Effective Anxiety Management: Six Essential Tips to Regain ControlAug 17, 2023
This audio offers a walkthrough of the final step in the article: The AWARE Technique.
Anxiety can feel isolating, but help is available. This carefully crafted guide offers grounded, practical strategies to help you understand and manage stress. Dive into this thoughtful approach and take a reassuring step towards a calm and confident life.
Six Steps to Regain Control from Anxiety
If you suffer episodes of intense anxiety, you'll know how distressing they can be. A bout of anxiety might come on suddenly, strike anywhere - and often, it happens at inappropriate and unhelpful times.
If anxiety arises in private, there's a degree of comfort in knowing you can manage it discreetly.
But when anxiety creeps up on you in a public space - this can be startling.
Perhaps in a queue at the supermarket, mid-flow with your boss at work, or when expecting to talk in a group conversation.
If this happens, you're faced with managing two demands at once: the troubling peak of heightened worry – this is your internal state; plus an expectation to hold it together and appear normal (or face potential embarrassment and humiliation) – this is the external situation.
When confronted with these unnerving scenarios, a desire to get away is easy to understand. Escape or avoidance seems the quickest route to relief.
However, a swift exit is rarely the right approach for your longer-term anxiety management.
If you do run, your brain will tag any future similar situation as a potential threat. As a result, you'll be primed to experience even higher anxiety the next time you find yourself in the same circumstances.
Instead, it's best to have one or two simple, trusty anxiety coping strategies to help you stay calm, put, and in the moment.
The last thing you need in an anxiety-inducing situation is to be half-remembering and flapping your way through complex calming techniques - that's if you remember any at all. This will only increase your sense of powerlessness.
To remedy this, this blog post will equip you with six straightforward and practical techniques to manage anxiety and remain present during challenging situations.
Here are the practical steps we'll cover:
- Give anxiety a form
- Go towards the anxiety
- Breathe through the anxiety
- Step aside from anxiety
- Move with anxiety
- Stay present and aware
Tip #1 - Characterise the Anxiety
Anxiety attacks are not an innate part of who you are. Despite the experience, you are not your anxiety.
Like everyone born, you were designed to be active and curious, not listless and fearful.
At some point, anxiety - an unwanted visitor - turned up and started making unwelcome announcements - many of which were inaccurate or just plain wrong.
Research demonstrates that putting feelings into words reduces the symptoms of anxiety. As human beings, we need to air and express our emotions - to shoot them out there rather than bury them in here.
Putting experience into words can dilute the experience of anxious thoughts. This is because we have to use the left prefrontal lobe of the brain to transfer feelings into words.
Because anxiety is an emotion expressed through the brain's right hemisphere, this activation of the left hemisphere can reduce the experience of anxiety.
To put this technique into practice, you might carry a notebook with you.
When anxious feelings arise, use the notebook to detail how you feel. Interestingly, the more extreme the words people use to describe their experience, the more this dilutes the anxiety experience.
Tip #2 - Give Anxiety A Form
Some people also find it helpful to give their anxiety a form, a name, or both. For instance, the pressure might take the form of a pesky insect levelling for a swat or an annoying jack-in-the-box waiting for you to apply a firm lid.
Some people settle for a black cloud that needs blowing away or a bad smell that needs overpowering with a good one.
Whatever you choose, make it something easy to visualise.
Come up with an image or sensation that you can turn off, replace, disable or stop in its tracks. Practise using this replacement when the anxious feelings emerge.
A man I met named his anxiety Shaky Pete. Describing him (the anxiety) as an uninvited guest propping up next to him in a bar, he'd say, 'Oh, here comes Shaky Pete again - wobbling his way in without an invite'. He would then visualise giving Pete a sharp elbow off his stool! Not subtle, but it worked for him.
Yet, to show ourselves that there's nothing to fear, we need to move to Tip 2 ...
