Tool #1: Practice Grounding Yourself & Actively Calm Your Nervous System.
When you’re feeling anxious, your autonomic nervous system (ANS) is aroused and activates your fight, flight, or freeze impulses, catalyzing a whole cascade of physiological symptoms throughout your body.
One of the ways you can begin to calm your nervous system and ease your anxiety is through some physical grounding and breath-driven self-soothing.
A tool we’ve found to be incredibly effective is a simple presence and breathing exercise:
Sit comfortably in a chair or on the couch. Let your eyes close and rest your hands on your legs or on the furniture in whatever way feels comfortable to you. Slowly, and with your lips slightly open, begin taking a deep breath in, pushing your lower abdomen out with air, bringing oxygen to the bottom of your lungs. As you breathe in, notice your feet on the floor, your butt on the cushion, your back against the furniture. On your exhale, release your breath slowly — a few counts longer than your inhale — and continue bringing your awareness to any sensations or sounds you notice — maybe your fingers on the fabric of your jeans, the sound of traffic outside, the breeze coming in through the window… Breathe in and breath out slowly, noticing all the slight sensations around you for 10-15 slow, mindful breaths, allowing your body to relax and your mind to center. And finally, when you’re ready, come back to the room.
The benefit to this particular tool is that it helps bring oxygen to our brain and calms our autonomic nervous system, allowing us to relax and access more parts of ourselves and to think and act from a more grounded, integrated place.
Tool #2: Make It A Habit To Untwist Your Thinking & Challenge Your Anxiety-Provoking Thoughts.
If you pay attention to what you’re saying to yourself when you catch yourself feeling anxious, it’s likely that you’re probably saying something scary to yourself.
Again, anxiety scans our lives and futures and tries to warn us of possible threats, so it’s pretty masterful in triggering scary thoughts.
One of our other favorite tools when our clients are struggling with scary, catastrophic future-oriented thoughts is to have them untwist their thinking with a version of questioning informed by The Work by Byron Katie.
Byron Katie is a spiritual teacher, author, and creator of The Work, which, according to her website is “a way of identifying and questioning the thoughts that cause all the anger, fear, depression, addiction, and violence in the world.”
The Work is available for free on her website and while you can review all the steps of her process there, what we have our clients do is a simplified version of her process consisting of identifying and naming the anxiety-provoking thought, asking questions to test it’s reality, and turning the thought inside out by finding four reasons why that thought may not be fully true.
When you challenge the truth of the thoughts that are creating your anxiety and literally untwist them by finding reasons why the opposite might be true, you can create a bit more flexibility in your thinking. And since thoughts can generate feelings, when you create more spaciousness and flexibility in your thinking, you can often ease your anxiety.
Tools #3 & #4: Improve Your Skills To Halt Emotional Flooding Through Mental Distraction.
Have you ever been so wrapped up in your anxiety that you started to become emotionally flooded?
Slightly short of breath, totally in your story, detached from the room you’re sitting in and the person you’re with because of the intensity of your feelings? You may have been emotionally flooding.
Again, when you’re anxious and perceiving threats, your autonomic nervous system is aroused and your body becomes flooded with a cocktail of adrenaline and cortisol.
This can make it hard to think clearly and to maintain focus and react rationally. This is emotional flooding. Two ways you can interrupt this flooding and help yourself get centered and present is through the following tools, both of which were inspired by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
- Counting Colors. If you catch yourself flooding or perhaps just caught in the loop of an anxiety-provoking thought, tell yourself to look around you in whatever room or environment you may be in, and try to scan the surroundings to find and count aloud five colors of a certain shade. (Hint: We like to have our clients look for colors like purple or gold which are often far harder to find than colors like black and brown which tend to be pretty ubiquitous.) The reason why this tool is effective is that it pulls your mind away from the intensity of the internal experience you’re having and forces your attention to be external, literally scanning your surroundings and focusing on a task, which can help reduce the emotional flooding you may have been experiencing.
- Counting Backwards. With a Twist. Another great tool to use on yourself (or to use with someone else who is anxious and emotionally flooding) is to count backward. But not just any counting backward — anyone can basically recite 100, 99, 98, 97, etc. without much concentration or effort. What we want you to do instead is to pick a big number like 637 and then pick an odd, random number like 19.5 and start counting backward to zero from 637 by 19.5. Did you just frown in concentration reading those words? That’s exactly the point! Focused efforts to actually try and do that math engages your brain in a way that can distract from the anxiety and flooding you may have been experiencing. Try it next time you’re emotionally flooding in any way, whether with anxiety, or maybe anger at a co-worker. It’s a subtle, invisible tool that can be wonderful for emotional regulation.
If you’re looking for even more tips and tools to reduce your anxiety or if you know your anxiety needs deeper attention from a trained professional, please reach out to explore working with a therapist here at Evergreen Counseling. We would love to help you.