Fear comes in many forms, ranging from normal nervousness about a tough decision, college exam, or sporting event; to excessive worry and paranoia related to someone’s opinion of us; to a paralyzing inability to leave the comfort zone of home. All forms of anxiety that bring people to therapy for treatment are causing some amount of physical, social, and emotional distress, and to some extent negatively impacting health, work, and relationships.
It’s tempting to try to approach anxiety with rational self-talk, e.g., Why am I anxious? Where is this coming from? Nothing’s wrong. Everything’s fine. I’ve got to stop worrying! I’ve got to calm down! But when anxiety is questioned or challenged too quickly, it intensifies. It’s also common to bring attention to the breath as a means to diffuse anxiety, but deepening or lengthening the breath precipitously can lead to light-headedness and again, intensified anxiety.
Well-meaning mental and physical attempts to “hurry up and calm down” while experiencing shortness or shallowness of breath, racing thoughts, increased heart rate, sweating, and/or dizziness will only exacerbate those symptoms. For highly anxious people there is, for all intents and purposes, a bear in the room, and convincing oneself to calm down when there’s a bear in the room doesn’t make very much sense!
With devoted time, training, and practice, the anxious person can learn to relax the body before the thinking mind gets too tight a grip on the situation and makes things worse. The anxious mind will right itself when given the container of a calm body, becoming rational and able to discover for itself that there is no bear in the room — a very hard situation to face perhaps, but no actual bear to fight or flee or freeze to. With that discovery, constructive thinking, discussion, and insight can occur around what’s causing the anxiety, i.e., the perceived bear.
Self-regulation is a well known approach to calming one's body at the first signs of anxiety so that the mind can stay freely open to experience. With the alignment of body and mind, rather than dissonance, one can accurately perceive and navigate any present moment. I’ve developed a simple 90-second self-regulation practice that clients find effective at diffusing anxiety on the spot. As self-regulation is mastered, courage, reason, and confidence begin to displace the anxious response. The results: a more relaxed body, a more patient mind, and more skillful interactions with others.