If you’re trying to control anxiety… 

…you’ve probably tried all sorts of things. Some probably worked and some probably seemed a bit unrealistic. For example, challenging negative beliefs is all very well but it’s hard to know where to start. I wanted to give you some things to try that are in line with the way your brain works. By understanding how the brain works, you have a better chance of being able to control anxiety when it occurs.

Some of these tips are things to do in the moment when an anxiety attack happens. Others are are self-care tips that will go a long way to calm you down overall and control anxiety. 




1. Breathing 


First up, breathing. Now I know there are lots of different breathing exercises out there but this one specifically targets the ‘rest and relax’ nervous system in our bodies. We have a sympathetic nervous system which is when we breathe in. This is our get up and go system. If you are feeling anxious right now, notice your body and your breathing. You will probably find that you are tensed up – a sure sign that your sympathetic nervous system is in charge. Now, notice when you breathe out that everything in your body feels a bit softer and more relaxed. This is your parasympathetic nervous system. 

Why does it work? 

The 7/11 breathing exercise stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and sends a clear signal to the body to calm down. It works by simply breathing out for 4 counts longer than you breathe in. It doesn’t matter how many that count is, it could be a ratio of 2 counts breathing in and 6 counts breathing out. While you do this, you concentrate on the numbers that you are counting. Try to picture the numbers being written down or point to a different finger as you count. The idea is to keep your thoughts as neutral as possible. Doing this allows the brain’s emotional levels to calm down and helps to control anxiety.  Click below for the full explanation and method.

When should I do this? 

Don’t just do this when you feel anxious, although it’s great for that. Ideally do this for around 10 minutes when you wake up and before sleep. This gives you a calm start and end to your day. It lowers emotional levels so that they don’t increase to the point of having an anxiety attack. Plus when you make this part of your routine you’ll be able to do it much easier in an anxious situation when you need it.






2. Grounding 


Grounding is bringing your focus to experiencing your present surroundings. This is done by using your rational brain to engage all the senses one by one. So for example, you name 5 things that you can see, 4 things that you can hear, and so on. 

Why does it work? 

Our brain has 2 elements to it. We have an emotional brain that keeps us safe, and a rational thinking brain for planning and logic. Crucially, we can’t be in both of these at the same time. When we are anxious, we are in a highly emotional state, resulting in our thinking brain being limited. The good news is if we deliberately engage our thinking brain at this time it switches our emotional brain off. By focussing on counting, observation and engaging the senses we bring our thinking brain back online. This enables us to calm down and control anxiety because we can rationalise our surroundings and put them into context. 

When should I do this? 

This is great to do as soon as you start to feel those panicky feelings. You can repeat it as necessary, finding new answers to each of the questions. Have a positive outlook, because this will enable you to give the exercise your full attention. This 5-4-3-2-1 exercise is a great one to try, but there are lots of different ones out there.



3. Get a little exercise 


I know, these lists always say that! But I don’t mean running a marathon or anything drastic. Whatever you can do that gets you slightly out of breath for a short while is fine. Understanding why this works might help you to overcome your resistance. 

Why does this work? 

When you are feeling anxious, you may notice your heart racing faster, or you may feel agitated. When your brain is feeling threatened, which is what anxiety is, it triggers our ‘fight or flight’ state. This is the brain’s emergency setting. Your heart beats faster to give your muscles the oxygen they need to help you run or fight. Your body puts itself into stress mode (using the aforementioned sympathetic nervous system). Additionally your body is flooded with stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, to give you extra speed and strength.

What the body is geared up for is for you to expend all the extra oxygen and stress hormones running away or exerting yourself by fighting the danger. But in reality, we are normally sitting waiting for the feeling to pass. 

By carrying out a physical exercise while we are feeling anxious it allows the body to reset. The expected physical exertion happened and the brain can allow us to calm down again. 

When should I do this? 

You can do it when you feel anxious to allow your body to ‘reset’ itself. But it is a great idea to do it regularly, just a small amount every day. The reason for this is that although you might acknowledge that you got anxious at certain points in the day, the likelihood is that you had had many anxious or emotional thoughts before those times. Exercise keeps your emotional levels lower even if you do it at times when you don’t feel you need it. Think of it as detoxing the body. 



4. Turn off your phone…(the world won’t stop)! 


Phones, tablets and computers keep us connected all the time to work, friends, social media and news. Technology is great, but it can often mean that we don’t get a break from it all. Being constantly bombarded all the time with email or social media notifications can make it hard to control anxiety levels. Constantly responding to work demands outside of working hours creates an imbalance between your working day and leisure time. Also, spending lots of time on social media, can lead us to judge ourselves harshly. We see other people’s celebrations or social gatherings and can feel as if our own lives don’t quite measure up. Maybe you’re comparing your physical appearance unfavourably to someone else’s filtered Instagram feed. Of course in reality we don’t know what other people’s lives or struggles might be, but that doesn’t stop us. 

