This post is by David Hamilton.
As a coach and mentor to people with social anxiety, I’ve gotten good at helping people make progress towards a life where anxiety no longer dominates their day-to-day experience.
It’s a life full of suffering for these people, and if they are able to overcome their usually extreme anxiety, what I’m presenting here will be like a shotgun for blasting away the day-to-day anxieties of life for you.
I used to suffer from social anxiety myself, and it’s been quite a journey. There are days that I still struggle with generalized anxiety, but it’s not a problem like it used to be and I’m happy to be able to share what I know with you here.
The Nature of Anxiety
Anxiety is purely a future-based emotion. It’s based on the fear of uncertainty; fear that the future will or won’t turn out the way we want; and to the extreme if we aren’t prepared, we’ll die.
Anxiety as a short-term emotion is actually a beneficial thing in terms of human evolution; it helps protect us from threats in the world that could endanger our lives.
People that suffer with anxiety don’t have a problem with the emotion per say, it’s the long-term mood of anxiety that’s the issue. Of course, the threats aren’t actually endangering their lives, but when someone is living in a mood of anxiety, their biology reacts as if their life is constantly under threat, putting a lot of stress on the biological system.
Anxiety: Emotion vs. Mood
Both biology and psychology tell us that the emotion of anxiety is hard-wired and we need it to survive. When the mood of anxiety pervades one’s life, then it’s hard to tell when anxiety is useful and when it is not; it’s hard to see if a perceived threat is one that actually puts us in danger, or is merely a phantom of the mind.
Let me give you a couple examples:
A Real Threat
In your neighborhood, there’s been a series of break-ins and robberies. You hear that the assailant has been armed and thus you are worried that it could happen to you, so you begin taking precautions and moving into action to protect you, your family and those in your neighborhood (i.e. making sure all windows are closed, doors are locked, setting up a neighborhood watch).
This is an anxiety that serves you well; aka rational anxiety.
The False Threat
I’ll use social anxiety as the example here. You have to go to the grocery store because you’re almost out of food. Because you think people are judging you and may think you are weird, you are afraid to go to the store and have massive amounts of anxiety over this.
Even though your life isn’t at risk, this deep feeling of anxiety is tied to people as a “social threat” as if they’ll tell others and you think you’ll have a social death. The socially anxious person lives in a state of “fight or flight” and it’s very taxing on their entire system (also known as a sympathetic response).
Outside looking in, this doesn’t make any sense, but to someone with social anxiety it is very real; IT IS REALITY.
So this ongoing, pervasive mood of anxiety clearly doesn’t serve the person. It prevents them from doing simple things like leaving the house to run a basic errand. This anxiety doesn’t serve well and is an irrational fear.
Unwire Anxiety in Day-to-Day Life
Hopefully, you don’t have to overcome social anxiety like I did. But most of us do suffer with the stresses and fast pacing of our modern world, so if you can relate on any level to feeling anxiety and overwhelm just from living in our time, the below will help you.
Here are several methods, and when combined, can be very powerful in shifting away from anxiety and into a more flowing and easy life.
1. Optimal Breathing
If you’ve done any type of self-help work at all, you’ve heard about the importance of proper breathing. In order not to sound like a broken record I’ll try to be fresh here. In the book Free Your Breath, Free Your Life Dennis Lewis talks of ways to retrain our breathing to optimal rates. The research Lewis provides shows that practicing belly-breathing at about a rate of six breaths per minute (4 seconds inhale, 6 seconds exhale) can keep us in a more relaxed state, and can also help shut off any fight or flight response we might be living in.
So taking time away every day for 21 days – about 10-12 minutes each time – to sit down and practice optimal breathing, can literally help us reprogram our breathing rate as well as our nervous system so we are in a more constantly relaxed state.
NOTE: I recently worked with a biofeedback specialist she said it’s more like 6-12 breaths per minute, depending on a person’s size and thus the size of the lungs, so you need to tune into a rate that feels relaxing and comfortable for you.
There are two main approaches to handling thoughts.
