Anxiety is a negative mood state characterized by physical tension and apprehension about an event or situation. It is both a mental and physical state of being. Feelings of extreme apprehension, dread, fearfulness, or worry characterize some of the symptoms affecting an individual’s mental wellbeing. Having a chronic headache, muscle aches, sweating or feeling warm, and insomnia characterizes the physical symptoms of anxiety. The anxious state is future orientated. Meaning the worry did not begin during the event or situation it began hours, days, even weeks before the event. Overwhelming emotions are often intensified by intrusive thoughts that are usually negative and catastrophizing. An example of an intrusive thought is: “I can’t give the presentation my boss wants me to give because I speak to fast and no one will listen.”
There are several ways to reduce intrusive thoughts that ultimately lead to being in an anxious state. The best method is utilizing cognitive reframing or cognitive restructuring techniques. Both of these techniques focus on changing automatic negative thoughts into positive thoughts. This is done by reframing the actual thought. We think we can multi-task. That is a fallacy. Our brain is very linear. One automatic negative thought, “I speak to fast,” turns into “no one will like what I am saying.” Which then creates another negative thought, “my boss will be mad and fire me.” One negative thought creates the next, and another, and another. Together these thoughts produce anxiety, spinning, an inability to relax, or catastrophizing behavior. If we change the second thought to “I have something worthwhile to say.” This will lead to “my presentations are interesting and I am a good speaker.” Shifting thought patterns from negative to positive reduces feelings of anxiety.
Another way to reduce anxiety is with mindfulness exercises. I utilize and teach three different types of mindfulness activities to clients experiencing anxiety. Focused breathing, guided imagery, and focused attention. Focused breathing is usually what comes to mind when someone hears the word mindfulness. It is an easy and quick way to redirect concentration away from anxious thoughts and focus only on the breath. Basically, it is taking in deep breaths and noticing its effects on the body. Often times saying a calming word while exhaling will draw attention away from racing thoughts to focus on the word that is bringing calmness and relaxation to the body. Heart rates usually begin to slow down. Intrusive thoughts give way to rational statements.
Guided imagery conjures up an image of a pleasant place through evoking all five senses. Generally, any image that involves water provides calmness. For instance, if the happy place is the beach, we would start by describing and watching the waves going in an out in our mind’s eye. We would look at the sky and the rocks to help solidify the place. Next, we would listen to the sounds of the tide, seagulls calling out to each other, and children laughing as they fly kites. Then we would feel the wind and sun on our bare legs and arms. Feel the gritty wet sand and then the deep hot sand between our toes. Next, I will guide my clients down the street to the taffy store, where we will smell the carmel corn and popcorn then taste their favorite taffy flavor. The five senses evoked are: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. This brings the experience from the past to the present and generally relaxes the anxious person
Focused attention is one that takes a little more practice and skill. It is diverting intrusive thoughts with action. The anxious person takes a small object out of their pocket or purse, holds it in their hand with their eyes closed. Focusing all their attention on the object they then answer, silently or out loud, the answers to the following questions.
1. How does the object feel in my hand: hard or soft?
2. How does the object feel in my hand: smooth or rigid?
3. How does the object feel in my hand: hot or cold?
The guiding principle behind this technique is that we can not answer these questions and continue with the automatic negative thoughts creating the anxiety. We either spin with the negative thoughts or answer the questions and reduce the anxious feelings. You might be wondering if this technique actually works. Have you ever tried to sing along to a favorite song and write something? Even if it is a simple thing, like a grocery list, it is impossible! We can either sing the song or write but our brain will not let us do both.
Research shows that a little anxiety actually enhances our performance. Feeling a little nervous about a work-related project, presentation, or an upcoming social event is actually a good thing. We explore alternatives, weight consequences, and develop even better solutions. It is when it becomes all-consuming it manifests into an Anxiety Disorder and can spiral into extreme feelings of being stuck or depression.
If you are experiencing or know someone who is coping with any anxiety please contact me for further information.