Expert in anxiety management, Dan Regan, gives tips for calming anxious thoughts.
Are you caught in the never-ending cycle of your anxious thoughts?
Many people with anxiety tell me how it feels like their mind never switches off. All those thoughts just keep rushing through and their anxious feelings keep them stuck.
And whilst you may be able to distract yourself some of the time, as soon as there is a quiet moment, the whole cycle of anxiety kicks in again.
If you struggle with anxiety then you will already know that it can cause misery and unhappiness. It can affect your health and wellbeing in many ways such as a loss of appetite, low energy and not sleeping well. It can impact on relationships and friendships, your career or studies, and you may have found yourself withdrawing from other people and from doing things that you used to enjoy.
Yet once you turn down the anxious feelings that go with the thoughts you have been having, you can soon start to take back control over your life and your mind.
Why Am I Anxious?
You can spend a lot of time thinking about why you are struggling with anxiety, frustratingly wondering where it came from, why it is happening and whether you will ever be free of it.
Yet often it is not a clear-cut moment that leads to ongoing anxiety. For many people, a build-up of stress and worry from many sources of areas of life creeps up to a level where your mind goes into overdrive and starts finding ever-increasing threat and danger. It’s like our minds start over protecting us in a way that smothers us from doing the things we want to do.
When you feel anxious, that anxiety will always find an avenue in your thoughts. And so you find yourself running all those worst case scenarios and ‘what if’ thoughts. This creates even more anxiety which leads to you thinking even more of those thoughts and a self-fuelling cycle of anxiety can develop and escalate.
And because those thoughts have so much emotion attached to them, even if you are able to distract yourself and focus on other things for a time, as soon as you hit a quiet time like at night, they will start-up again.
So how can you eliminate the anxiety around those thoughts so they become just like thousands of other thoughts that pass through your mind effortlessly every day? After all, all of us have at least some thoughts every day that don’t have any emotion attached to them, such as thinking about brushing our teeth or getting dressed.
Calm Your Anxious Thoughts
If you are concerned about your anxiety, I would always suggest going to speak to your medical practitioner.
There are many ways to calm your anxious thoughts and here are five of the most effective things that my clients use and that you can start doing from today. To get the greatest benefit, be sure to use them consistently.
Calm Your Body to Calm Your Mind
To calm your anxious mind, you first need to calm your anxious feelings. This starts to interrupt the ongoing cycle of feeling anxious, leading to anxious thoughts, leading to more anxiety and so on. Once you dilute those feelings and bring them down towards calmness more and more, the thoughts those feelings are fuelling start to wane.
A lot of people cite a lot of different breathing exercises to achieve this yet there is one that my clients have found works consistently as long as you practice it.
When you feel anxious, your breathing rate increases and you breathe high up in your chest. This is how we breathe when we exercise and anxiety essentially is your body preparing to take action to deal with a perceived threat.
To reverse this process you need to make the out breath longer than the in breath. This stimulates your natural, biological relaxation response so you have no choice but to feel calmer.
To do this, breathe in for a mental count of five and then out for a mental count of nine. It doesn’t matter whether you breathe through your nose or mouth or even how deep a breath it is. What matters is that the out breath is longer, which pushes your breathing back down into your belly.
I always suggest doing this in sets of eight to ten breaths with at least eight to ten sets a day. Be sure to practice it even when you feel okay so that it becomes easier to do it as soon as you need it.
Use Your Thinking To Calm Your Emotions
It isn’t how a brain surgeon would describe it yet at a basic level where anxiety is concerned, we have two parts to our brain – the thinking part and the emotional part.
When the emotions, such as anxiety, take over we get ready to do something such as moving to fight or flee. All those physical anxiety symptoms start to escalate and we breathe quicker, our heart races, we get hotter and so on.
We also ‘shut down’ our thinking brain. If you are very anxious you will know that in those moments you just can’t think clearly or think straight. We are designed to not think clearly and logically in the face of a threat (real or perceived) but rather to act to protect ourselves.
A super effective way to interrupt that anxiety and to get your thinking brain to start working is to use numbers. As soon as you start to feel anxious, or you notice those anxious thoughts, start counting backwards in your head from three hundred in units of three. You don’t have to get to zero and if you lose track just restart at three hundred again.
Doing this thinking sends a message back to your emotions that all is safe and so the symptoms begin to calm.
Dilute The Worst Case Scenarios In Your Mind
Anxiety can be described as an unhelpful use of your imagination. And because our minds respond to imagination, the more vivid and realistic the scenarios in your mind, the more anxious you can feel.
It’s very common for someone with anxiety to imagine all the things that could go wrong and the fall out that would follow. You may even imagine being right in that situation as if it was happening right now.
Yet because it is in your imagination and you are not there right now, you can start to take control over how you think about these things to dilute the anxiety.
If you are running unhelpful worst case scenarios through your mind, start changing them to black and white movies or images. Make them darker and much smaller and further away in your mind, as if you are watching them in the distance on a tablet or even a smartphone way over there in your mind.
Doing these things dilutes the emotions attached to those thoughts and allows you to feel calmer and to think more clearly. Then you can decide whether you want to think about these things and, if you are just making those scenarios up in your imagination, you can start to change the channel to think of something that makes you feel more positive.
Learn To Calm It Down
Anxiety is like having a totally stressed out brain with no available room for anything else. You may have already found that you feel more lethargic, fail to get enthused about things you used to enjoy and struggle to concentrate for any length of time.
And just like sometimes you need to switch off your computer or phone to let it cool down and install new updates, sometimes you need to sit back and prioritise relaxing.
Many people find that meditation or mindfulness can help them switch to just observing thoughts in a calmer way. I will often give my clients a relaxation hypnosis audio designed to help them start feeling calmer and more in control and then directing this into real life situations.
In some cases I have also suggested periods of ‘calm worry’, where once someone feels calm and relaxed they then think all those thoughts, whilst feeling relaxed. This takes away the anxiety from the thoughts and creates new associations of calmness with those things.
Like any other skill or ability, the more you practice meditation or hypnosis to calm your anxious thoughts, the better you will get at it.
Create a Counter Balance To Your Anxious Thoughts
When you are struggling with anxious thoughts and feelings, you can soon find that you spend more time thinking and feeling anxious. Anxious thoughts can quickly expand to fill any space in your day or in your mind. It can be easy to negate any positive moments or moments when you felt better as those thoughts get washed away by the strong tide of anxious thoughts.
To start to create a counter balance to the anxious thoughts, start doing this every day; every morning think of at least three things you are looking forward to that day, however big or small. And then every evening think of three things that went well that day, again however big or small.
Sometimes people find this tricky at first, after all if you have high levels of anxiety it can probably feel like there is nothing to look forward to and that nothing has gone well. Yet every day will have some better moments if you consciously look for them and notice them so make it a daily habit to do this.
When you are battling anxiety, it can feel like a never-ending struggle just to get through the day. Consistently utilising these five strategies will quickly start to evaporate that anxiety and help you find the freedom you are seeking.
Dan Regan, Anxiety Management Expert