We all react to things or people around us differently. What can be stressful for one person might be a storm in a teacup for another and a cause of real anxiety for someone else.
Thoughts and fears like the following might be enough to induce anxiety in some people. "What if I said something wrong in the meeting earlier?" "I must have missed out something. The outcome isn’t what I imagined it to be." "What if I make the wrong decision and my stupidity causes trouble for everyone else?”
People struggling with anxiety tend to experience a heightened state of aroused physical symptoms such as heart-thumping, hyperventilating, and tension in the jaw, neck and shoulders. They often also feel a sense of doom or dread when they deal with uncertainties and face new situations in their lives.
Anxiety symptoms can be overwhelming and some of my clients get sucked into intrusive and dysfunctional thought patterns as they fight their thoughts, fears and actions in their own head. While a large part of my work with my clients revolves around helping them understand and process the causes of their unique anxieties and experiences, managing the symptoms can provide some relief when they are able to catch themselves feeling anxious over a particular trigger.
The following are some techniques or tools I usually suggest to clients who are struggling with anxiety.
Most anxious people tend to interpret incidents and events catastrophically and worry about things happening in the future, thus not quite being able to stay in the moment and be present.
Cognitive Diffusion requires us to intentionally create space between ourselves and our thoughts and feelings. I often introduce the term or rather a role - a thought observer - to my clients, so they observe and assign no particular meaning or significance to their thoughts or feelings. When we are just observing and not actively interacting with those catastrophic interpretations and negative biases, we can start to regain control over our irrational selves.
Interrupting the Rumination (persistently)
Much of the heightened states of unsettledness is not about a real problem but about self-perpetuating worries. Clients need to recognize that worrying is a habit with a neurobiological underpinning that puts them into a hypervigilant mode and they start to scan for problems or potential risks even when there is none.
It takes a concerted conscious effort to draw that boundary in our minds, intentionally knowing and being disciplined about letting the worries go and focusing on the present.
One question I often get my clients to ask themselves when they are panicking over something is, "What is the most important thing to me, right now?"
Anxious individuals are often responsible workers as they care greatly about what they do and the consequences of their decisions. Turning the tables around and prioritizing what really matters to them in the moment can help them get themselves out of an unhealthy cycle of rumination.
Rumination is persistent, and the only way to beat it at its own game is to be even more persistent in interrupting it.
Breaking a Streak
When clients are aware that they are spending too much time being anxious and worrying, they sometimes feel a sense of guilt over their of lack of productivity or when they cannot keep up with self-imposed expectations.
I encourage my clients to allow themselves to break these negative streaks they have created for themselves as they try to compensate for the deficiencies they think they have. Being able to break a streak and shift away from ingrained habits of worrying is a hallmark of psychological flexibility for mental health.
Pick a day and call it a "Mind-Off Day" and be on leave from making decisions, thinking about "what's going to happen if", and be really disciplined about taking a break.
Most of my clients this particular tool hard to apply consistently. Once having learned it, they stop practising it when they felt better, believing that they no longer need to do it. By the time they feel anxious again, they are almost convinced that something so simple cannot possibly be really effective in helping manage their anxiety.
What I usually do is to try to encourage my clients to consciously count their breaths (for example, 4 seconds in, 4 seconds out) whenever they are waiting for something - the microwave to sound, the water to boil, the queue in the bank to move, etc. This helps them consciously practise controlled breathing so that whenever they find themselves feeling anxious, they can practise counting their breaths to slow down the stress response.