Judith Belmont, Mental Health and Self-Help Author, Speaker and Skype/phone Mental Health Coach/Consultant
We all experience anxiety and stress, and that’s a good thing. If we didn’t, we would not be human and would be unable to protect ourselves and our loved ones from danger.
For example, imagine that while driving you notice another car speeding, looking like it was going to run a stoplight. If you get anxious and experience a “flight or flight” reaction of what could happen, you will react quickly by stepping on the brake and might very well avoid an accident!
Although the above example shows that anxiety can be a friend in times of danger, often anxiety is maladaptive when it goes on overdrive long after the threat of danger is over. Some people cannot get themselves back to a calmer baseline as anxiety remains high – even though there is no longer any objective threat.
Anxiety on overdrive can make us actually feel sick, can cause us to hyperventilate, our hearts to race, while disturbing our concentration and our sleep and even can cause panic attacks.
Most often anxiety results from not actual threats, but our exaggerated fears of what might happen. When we are overly anxious, danger lurks in our minds and not from the outside.
“It would be awful if I goof up” “If I lose this job I might never get another job.” “If she leaves me, I couldn’t handle it.” “If I say something stupid in the meeting, people will think I’m stupid.” “It would be terrible if I make a mistake.” “I’m nervous that he’ll get angry at me.” “I can’t mess this up.”
Fears are usually more specific and realistic, while anxiety results more from our exaggerated thinking. Exaggerated thoughts of possible rejection, humiliation and failure lead to low self-esteem and extreme stress.
Getting caught up in “what ifs” rob us of a sense of self-empowerment and make us feel at the mercy of people and situations. No wonder why anxiety on overdrive leads to the development of anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder.
How about you? Do you find your self-talk increases your anxiety more than it calms you down? Do you worry about things that are not really in your control, no matter how much you try?
The following are some ways to calm yourself when you find your anxiety is on overdrive.
1. Use deep calming breaths
Deep breathing is one of the most immediate steps you can take to calm anxiety.
When we are anxious, we tend to tense up, leading to rapid and shallow breathing. Using deep calming breaths can help us immediately calm down our physiological response to our racing thoughts. Deep breathing involves diaphragmatic breathing.
Breathe slowly though your nose and release your breaths slowly through your mouth. Consciously extend your abdomen while taking deep breaths instead of taking shallow chest breaths.
How can you tell if you are breathing deeply? Put one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest – when you breath in, the hand on your stomach should be moving up and down while the hand on the chest stays relatively still.
To help concentrate on your breathing, imagine a color as you breathe in and out.
Count slowly either forwards or backwards for up to the count of 10 as you breath in and as you release your breath.
Use a mantra you repeat on each breath, such as the word RELAX or CALM.
2. Identify distorted thinking
Most of our anxiety arises from our panicky thoughts that exaggerate danger, basically lying to us that awful things could very well happen.
When we believe our distortions, we cannot separate fact from fiction. Only by changing your thoughts can you change your feelings and quell excessive anxiety.
It is hard to “calm down” when your thinking is out of control! These are some things that might help you take charge of your thoughts:
Identify cognitive distortions. These are unhealthy thought habits that cause emotional distress.
Types of Distortions include:
- All-or-nothing thinking, over-catastrophized thinking –“I can’t stand it “
- Fortune telling – “I’ll never get over this!”
- Mind reading –“He’s must hate me!”
- Labeling – “I’m a loser.”
- Shoulding – “I shouldn’t be so sensitive “
The Triple Column Technique introduced by Cognitive Behavor Therapy author Dr. David Burns in his book, The New Mood Therapy, uses cognitive distortions to help change distorted thinking to healthier thinking.
Using this technique, make up three columns on paper or on your computer:
In the first column, write your anxiety-provoking thoughts, such as, “I’ll be alone the rest of my life.”
In the second column, write the type of distortion. In this example, it would be all-or-nothing thinking and fortune telling.
In the third column, write a more rational and factual alternative such as, “I feel alone right now but that does not mean I will never find anyone – it is up to me to keep being open to new relationships.”
