Updated: Jun 7
Anxiety is a completely natural and normal survival response, meant to keep us safe, but it’s a response that can sometimes go wrong. Your anxiety response kicks in when your brain perceives there to be a threat, even though that perceived threat may not actually be real.
One way to train our anxiety to be selective and ‘behave’ is to give it feedback to let it know: “Thanks, but you’re not needed right now.” If we act in ways we wouldn’t in a real emergency, the anxiety will fade away and we can trick our brains into thinking all is well. For example, during an emergency we wouldn’t usually...
Breathe deeply and calmly
Have an open body posture
Talk softly and calmly
So, if we adopt some of these behaviours when we begin to feel stressed or anxious, then we alter the feedback our body is giving to the fear response system in our brains. We send it a message saying: “If there was a real threat I wouldn’t be eating (or talking normally, breathing out for longer than I breathe in, stood with relaxed open body posture, smiling) so all must be well.” This halts the production of adrenaline and starts the process of calming us down helping us to quickly regain control when anxious or stressed.
Breath and body language
Next time you feel the anxiety/stress levels rise consider your breathing and body language. It's likely your breathing with have become short, fast and be taking place high in your chest. Your body will have tensed up- jaw, shoulders and fists are likely to be clenched. Focus on relaxing these- take some big deep breaths and with each outbreath focus first on bringing your breathing down into your belly and then on relaxing each tense area of your body in turn.
Open your hands and open up your chest by relaxing those shoulders and lowering your arms down to your side.
Drop your tongue down in your mouth and unclench that jaw.
These changes give your brain a clear message that "All is well I'm not ready to fight or run away- check out my lovely calm breathing and body language" assisting you to regain control quickly.
You can also consider chewing gum (or even just imagining you're chewing gum). We don’t tend to have the luxury of eating in life-threatening circumstances so producing saliva in anticipation of eating is something you would never be doing during a genuine threat. Chewing gum, produces saliva and tells your stomach that you are eating and thus sends that important message to your brain that all must be well.
Talk calmly and softly
When we are stressed or anxious the tone, intonation, speed and even the pitch of our voices can be affected. So take a moment and breath deeply, then force yourself to speak calmly and softly during times of stress or anxiety. This will both give the message to your own brain that you are calm and collected and also to others and they in turn are likely to be calmer as a result.
This can be very useful during genuinely traumatic and challenging situations. Ever notice how a paramedic stays calm and collected and talks softly during even those most challenging of situations? This is what they're doing. Appear calm on the surface and you will soon feel calm beneath the surface too. (A bit like fake it until you make it!)
Just like all of the above suggestions during life threatening situations we don't tend to smile- those facial expressions are left for moments of joy and happiness or humour. So when you feel anxious or stressed try to force a smile- the physical act of smiling actually activates tiny molecules in your brain that are designed to fend off stress. These molecules, called neuropeptides, facilitate communication between neurons in your brain. Also, when you smile, your brain releases dopamine, endorphins and serotonin which are mood boosting neurotransmitters. Almost instantly making us feel happier and less stressed. (Also a useful technique to use when you feel a bit low in mood.)
Another great way to quickly combat stress and anxiety is to ground yourself.
Take hold of something real and solid whilst you breath- this could be a specific object that you know well and carry with you (a crystal, a shell etc. kept in your pocket or bag) or it can be a wall/door/workbench -basically anything solid and real. Feel it in your hands and breath deeply. This is a very discrete way of grounding yourself and can be utilised when at work/college/school and at home.
Grounding refocuses your mind away from the barrage of what ifs and overwhelm and reminds you of who you are, where you are and what's real.
There are loads of other grounding and breathing techniques and should you want to explore more techniques that could work for you then please get in touch with me via any of my details below.
Anxiety https://www.gilljacksoncounselling.com/post/anxiety for some handy hints and tips on controlling anxiety and panic attacks.
The Hidden Side to Anxiety https://www.gilljacksoncounselling.com/post/the-hidden-side-to-anxiety for a more in depth look at anxiety.
You can also book an appointment with myself or another mental health professional/therapist for advice on how to manage your anxiety symptoms.
Author: Gill Jackson of Gill Jackson Therapeutic Counselling, BA Hons Counselling, Diploma in Couples and Family Therapy, Diploma in EFT, CIPD, SMACCPH
Bio: I am a Therapeutic Counsellor/Psychotherapist and Accredited Mentor in private practice in the UK. Qualified since 2007. Working with adults and young adults, specialising in Anxiety and Depression.
This article is not intended as a replacement for medical advice, if you are suffering from any physical or mental ill health please seek advice of your Doctor where necessary.
Images used with permission from Wix and Unsplashed.