For example, two people go for a job interview. Both have the exact same interview and neither get the job. The first person believes that they are worthless, never going to get anywhere in life and that ultimately, they shouldn’t bother because what’s the point. The second person sees it as an opportunity. They didn’t get the job, but they know that only one person can get it and ultimately it wasn’t them on that day. They look at what they can do to improve next time and move on.
When we feel anxious, it can be because we are reflecting on perceived failures in the past or perceiving what will go wrong in the future. Perceived is the key word here. What goes on inside your mind is entirely up to you. Think of yourself as a director. How you generate thoughts will be personal to you. It may be that you see images and imagine visually, you may talk to yourself or imagine audibly, or you may have feelings and notice sensations.
The important thing to remember here is that these are just thoughts. In NLP our senses are called modalities and ultimately, we have
Imagine something that makes you feel anxious now. Notice how you are imagining it. Now as the director of your thoughts, you can change it to make yourself feel calmer again. Don’t like a character in your thoughts? Change them! Don’t like the voice you can hear? Change it! It’s often best to make these changes as ridiculous as possible. For example: It’s the difference between imagining standing on a stage and everyone booing you for a poor presentation and standing on a stage giving a presentation in front of a crowd of tiny well-dressed elephants (Top hats and monocles are mandatory here)! Obviously, you can’t experience the same anxiety in the second image as you might in the first.
You are the director, you are in charge. Now isn’t that an empowering thought!
9. Schedule a worry place
Picking a certain location to do all your worrying in anchors worrying to that location. By having a specific location to do your worrying, you learn to feel calm everywhere else.
For example, pick a chair in your house where you can do all your worrying. When you begin to feel anxious, worried, stressed, etc you must go to this location to experience it and get it out. Once you have done then you can go about the rest of your house feeling calm and relaxed. By having a single location for dealing with these thoughts, you don’t make your whole house a place to experience anxiety. As our homes are our safe places, having a place where we can feel calm and relaxed is important. If you go home and you have anchored feeling anxious to the whole house, then ultimately it will not be a calming place for you. Picking one location eliminates this issue.
Again, persistence is key with this. It won’t happen overnight but very quickly you will notice changes in yourself and your environment. Very soon it will be an unconscious habit whereby if you feel worried or anxious, you will automatically take yourself to your worry place. When it passes you will automatically go back to feeling calm and in control.
10. Identify Triggers
As we have already established, feelings of anxiety are 1) in the nervous system and 2) triggered by our senses. Although you can only consciously focus on between 5 and 9 things, unconsciously you can focus on millions and your brain is always scanning for threats. Learning to identify your triggers can be an effective strategy. Obviously, this may not be the best strategy to utilise when you are feeling anxious, but rather when you are reflecting in order to help identify what triggers your anxiety. This allows you to pre-plan and put in measure to tackle these triggers in the future.
Anxiety can be triggered by several pathways, but that is another topic to be explored in more detail at another time. All you need to know here is that anxiety can either be either cortex driven (thoughts, logic, perceptions) or amygdala driven (emotions).
If the anxiety is cortex driven, then you can identify the trigger and deal with it by thinking about it rationally when you feel calmer. Writing down these triggers and exploring their deeper meaning helps here.
If it is amygdala driven, then it is an emotional trigger. You may not be able to identify what the trigger is with this sort of anxiety. This is because an emotional memory lasts longer in the brain that an actual memory. So, you may be anxious and have absolutely no idea why. If you find yourself in this situation, don’t try to find a reason. Accept that you can’t as searching can only make it worse. In amygdala-based anxiety we need to teach the nervous system that there is no threat. Utilising breathing, grounding, anchoring are great tools to overcome this type of anxiety and condition you to feel calmer when faced with it in the future.
IMPORTANT: Do something!
Anxiety is often called the fight or flight response. This isn’t entirely accurate as there is another response which has been identified several times through this article. It is of course the Freeze response. A lot of those struggling with anxiety just freeze and have conditioned themselves to freeze whenever they feel anxious. This can be incredibly debilitating, even more so that feeling anxious. It can often lead to a downward spiral and into feelings of despair and depression. If you find that you often freeze in response to anxiety, know that you aren’t doomed to feel like this forever.
When you find yourself freezing the best thing to do is something! Anything! It doesn’t really matter what but by responding in some way you begin to train the nervous system to get moving again. If you continue to do anything, then very soon the freeze response will begin to fade. Call a friend, go for a walk, listen to some music, read a book, engage in a hobby. By doing something, the pathways in the brain wired to freeze don’t get activated.
If you are struggling with anxiety just know that you are incredibly brave. Anxiety can be an incredibly debilitating issue, but it CAN be overcome. I have provided a range of tools and strategies here in the hopes that at least one may be useful to you.
Be flexible, if something doesn’t work for you simply move onto something else. There is always an answer, it is just about finding the right one for you.