Why does this work? 

By giving yourself a few hours in the day when you are not looking into other people’s lives, or responding to work demands, it gives you space allowing your brain to calm down. If you avoid using your devices for a couple of hours before bed you also sleep better. Why is that? Partly, it’s just what you’d expect. You go off to sleep without your brain being hyped up by what you’ve just looked at. But there is another reason.

We respond emotionally to what we see, for example someone’s Instagram feed that makes us feel inadequate. Or someone posting about an amazing family get together might make us miss relatives who are no longer with us. These emotional reactions need to be dreamed out and processed in order for us to begin the next day afresh. The more emotional reactions, the more dreams and the more dreams, the more exhausted we feel the next day. This tiredness caused by over-dreaming often causes us to be highly emotional and more anxious.

When should I do this? 

The aim is to have less emotional reactions to allow us to dream less and have better sleep. So reducing the time you spend on devices by any amount has a beneficial effect. Try for an hour less per day to start, making the last hour before you go to sleep device free. Better sleep will make it easier for you control anxiety the following day and that will help you sleep better. It’s win win. 



5. Take some time out 


Meditation or mindfulness are tried and tested ways to promote calmness and relieve anxiety.

Why does it work? 

Our brains have the ability to think about a vast number of things in a really short space of time. Did you know that we can have around 65,000 thoughts a day! And lots of these thoughts induce some kind of emotional reaction. These thoughts might lead us to feel happy, sad, stressed or even make us feel anxious or depressed. Our brains are always pattern matching to past experiences and our thoughts are a bridge to those experiences and emotions. Meditation and mindfulness are ways of pausing those thoughts and stopping the emotions that arise from them. 

Try this test 

Try this quick test. Just allow your mind wander for around 30 seconds or so. Notice what went through your mind. The likelihood is that the thoughts you had just then were rooted in the past or the future. We tend to live our lives either thinking (or worrying) about the future, or thinking (or dwelling) in the past. You might be thinking ahead to that interview you’re feeling anxious about. Or you might go back over an argument you had, meaning that you feel angry all over again. It’s better for us not to experience these emotions over and over again! 

Mindfulness gives your mind a break from experiencing the emotions these thoughts bring up. Mindfulness and meditation keep you here in the present, and the less time you think about things that make you anxious, the less anxious you’ll feel. Ask yourself… right now in this present moment, what problems have you got? It is likely that if you have a problem right now, you’re probably dealing with it right now, not reading this. And no, potential problems don’t count, they are (possibly) in the future!

When should I do this? 

Mindfulness and meditation are simple in theory but it can be challenging to still your mind from all those thoughts. If it is new to you, then little and often is best. Even if you only sit for 5 or 10 minutes, that’s still giving your brain a rest from all of those emotional thoughts. There are lots of guided meditations online which are free and these are a great place to start. 



6. Get enough sleep 


I know, easier said than done, right? A good night’s sleep really helps in being able to control anxiety.  And if you are suffering with anxious feelings, you might be finding that sleep is quite elusive. It can be hard to switch off your brain when you’re anxious. Many people find they either can’t get off to sleep or they wake very early or in the middle of the night. It can be really frustrating! 

So what can I do about it?

Well firstly, make sure that you are allowing enough time in your life for sleep. I have had clients that work very late and get up really early and say they don’t get enough sleep! There has to physically be enough time in your day not only for 6-8 hours of sleep but also a couple of hours of winding down time too. After all, you wouldn’t usually come in from work and get straight into bed. But that’s what you are asking your brain to do. You might not be working late, but are you playing video games or on your phone? These activities are work for the brain. 

It’s a good idea to avoid eating a heavy meal just before bed, or using alcohol to send you off to sleep. We might sleep initially, but in a few hours when we have metabolised the alcohol or the carbohydrates it tends to wake us up. 

Try these useful tips from the NHS about getting to sleep.

You might also try this 4-7-8 breathing technique to help you drop off to sleep. Many people find they can fall asleep in as little as one minute using this. 



7. Be kind to yourself 


Are you having unrealistic expectations of yourself? Imagine you were your best friend. What would they say to you? We can often put intolerable pressure onto ourselves to reach a certain goal, to get this work project finished, to never forget anything or to be the perfect parent. You are human, not a robot.  

When you start to feel overwhelmed, take stock of what you are asking of yourself. Is it reasonable do you think? Try to look in on it from a friend’s perspective, what would they say? Often if you step back and look at what you are doing you begin to calm down. You may feel that some of the things you felt you absolutely had to do can wait. Or maybe they don’t need to be done at all. 

Just remember that you are always doing the best you can with the tools you have available. 

I hope you have found these tips on how to control anxiety helpful. As always, please share if you know someone else who would benefit from reading them. For more information and useful downloads, head over to our website.

With very best wishes


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