The first approach is to actively dispute or challenge the anxiety-inducing (negative) thought, the other is to let the thought pass or not buy into the thought. Both require a certain degree of awareness, realizing that your thoughts (for the most part) make up your reality and how you react to what shows up in life.
A) Challenging Your Thoughts: This is a classic technique that I originally learned from the late great Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Therapy. In his ABC model of the human mind in working with beliefs, Ellis says that there an activating event (A) which filters through the belief (B) which causes a consequence that results in another thought or feeling, in this case anxiety. Ellis says that since we can’t change the activating event, we have to intervene at the belief (thought) level.
So, when you notice you are in a highly anxious state and your mind says “I’ve got to get this done now, or I’ll be a failure” then it’s time to challenge that thought and find a better explanation. You very actively stop and dispute the conversation and say something like “No! There’s no evidence for this! I’m making this up!”
The key is not to challenge (attack) yourself, but to challenge the thought. You are not the thought itself. This approach can be very effective, though it takes more energy to do then the next approach. Both have their strengths and weaknesses.
B) Defusing from Thoughts: With the growing popularity of mindfulness practice in the West, this is a way of letting go of the thought without fighting it, by practicing not attaching to any thoughts at all. In a very powerful approach known as Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, this is called “thought defusion”. The idea here is that in the moment a thought arises like }I have to get this done now, or I’ll be a failure” you simply notice it and let it pass.
The key is not to fight it directly, though you can say to yourself a gentle “no, I’m not going there” or “I’m not buying that”. The attitude here is very different than the thought challenging above. The important part of this process is to remain gentle and self-compassionate. Many teachers and therapists think that it’s the underlying energy or attitude that is detrimental, and how one attaches to the thought stream itself is the problem.
If you actively push against the anxiety inducing thoughts (even with a corrected thought), mindfulness-based therapists say that the mind will turn against you, playing mental Ping-Pong between the positive and the negative. It’s this ending of the mindful battle by not taking sides, whether good or bad, that is the power of defusing from thoughts. With defusion we are changing the relationship to the thought itself, instead of changing its content.
Of course the age old practice of meditation can’t be beat for retraining the mind. Modern mindfulness-based trainings and therapies also offer more modern exercises that can be fun and very easy to learn in order to get good at the skillset of letting thoughts go.
I’ve used both approaches outlined above, and both can work. I don’t recommend one over the other, but I suggest you try them alone and then in combination. Being who I am now, I tend to go with defusion first because it’s easier to let something go then to fight it and I can take that energy focusing on what I want to do, instead of fighting my mind. But there are times when I’ve been down in the muck and mire of anxiety; I’ve needed a more active push of thought challenging to snap me out of it. Sometimes you just gotta fight for your right to reeeee-lax!
3. Shift Your Body
As a transformational coach I work often with the way a client shows up in their body, especially as they are associated with an emotional or mood state. This form of somatic coaching is very powerful, when focusing on the body in a whole sense (the soma). Both in psychology and coaching this is a field known as somatics.
When approaching anxiety somatically, we can do things like working with the body in the mirror, noticing how we stand when we’re anxious and overwhelmed. Then shifting into a state we deem relaxed and practicing going between the two.
It’s not about forcing yourself to be relaxed (an oxymoron, obviously). It’s all about mindful, subtle shifts; practicing a new way of being. I don’t really recommend the forced, fake it til you make it approach, it’s not necessary if we practice in the domain of the body properly. It’s about attaching the body to a thought or belief you want to embody like everything’s OK, there no need to panic, I’m not in danger.
Martial arts practices like centering and grounding are amazing for bringing new awareness to how we show up in the body. This alone can be extremely powerful at eliminating anxiety, especially if practiced every day for even as little as five minutes in the morning and five at night.
So there you have it. No matter which method or combinations you explore, you’ve got to practice, practice, practice to incorporate the methods into your life. You can play with those three methods in any combination you like to reduce the stress of daily anxiety, and be more relaxed, productive and fulfilled.
Have you struggled with anxiety? Have any techniques or methods that you use every day that you’d like to share? Take part in the comment conversation below and let’s discuss.