Top 3 tips for managing your anxiety
The first helpful technique we can turn to is the use of what we call anchors. This involves using our senses to anchor us in the present moment and evoke a sense of calm. The reason why this is effective is that our brain works really well with associations – once our brain has made a particular association with a particular smell or sound it’s quite hard to reverse.
Think about the smell of an ex’s perfume or the smell of your parent’s home cooking. It can create a very visceral feeling in us. We can use this to our advantage when trying to create a sense of calm. I’d recommend doing this exercise with music as music tends to be something that’s easily accessible to us and something we carry around with us all the time. I’d recommend picking a piece of music that you find relaxing but that doesn’t remind you of anything else – so something you have no previous associations with. I’d also recommend music without lyrics or with minimal lyrics, but this isn’t essential.
You want to listen to this piece of music when you’re already feeling calm initially – so maybe after a long bath or a relaxing walk. And when you’re listening, really try to focus on the sounds you can hear in the song (the tone, the pitch, the different instruments you can hear) – so listening mindfully. Repeat this a couple more times when you’re feeling relaxed to cement the association. Then when you’re starting to feel anxious or stressed, you can put the piece of music on and it will help calm you down because your brain will have already made an association there. This piece of music will be your anchor. I have a whole playlist of tracks like this, so you can build your playlist up over time.
What is thought and what is fact?
When we feel anxious or are combating a difficult situation, our minds often become clouded with negative thoughts and worst-case scenarios. We spend a huge amount of time worrying and ruminating about problems, which we’ve turned into monumental disasters in our heads.
We can consistently worry about losing our jobs over small mistakes we’ve made, or we might struggle to control the constant thought that someone close to us is mad at us for something we said. Once our thoughts start to run away with us, we can really start to spiral and before we know it, we’re convinced the worst will happen and our anxiety only gets worse.
I always start with a simple question: what is thought and what is fact?
The issue is our brains struggle to separate thought from fact. When something goes through our mind, we take it as gospel. We often do this without even being conscious we’re doing it. We don’t challenge our thought patterns enough to take a moment to distinguish that these are just thoughts – concerns, worries, projections – not facts. This can cause us a huge amount of stress and moreover it’s completely exhausting. A vast amount of energy is required to deal with all these potential scenarios happening in our heads. Recognising our thoughts for what they are – just thoughts, mental events that will pass – can help us liberate ourselves from them.
To do this exercise practically, next time you’re feeling anxious write down a list of everything you think and know about the situation you feel anxious about. You can include all the things you’re worried about, possible outcomes and what has already happened. Then take a highlighter to this list and highlight what you know to be true. Not your worries, projections or assumptions about the situation, but the facts only.
Anxiety often stems from a fear of some kind. We may not always be aware of it but the every day fears we experience that tend to cause us to feel anxious, if we dig deep enough often stem from one of our base human fears. Psychologists believe that we have two base human fears – I wonder if you can guess what those are? So one is the fear of dying and the other is the fear of social humiliation. Both of these fears are part of what drives our survival instinct. A fear of dying is obvious but the reason we have a fear of social humiliation is so that we’re not ostracised from the tribe or pack and left unprotected on our own. Being part of a social group was what kept us alive back when we were hunter gatherers and although it may not be in the same way, this is very much a part of what keeps us alive today.
So it’s worth thinking about – what is it that you’re fearful of? If you dig a little deeper does that help you uncover what your base fear is? Again it’s a useful reminder here that these fears are natural and in a way can be useful – they keep us alive. But identifying what they are can actually help us rationalise these fears. It’s sometimes a case of reminding ourselves of the fact that whatever we’re fearful of is unlikely to lead to death or social humiliation. Things like travelling on public transport, flying or public speaking are among some of the triggers that cause anxiety, but we need to remember that these things are highly unlikely to lead to death or social humiliation and this can really help in the rationalisation process.
Sometimes anxiety can cause us to live lives that can become quite small – we avoid taking risks or putting ourselves out there. I want you to think about anything anxiety is holding you back from. What would you do if you didn’t experience anxiety? What risks would you take?
Sometimes we have to push the boundaries of our comfort levels even if it makes us feel anxious. We have to break out of habitual patterns of anxiety.
I’d really recommend starting small here and working up to something bigger. For example if public speaking really makes you anxious, but you know you’re missing out on opportunities at work because of this, what can you do to push the boundaries of your comfort zone here? Maybe it’s giving a talk to a small group of friends or just your partner initially. Then you may next try to give the presentation to a small group of trusted colleagues.
We need to remind ourselves here, it’s ok to feel anxious – but this feeling doesn’t need to hold us back. Obviously we don’t want to go into full panic attack mode but that’s why it’s a good idea to take small steps here and work our way up.