Many people use anxiety tools to keep calm and control anxious feelings. You probably have tools and techniques you use, but you might find they don’t work as well as they did. I wanted to explain the main reasons why this is and how you can make them more effective.
What are anxiety tools?
Firstly, what are anxiety tools and techniques? I’m referring to things like grounding exercises (like looking at 5 things, listening for 4 things, etc), breathing exercises, band snapping or other distraction exercises. These work because when we are anxious our emotional brain is controlling our thoughts. By distracting these thoughts it can snap us back into our rational thinking brain again, which calms the anxious thoughts. But you might find that some or all of the tools you use are not as effective as they used to be.
So what are the main reasons why this happens?
The brain pattern matches automatically
Our brains pattern match all the time. We understand everything in the world by matching it back to something we already know. When we recognise something, we associate it with other things that are stored with that pattern. Imagine you are eating a bowl of cereal and you hear a song on the radio. The next day when you eat your cereal, you’ll probably be reminded of the song you heard the day before. In the same way, if, when feeling anxious, you regularly snap a band on your wrist to calm you down, your brain can begin to associate that action with the feeling of anxiety. The same thing can happen if you always listen to a particular song or to a calming app.
If this is happening then, unfortunately, this action is now part of the pattern of anxiety and will not work like it used to. Stop using these anxiety tools for a while. Variation is the key. It will be helpful if you vary the techniques you use, trying different things and doing them in different ways.
The brain becomes too efficient at using the anxiety tools
Our brain is an incredible machine. It constantly analyses our thoughts and actions and tries to find ways to make them more efficient. This is because the efficiency uses less energy. Once we’ve done something a few times, the brain finds ways to make parts of the action or thought automatic. This is so that we don’t have to consciously think about what we are doing or thinking. So for example, if you’re driving a car, you’re consciously thinking about where you are going, and paying attention to other cars or pedestrians, but you’re not consciously thinking about changing gear or which foot to use. When you were learning and this element of driving wasn’t yet automatic, it was really difficult to drive and concentrate on not running anyone over! But as it got more and more automatic it got easier to focus your attention on things outside the car.
We can be too efficient!
The same thing tends to happen when we keep using the same anxiety tools. Most techniques rely on distracting the emotional brain. They work because they require the conscious thinking brain to work and it snaps us out of the emotional brain. But if the brain is too efficient at doing the technique then it doesn’t work because a lot of what you are thinking is on autopilot.
For example, the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique is very popular and can work really well. But most people will naturally pick the same things each time. This is because the brain remembers previous times and helpfully reminds you of them so you can be more efficient. But if less and less conscious thought is required, you won’t be pulled out of your anxious thoughts.
What can we do to make the techniques more effective?
The main key to effective distraction from anxiety is surprise! Variation, so the brain isn’t used to what’s coming and doesn’t automate it. And the more differences, the less the brain will associate the activity with being anxious. Make the brain work. Don’t just pick the same things in grounding techniques. Challenge yourself to come up with ones you’ve not used before. It’s the thinking about it that makes it effective. Listen to music, but really listen to it, imagine the notes rising and falling in pitch as if you can see them. If you use an app, change to a different one or use different features on the same app.
Or try this breathing technique…
This breathing exercise specifically targets the ‘rest and relax’ nervous system in our bodies. When we breathe in, this is our sympathetic nervous system. This system is our ‘get up and go’ system. If you’re feeling anxious at the moment, pay attention to your body and your breathing. You will probably find that you are tense, especially around your shoulders – a sure sign that your sympathetic nervous system is in charge. Now, notice when breathing out that everything in your body feels more relaxed. This is your parasympathetic nervous system.
Why does it work?
The 7/11 breathing exercise promotes the parasympathetic nervous system and sends a clear message to the body to calm down. By breathing out for 4 counts longer than you breathe in, it . 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, helping to control anxiety. Click below for the full explanation and method.
It’s best to do this as an actual exercise rather than as a response to feeling anxious. Ideally do this for around 10 minutes when you wake up and before sleep. This allows you to have a calm start and end to your day. It lowers emotional levels in the brain so that anxious feelings don’t overwhelm you. Also, if you make this a part of your daily routine you’ll be able to do it much easier when you need it in an anxious situation.
I hope you have found this information on anxiety tools 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