First, two things to remember about anxiety:
- It’s ultimately subjective. Consider passengers on an airplane trip. Some are excited, happy to be in the air. Some are bored or restless. Some go to sleep. Some are quite anxious. A few may be terrified. Yet they’re all are on the same flight, risking exactly the same degree of misadventure. The same stimulus – a flight — is producing vastly different levels of fear depending on the person.
- We can learn better ways to respond to fear. In fact, we’ve already done this throughout our lives. Things that frightened us as children don’t frighten us as adults. That’s because we changed. And change doesn’t stop when he hit adulthood. We can still learn newer, better ways to handle anxiety. Fear doesn’t have to control us. We’re in control.
It helps to think of anxiety as simply a part of our body’s natural response to stress. It’s a protective response with both physiological and psychological aspects.
Our brain, perceiving what it considers danger, responds with fight or flight. Stress hormones flood the body. Breathing speeds up, digestion slows, muscles tense. It’s an immediate response, not meant to become a sustained condition.
Stress is made worse by anticipatory anxiety. Translation: we’re so afraid something bad will happen, we begin to worry long before anything real occurs. This may become the bigger problem. For instance, athletes in high pressure situations struggle with worry about whether they will succeed. The worry can distract them from the task at hand, for instance, hitting a baseball. Sports psychologists counter this by teaching them to focus not on the outcome (whether they get a hit) but on the process itself. Once focused on the mechanics of proper hitting, the chances for a hit go up.
To reduce anxiety, try the following three-step method. Practice these every day, especially when you’re feeling anxious, and pretty soon it’ll be second nature.
First, alter your breathing. This is the first step to calm – ask any yoga practitioner. Just as a runner speeds up by pumping his arms, we calm down by slowing our breathing. Here’s how it’s done:
- Find a comfortable chair. Position yourself with both feet flat on the floor, your hands turned palm down on your upper thighs.
- Close your eyes. Begin breathing as follows: Intake of breath, to a count of 3; hold, for a count of 2; exhale slowly, for a count of 9, making sure breath has been expelled completely
As you practice the above, imagine your heartbeat slowing, the muscles of your body beginning to relax. You can clench and release them periodically, if that helps. Try making a gentle humming sound deep in your throat, very soft. Practice this daily, in the morning and evening. Your body will automatically begin to learn the process. Eventually you’ll find yourself starting to relax as soon as you start the altered breathing pattern – your body will complete the sequence.
Next, learn to ‘stop’ your thoughts. This is an important and oft-neglected step. The brain responds to symbols; in this respect, a picture is more powerful than words. Visualize approaching a stop sign, and coming to a full stop. That’s a symbol that most people react to without difficulty. You want your brain to interrupt its current (negative) thought process and then move on to a better one. By the way, have you noticed that your thoughts never entirely come to a halt? You’re always thinking about something. It’s like a TV that’s always on. Even if you can’t turn it off, you can change channels. That’s our goal – to change to a better channel.
Once we’re relaxed, we want to introduce an image you associate with peace and calm. A place or a setting that calms us — a quiet day on the beach, sitting by a mountain lake, or something entirely imaginary. Look around and notice how much you enjoy this place. Imagine yourself enjoying this period of respite – a moment in which you haven’t a care. Just stay with the feeling for a while. You’ll find it refreshes you.
Finally, provide yourself with positive messages. The chatter in our heads tends to be negative. It can’t be turned off entirely, but we can learn to switch channels. We want to find one that has a more positive, reassuring message. Begin by reminding yourself that you are still in control of the most important elements of your situation. Remind yourself that the universe will not send you any problem that can’t be handled successfully. Recall challenges that you faced and overcame. Frame these message in a positive way (“I will, I can, I know, I believe…”). Now this one does take some practice, because you probably haven’t done it in a while, but believe me: your attitude will change.
An example from one student: “I will look for the best in the situation. I will remind myself that there’s another way of looking at events that feels better. Every day is another chance to get it right.”