Tip #2 - Go Toward the Anxiety
Imagine you are waiting at a bus stop. You feel somewhat anxious, but it's more of a nuisance than actively distressing.
The bus pulls in, and you step on. The first thing you notice is how crowded it is. You take an inside seat, and someone quickly sits next to you. You start to feel trapped in a closed and busy space.
Gradually, then suddenly, the anxiety shifts gear, and you start feeling panicky.
Without a second thought, you stand up and quickly leave at the next stop. Stepping off the bus and into the air, you feel slightly disorientated, yet also experience a sharp sense of relief to have recovered from the situation.
But how will you feel about getting on that next bus?
Here arises a potential problem. Nature has primed us to avoid danger. If anxious, our first response is to seek out safety.
But in our modern world, what we avoid will start to feel threatening - even if it's not.
In our crowded bus example, escaping the scene does two things. It:
- Tags the bus as a threat to be avoided
- Reinforces escape as an appropriate response
So, while a swift departure from the bus may lower the immediate anxiety arousal, your future anxiety will likely climb higher - even at the thought of catching the next number 73!
Had you stayed on the bus and managed to bring yourself back down, you would have realised that nothing would happen (apart from the mental discomfort).
Once you had regained your composure, the fear instinct would have had no cause to tag the bus as a potential threat.
If you stay in a situation rather than running away, the fear response will eventually turn off.
Here, you train your instincts in part by how you behave. Run away, and the fear dials up; stay, and the fear will eventually dial down.
If you start panicking, you can reach for this next tip ...
Tip# 3 - Breathe Through the Anxiety
Hyperventilating can produce symptoms of panic, so breathing is one of the first responses you can focus on and learn to control.
When you inhale, you take in oxygen to your lungs, and the blood's haemoglobin carries oxygen to the tissues throughout your body. Oxygen is a very sticky molecule, and without the aid of a gas called carbon dioxide, it cannot be detached from the red blood cells and transferred to the tissues.
Suppose you breathe in excess oxygen through shallow breathing. In that case, the excess is quickly exhaled along with any available carbon dioxide, but before the carbon dioxide has had the chance to do its job of helping make oxygen available to the tissues.
This produces the startling sensation of being oxygen-starved and leads a person to gulp in even more air, whereas the urgent need is not to breathe in more but to restore balanced carbon dioxide levels.
About 30 per cent of people who panic chronically hyperventilate - taking 18 or more breaths per minute.
When we breathe in, we activate the sympathetic nervous system – the part that involves fight or flight, stimulated by heavy exercise and emotional or sexual arousal. When we breathe out, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes and calms us.
You might not know these physiological details, but you can properly understand their importance if you learn to employ a 3/5 breathing technique in anxious situations. This is a breathing exercise in which you breathe in for a count of three seconds and then out for a count of five seconds. (We practise this in the supported audio available with Tip 6: weblink on page one).
As a method to help you gain/regain composure, bringing attention to your breath acts as both a distraction and a helpful reminder that you aren't in any real danger - because who counts their breath in real-life danger situations?
Practising this breathing will help you calm down and make the next tip, stepping aside from anxiety, easier to practice.
Tip# 4 - Step Aside From the Anxiety
High anxiety can feel all-consuming - it's as if we are the anxiety. In essence, this is because fear is a state of high emotion. It's all-enveloping. Here, opening up some space and separating yourself from the immediate experience can be helpful.
To step aside from anxiety, you can grade it on a scale from 0 to 10, 0 being no anxiety at all (rare for most of us) and ten being all-out, bowel-loosening terror.
Reframing the experience from a feeling to a number is also helpful because using a number quantifies and imposes limits on anxiety.
This also forces us to use the cognitive rather than emotional part of the brain.
You might say something like, 'This is a four at the moment. It's a four and not a six because I had a dry mouth when it was a six. It's not so bad this time.'
As you continue to grade, simply watch the anxiety as if from a distance.
Have in mind a number you would be happy to reach. Then, using the previous tip (3-5 breathing), focus on breathing your way down to that number.