3. Practice cognitive defusion
Another way to distance yourself from your unhealthy thoughts causing extreme anxiety is to practice cognitive defusion techniques developed by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) founder Steven Hayes.
When you “defuse” your thoughts, you look at them and observe them instead of looking from them, as if they were fused to your mind.
An example of cognitive defusion is changing “I am a loser” to “There I go again having the thought that I am a loser.” Notice in the first statement you believe the thought is true, and in the other you look at the thought.
Using visualizations to distance your thoughts can be helpful. For example imagine each anxious thought on various leaves in a stream, and watch them as they float away and disappear. Or imagine the thoughts written on clouds in the sky and watch them from afar instead of looking from them .
4. Be mindful
Most people think of mindfulness as the act of sitting quietly with eyes closed, breathing deeply in a meditative state. However, meditation practice is just one example of mindfulness.
Mindfulness rather is a practice that doesn’t isolate you from the world, but rather one that makes you more aware of yourself and the world in the present.
Simply put, mindfulness is the practice of nonjudgmental awareness.
Mindfulness is the experience of staying in the NOW.
When you are mindful, you accept things as they are, without judging whether they are good or bad, or how things “should” be.
When you are mindful, you are open with your five senses to the world as it is, without distractions and rumination about the past or anxieties about the future.
Being mindful is with a “beginner’s mind” experience the present as if you were experiencing it for the first time.
5. Write it out
Whether you keep a journal or occasionally write out your thoughts, writing can be very therapeutic. These are some reasons why writing can be so helpful in quelling your anxiety on overdrive.
Writing things down on paper or on the computer helps you crystallize and eliminate unhealthy ways of thinking, replacing them with healthier alternatives.
By writing out your thoughts, you will gain the objectivity needed to recognize and change unhealthy perceptions.
Writing your thoughts down makes you face them and keep focused. It makes your thoughts and issues tangible in the real world rather than in the recesses of your mind.
Writing helps problems become more solvable. Just like with many math or physics equations, some problems are just too complex to figure out in your head.
6. Stay grateful and positive
When you are optimistic and have an “attitude of gratitude,” it is hard to feel too anxious.
Positivity is a choice and reminding yourself of what you have to be grateful for will limit negativity and out-of-control thoughts.
Positive People are empowered and limit anxiety by focusing on how they are in control of their emotions instead of feeling like victims.
When you focus on what you are grateful for instead of life’s “what ifs,” your focus is grounded on reality rather then what could happen or shouldn’t happen.
Consider keeping a gratitude journal and enter at least a couple entries each day of what you are grateful for. This grateful perspective is not compatible with anxiety on overdrive as a positive and grateful attitude creates mental calmness.
7. Don’t go it alone
Research has shown that those people are happier if they have a strong sense of social support.
When you are anxious, reaching out for support and help can be very calming:
- Call a friend and share your upset.
- Seek professional help.
- Find one person with whom you can self-disclose.
In times when you are less stressed is a time to work on building a support network.
8. Talk nicely to yourself
Anxiety is correlated with unhealthy thinking which often entails self-deprecation and self-criticism.
Berating yourself for being too anxious, for example, will only put kerosene on the fire of your anxiety.
Use self-compassion to be kind and nurturing to yourself. Instead of thinking “I am an idiot for getting so worked up,” reassure yourself as you would a friend with words such as “I don’t blame you for being so anxious – you’ve gone through a lot and I have faith I will get through it stronger and wiser.”
Replace words of discouragement into words of encouragement.
Instead of shaming yourself for being so anxious, show yourself some love and unconditional acceptance.
And last but not least, literally give yourself a big bear hug!
The bottom line
With these eight tips to help you calm your anxiety when it is on overdrive, you will be well on your way to a happier and more positive life.
Practice these tips even in the absence of anxiety so that when anxiety goes on overdrive you will have the “muscle memory” to calm your anxieties so you can embrace your greatness to love yourself and love your life.
Aren’t you worth it?