There you are, stuck and quaking in some high anxiety situation. Heart pounding, sweaty palms, stuttered breathing, mind racing. Yet, despite the stress hormones raging in your body and the catastrophic thoughts bedeviling your mind, you are expected, either by others, yourself or both, to keep your cool. Maybe it’s public speaking, a “come to Jesus” with an intimidating boss, a verbal firefight with your teenager or spouse, a white-knuckle flight through stormy skies or some other anxiety-laden scenario. So, once on this white-knuckle track, how does one exit, and rapidly?
To begin, recognize that reactive, high amplitude anxiety operates through an escalating feedback loop between mind and body. One’s psyche can trigger a full-blown stress response in the body simply by entertaining certain thoughts (“I’m going to make a fool of myself”) or conjuring mental images of doom, danger or embarrassment. Subsequently, once one’s physiology begins reacting to these “Look out!” mental messages by hyperventilating, tachycardia, dizziness or whatever, it then communicates these sensations back to the mind which, in turn, responds by thinking more catastrophic thoughts. So, the loop continues, feeding on itself in a cycle of increasing anxiety or even panic. In essence, one is not only anxious about the situation in question, but also about the experience of anxiety itself. One becomes anxious about being anxious.
First off, the mental frame we put around the experience of anxiety matters. The belief that anxiety is always bad is understandable. It’s a decidedly unpleasant feeling, to say the least. However, it sometimes helps to remind ourselves that anxiety is essentially energy trapped in the body, rattling around. It’s a kind of energy that often implores us “Do something!” So, when we struggle to keep it down, hold it in (so we don’t look anxious to others) or snuff it out, we often work against the intrinsic admonition to act, to do something to engage that energy.
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Consequently, managing these mental eruptions requires interrupting the mind-body feedback loop maintaining them, as well as engaging the body to satisfy that “Do something!” imperative. But how? Well, because the process is a loop, you can start at either end—with your mental processes or with your physiology. The latter involves addressing anxiety as trapped energy, and here are some ways to accomplish that:
- Engage in a short burst of intense exercise (provided you are healthy enough). Because anxiety is energy, we can lower it through physical actions that expend energy. So, a quick round of push-ups or crunches, a short sprint, running up a flight of stairs, a brisk walk and the like, all offer conduits in this regard. There’s plenty of research showing that exercise decreases anxiety significantly, often by 60 percent or more.
- Breathe slowly and deeply, in through the nose and out through parted lips. The exhalation should be longer than the inhalation. Each time you exhale, imagine you are expelling not just air, but also all that nervous energy bouncing around in your body. This is called “coherent breathing,” and it is scientifically proven to lower anxiety, and fairly rapidly for most.
However, if you want to work from the cognitive end of your anxiety loop, try one or more of these approaches:
- Use a calming mantra to positively shape your self-talk. When anxious, repeat words like “relax” or “peace” or “I’ll be OK” or “This too shall pass.” Thoughts deeply influence emotions, particularly anxiety.
- Listen to music you find soothing or uplifting. For many, anxiety is a stuck-in-place mindset where we tend to freeze up, and music puts us in more of a flow state. Better yet, sing along, which amplifies this impact.
- Splash cold water on your face. This is called a “sensory hit,” and it basically short circuits negative thinking and invokes psychoanalyst Fritz Perls’ admonition to “Lose your mind and come to your senses.”
Breaking the anxiety feedback loop won’t leave you blissful and unbothered. But it will throttle back runaway angst. And it will confirm that you can influence and manage your emotional reactions when in stressful situations. That’s a reassuring feeling.
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