Now that we've named, faced, and put a limit on our anxiety, let's take a look at moving with it.
Tip# 5 - Move with the Anxiety
High levels of physical activity tend to lower anxiety generally.
Once, I met a young woman who panicked about going on the underground. For our meeting, I proposed a different approach. Knowing that an underground station was not too far away, I suggested we go for a run (not the typical counselling session, I know).
Anyway, running shoes on, we set off at quite a pace (for us). Little did she know we were heading for the underground station.
As we approached, I ran down the stairs, and thankfully, she followed behind.
As luck would have it, a train was just about to depart. I said, 'Come on - shall we try it?' Without a moment to catch a breath for further discussion, we jumped on, and the train started moving away.
We caught our breath between stations before jumping off at the next platform.
I asked her how it had been. To her surprise, she explained she had been so tired out she hadn't had the energy to waste on panic! This was her first ride on the underground in nearly three years.
So why did this work?
When highly anxious, the body's fight-or-flight response - the choice available to us in the face of a threat - is activated. This system is triggered by the release of hormones that prepare your body to either stand your ground and deal with a threat or to run away to safety.
If we engage in vigorous exercise, as far as our instincts know, we have gone into the fight-or-flight response, and because we are alive at the end of it, we have survived the danger.
In other words, pre-empting any perceived danger makes it much harder for panic to arise.
Now, we can train ourselves to become more AWARE by combining some of the earlier ideas.
Tip# 6 - Stay AWARE of Anxiety
This last tip is beneficial when you want to remain in a situation. For instance, social gatherings, a queue at the supermarket or other situations when, frankly, it would be a pain to leave.
You can use the AWARE method to stay present, keep your head and manage the ride. When you do this, you'll have much to be proud of. This method involves re-conditioning your fear response.
The five steps to AWARE are:
- Acknowledge & Accept
- Wait & Watch
- Act Normally
- Repeat the steps
- Expect the best
Step. 1 - Acknowledge & Accept
The first step is to recognise the anxiety and accept that it's there. As you feel the anxiety creep in, don't fight. Decide to be with it. Scan your body and see how you feel. Then, tell yourself about it as it is. Do not ignore or run away from it.
Step. 2 - Wait & Watch
Continue by focusing on your breath (see Tip 3). Instead of running away to find temporary relief, let the relief come to you.
Observe the anxiety without judging it to be good or bad. Be detached from it. Move into your 'observing self' and study it. Rate the pressure from 1-10, noticing when it goes up and goes down (Tip 4). Remember, you are not your anxiety. Be in the anxiety state but don't belong to it.
Step. 3 - Act Normally
Instead, carry on behaving normally and do what you intended to do. Breathe calmly and stay in the situation if at all possible. If you run from the situation, your anxiety will decrease, but your future anxiety will increase. By remaining present, you show your fear instinct that it doesn't need to tag the situation as threatening.
Step. 4 - Repeat
Nice and easy. Repeat the first three steps again - accepting, watching and acting normally - all the while focusing on your 3-5 breathing.
Step. 5 - Expect the best
Taking the prior steps means taming and controlling your fear instinct. With practice, this method can help you to calm down - quickly and discreetly.
Most likely, you have achieved things in life of which you are proud. Imagine a successful outcome from trying to master anxiety attacks and take pride in what you are on the verge of achieving.
Visualise the best possible outcome if you stay present and perform to the best of your ability, free of any limitations imposed by a bout of anxiety you can control and banish.
A Final Thought
I'd recommend having a practice with these tips when you feel calm. These tools will be reassuring as they become familiar and easy to implement.
Perhaps you will find one technique more helpful than the others. Yet all of these methods involve getting to know anxiety from different perspectives, so it helps to be at least aware of each.
Once you know what works for you, it's essential to persist with these techniques rather than becoming quickly discouraged if you can only succeed some of the time.
Next Step: Find out how I can help.
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