Reading time: 4 minutes Jan 29th 2018

A three step strategy for handling anxiety

In the modern world, there are two primary suggestions out there for handling negative thinking and negative emotions. One is the idea that you can change, reprogramme or alter your thinking. Such approaches include CBT, NLP, DBT etc. The other is the idea that you can quieten your thinking. Such approaches to this include Buddhism and Mindfulness. I have spent plenty of years working with thousands of people in therapy helping them to incorporate both approaches to handle the problems they face.

In my experience lately, anxiety seems to be on the rise. Sometimes described as a ‘cousin’ of depression, anxiety can be debilitating. Anxiety is an extreme feeling of nervousness and fear that can stop you taking some action. The big problem with anxiety is that it often comes out of the blue and takes over your mind. Daniel Goleman describes the experience of an emotion taking over the mind as an amygdala hijacking.

Just to simplify this, think about the brain as having two important parts when it comes to processing thoughts and emotions. The pre-frontal cortex is where our executive function lies. It is where our thinking brain works. The Amygdala (or amygdalae) is a part of the brain involved in emotional processing. It is where our feeling brain works. When we face a perceived threat from the world, our amygdala takes over the executive function and creates thoughts that continue to keep the emotion occurring. So we feel anxious so we create thoughts that make us feel anxious which makes us feel more anxious. This circuit can be understood as the primary reason that we get trapped into negative cycles of anxiety.

The solution, hence, is in finding a way to take back control of our executive function or changing our emotions. Anti-anxiety medication can sometimes help at the level of emotion but real long-term solutions require building a strategy of changing where the control goes in such situations. The key here is to improve how effectively our executive function or pre-frontal cortex works. We need to take charge of our mind. Although I, of course, recommend that you contact a mental health professional or therapist to help you overcome anxiety, here are some ideas to get you started. There are three steps that can help you with this.

1. ANALYSE

First, analyse what specifically is making you feel anxious and how exactly is it doing this. Label your feelings as specifically as possible. Describe which parts of your body are feeling what. Examine what trigger has started the feelings and what projected images and scenarios are in your head. Understand your feelings as a process so instead of ‘being anxious’ you are ‘worrying’. By analysing like this you are, in effect, using your executive function more powerfully which makes it less likely to be impacted by the amygdala.

2. ACCEPTANCE

The problem with anxiety is that we often get anxious about getting anxious. It is crucial that you get to the point that you accept when you are feeling anxious that it is simply what you are feeling. Avoid fighting against anxiety as it rarely helps. Get into the habit of accepting the feelings and noticing the feelings inside you. Observe them and let them be as they are. As you observe them, you will start to notice yourself feeling somewhat extracted from the feelings present.

3. ACT

After having analysed and identified what you were worrying about, create an action plan of exactly what you would do if the bad thing happened. Plan to handle any eventuality and then remind yourself that everything will be okay. Instead of working simply in probabilities where you try and reason something is unlikely to happen, also plan that if it did happen you would deal with it okay. Engage in techniques that get you to relax and imagine future scenarios where things work out. Practice building emotions of happiness, relaxation and confidence in your mind. Remember always that no matter what ‘Everything is going to be okay’.

These three steps are drawn from both approaches to negative thinking and feeling. In the change approach, you analyse and act. In the quiet approach, you accept and act. In both cases, you are making it more likely that your executive function will retain control of your thinking which will in turn positively impact your emotions. This will help you get anxiety under control.

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