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How to Calm an Anxious Mind

An anxious mind is poor in concentration and focused on what could go wrong. It is full of ‘what ifs’, uncertainty and catastrophes. Feeling anxious distorts how we think. We become much more threat-focused, finding problems, not solutions. Our thinking is also narrowed with a bias to finding further information to fuel our stress and anxiety.

Does any of this sound familiar?

The Impact of Anxiety

An anxious mind is a very tricky place to be. It can also be difficult for the people around you. When we’re anxious, we’re often irritable and short-tempered. We can also struggle to relax and have fun.

Anxiety is tough on the body too, raising adrenaline and cortisol, which can have a negative impact on our physical health. An anxious mind can also lead us to act in a way that does not fit with our true intention. For example, we might avoid doing something we actually want to do, such as attending an interview for a job we really want or going to the school reunion we’ve been looking forward to for ages.

When we avoid in this way, the anxiety gremlin in our mind is pleased with its work. It feels like it has kept us safe from harm. This means it feels the need to pop up again next time we’re in a similar situation, consequently wiring our brains for further anxiety. In other words, anxiety breeds anxiety.

Ironically, anxiety does not ‘mean’ to cause us harm. It’s actually a survival method, born from the ‘fight or flight’ instinct we developed at a time when threats were predators out to kill us. Obviously, this isn’t the case anymore and this overdeveloped response, designed to save our lives, is too powerful for the world we live in today.

A Calm Body = A Calm Mind

We often try to think our way out of anxiety, but this doesn’t work. When our thinking is more threat-based, it simply can’t come up with a calming solution. But if you can’t use your mind to think your way out of anxiety, what can you do?

The key is to use your body. When you calm your body, your heart rate reduces along with the stress hormones released due to feeling anxious. This allows your pre-frontal cortex (aka your logical mind) to come back on board.

Here are a few ways to calm your body…

– Soothing rhythm breathing or any breathing that settles the body

– Exercise

Mindfulness

Soothing Safe Place Imagery

7 More Ways to Calm an Anxious Mind

Name It – Labelling the emotional state we are in reduces the emotion experienced. This is because we’re engaging our logical mind. When you are anxious, say to yourself ‘I am anxious’ (it doesn’t have to be out loud) and the anxiety will begin to settle.

Understand It – Anxiety is an important part of humanity. It exists for our survival and is ultimately trying to protect us. Not having a threat system would be very dangerous, so we just need to train the one we have. Ask yourself what your true intention would be if anxiety wasn’t part of your experience? What is anxiety trying to protect you from and is it accurate?

Accept It – Most people who suffer from anxiety say they are desperate to get rid of it and stop feeling all the horrible symptoms. Unfortunately, this has a paradoxical effect on anxiety, meaning you notice and feel it more. Ultimately, ‘what we resist persists’. Therefore, your aim should be to allow the experience so you can work with it.

Write It Down – Journaling gets things out of our head, engages our logical mindset, and helps us gain more clarity. This enables us to become more objective about our experience.

Delay Action – We’ve all heard the saying that you should wait a day before hitting send on an angry email. This is very good advice when it comes to anxiety too. In the midst of anxiety, we don’t always think rationally, but once our anxious bodies have calmed down, our thinking often shifts.

Take Your Own Advice – Ask yourself, if your best friend or someone you really cared about was in this situation or having this worry what would you advise? The advice we’d give someone else is often exactly what we need to hear. If this is difficult to consider, it may be because your anxiety levels are too high. Do a quick mindfulness session and come back to the question.

Cognitive Diffusion – This fantastic technique essentially helps us become disentangled from our thoughts by viewing them as just that, thoughts and nothing else. They are not facts or instructions – they are simply words in your head. The aim of cognitive diffusion is to detach ourselves from the thought, thereby decreasing its power over us.

It Won’t Be Easy, but it Can Be Done

I know many of the things suggested above are not easy, especially if you belong to the 6% of the UK population with ongoing generalised anxiety disorder. However, I can assure you they are achievable, it just takes practice.

The brain is like a muscle, and you can train it to behave differently. Wherever we put our attention grows in our attention. You have the power to redirect your focus, so when anxiety strikes, focus on calming your body and the rest should follow.

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Sarah Rees

Sarah is a fully accredited Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and mental health writer delivering Modern Mental Health for you and with you in Mind. Sarah is the author of ‘The CBT Journal’ which helps you write for your wellbeing incorporating CBT techniques. For more information and to keep in touch have a look at sarahdrees.co.uk.