We all experience anxiety at some point and in the right situations, a little anxiety isn’t always a bad thing; it can help us to increase focus and improve performance. But we can also experience anxiety at other times too, times when it’s not helpful to experience anxious thoughts and physical feelings. Instead of feeling confident and capable, your heart starts to beat faster, maybe your palms start to sweat and you can feel the butterflies in your stomach as you’re confronted with what feels like an overwhelming task or event. If your anxiety is focused on a specific situation or event, here are 5 things that you can do to control anxiety levels and feel calmer.
It sounds simple, but controlling your breathing can also help you to control anxiety, by regulating your heart rate and the amount of oxygen in your body. A simple technique that many people find helpful is the 4-4-4-4 technique, also known as Square Breathing. To do square breathing, you simply breathe in for the count of 4, pause for the count of 4, breathe out for the count of 4 and pause for the count of 4. Continue this for a few minutes until you start to feel calmer.
2. Practise the 5-4-3-2-1 technique
This technique is designed to help you feel more grounded and in the present moment, so that you can start to control anxiety rather than having anxious thoughts running through your mind.
To begin with, pay attention to your breathing. Taking slow deep breaths can help you reach a calmer state. You can also use the Square Breathing technique described above. When your breathing is calmer, use the following steps to help ground yourself in the present:
- Notice FIVE things you can SEE around you – Perhaps different objects or things in your surroundings.
- Notice FOUR things you can TOUCH around you – It could be your hair, the feel of your clothes against your skin, or the feel of the ground beneath your feet.
- Notice THREE things you can HEAR – This could be any sound in your immediate environment; maybe the sound of traffic, people talking or birds singing.
- Notice TWO things you can SMELL – If you’re at work, maybe it’s the smell of coffee from the coffee machine, the smell of your pillow if you’re in bed, or perhaps the different smells of nature if you’re outside.
- Notice ONE thing you can TASTE – What does the inside of your mouth taste like? Maybe you can still taste your toothpaste if you’ve recently cleaned your teeth, or perhaps you can taste traces of the last thing you ate?
3. Thought Stopping
This is another quick technique which is very simple, but can also be very effective if you practise it regularly. By the time we realise that we’re anxious, the process has already been underway for some time. But actually, anxiety usually starts in your thought processes; we churn negative thoughts over and over in our mind. To control anxiety, the key is to control your thoughts. The next time you realise that you’re having a negative or anxious thought, say to yourself very firmly “STOP!”. You can either say it out loud, or to yourself in your thoughts. As soon as you say the word STOP!, you immediately focus on your breathing and do that for a couple of minutes until the anxious thought passes. If the anxious thought returns, use the stop technique again.
4. Stop the ‘What ifs’
When I’m working with clients who experience anxiety, I often describe the words ‘What if…’ as the two worst words in the English language – and they often are, if you don’t use them wisely. Many of the anxious or negative thoughts that people have, start with the words ‘What if’. What if I can’t do it? What if I’m not good enough? What if it doesn’t work? What if they laugh at me?
For many of us, we use the words ‘What if’ in a negative context, usually when we’re not sure what will happen or whether something will work out. Because we don’t know, our mind fills the gap with whatever terrifies it the most.
The next time you find yourself thinking a negative ‘What if…’, use the thought stopping technique and then replace it with a more helpful thought.
5. Take a Break
We all need a break from time to time. If you experience anxiety regularly, you need some time off to relax and recharge. We are not meant to live like hamsters constantly running round in a giant hamster wheel, but if you experience anxiety often, it can begin to feel like that. The key to controlling anxiety is leading a full and balanced life. Taking time out for yourself to do the things you enjoy shouldn’t be something you do every few weeks or months, it should be a regular part of your week. Even a short amount of time doing something you enjoy such as walking, listening to music, reading a book or another relaxing activity, can all help to improve your wellbeing and control anxiety levels.
Practising meditation, mindfulness or self hypnosis can help you to feel calmer, increase your sense of wellbeing and control anxiety. If you’re experiencing anxiety on a regular basis, talking therapies such as hypnotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy can also be helpful in enabling you to challenge unhelpful thoughts and feel calmer.