We have all felt the intense physical and emotional overwhelm that comes with feeling anxious. For some this may be a rare event that is triggered by an event such as public speaking or a job interview, while for others anxiety is a regular state of being. Anxiety is a psychological and physical reaction to perceived threats or stressful situations. In a biological sense, it is an evolutionary adaptation—our ancestors needed a heightened state of alertness to face imminent dangers. When confronted with a threat, the body responds by activating the “fight or flight” response, preparing an individual to either confront or flee from the threat.
Our thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions play a crucial role in the development and maintenance of anxiety. The Cognitive Model of Anxiety suggests that it’s not the situation itself that’s anxiety-inducing, but rather our perception of the situation. For instance, people with anxiety may tend to overestimate the danger in situations and underestimate their ability to cope.
Anxiety can strike at the most inopportune moments, such as during a work meeting or in the middle of a social event. It can also happen when you least expect it; you may be just sitting at home on your couch. Wherever you find yourself, coping with the overwhelm is tough. The following exercises are helpful to have in your mental health toolbox that you can draw upon to bring yourself back to a calm place.
Defusion techniques help to reduce the influence of negative thoughts. The goal is to change how you interact with anxiety-provoking thoughts, not to eliminate the thoughts themselves. Try to observe your thoughts as just words, not absolute truths. This involves stepping back and detaching or disentangling yourself from the thought and changing your relationship with it. Can it be words on the screen of your mind, rather than something that has control over your emotions or behaviour?
For instance, if the thought is, “I’m a failure,” instead of accepting it as truth, you might say to yourself, “I’m having the thought that I’m a failure.” This small shift in language can help you to realize that thoughts are merely thoughts – they are not facts or predictions about the future.
2. Cognitive Restructuring
Cognitive restructuring is a core technique in CBT. This involves identifying, challenging, and altering anxiety-provoking thoughts. When you’re feeling anxious, write down the thoughts you’re having. Then, challenge these thoughts. What is the evidence for this thought being true? Is it realistic? How does it serve me? Lastly, try to develop more balanced, constructive alternatives.
3. Exposure Therapy
Exposure therapy, a method used in CBT, involves gradually and repeatedly facing the situations that provoke your anxiety. Over time, this can reduce the fear response and teach you that anxiety and fear will lessen on their own. For example, if someone has a fear of spiders (arachnophobia), they might be gradually exposed to spiders, starting perhaps with looking at a picture of a spider, then being in the same room as a spider in a container, and eventually holding a spider.
Always ensure that exposure is done in a safe, controlled manner, preferably under the guidance of a mental health professional.
4. “Leaves on a Stream” Exercise
“Leaves on a Stream” is another cognitive defusion exercise. When a negative or anxious thought arises, visualize placing it onto a leaf and letting it float downstream. This allows you to see thoughts as transient and separate from yourself, reducing their negative impact.
5. The Triple Column Technique
The Triple Column Technique is a cognitive restructuring tool from CBT. Draw three columns on a paper. In the first column, write down your anxious thoughts.
In the second column, write down the cognitive distortion (e.g., the type of thought you are having). Examples of distortions include “all-or-nothing thinking” (seeing things in black and white), “overgeneralization” (believing that one negative event means a pattern of failure), “catastrophizing” (expecting the worst-case scenario), and “disqualifying the positive ,” (rejecting good experiences because they “don’t count.”)
In the third column write down what might be a more rational thought.
6. The “Passengers on the Bus” Metaphor
The “Passengers on the Bus” metaphor is an empowering way of ordering the thoughts in your mind. Imagine you’re a bus driver, with various passengers (your thoughts and feelings) constantly getting on and off the bus. Some passengers might be loud, obnoxious, or distressing (anxious thoughts and feelings), but as the bus driver, you choose the direction of the bus (your actions), not the passengers. This metaphor helps you to detach from your distressing thoughts and feelings and to act according to your values, not your current emotional state.
7. The TIPP Acronym
TIPP stands for Temperature, Intense exercise, Paced breathing, and Paired muscle relaxation — physical techniques that can help reduce extreme emotional arousal:
Temperature: Change your body temperature by splashing your face with cold water or holding a cold pack on your forehead. This triggers the ‘dive reflex’, helping slow down your heart rate and calm your body.
Intense exercise: Engage in brief, intense exercise to help reduce pent-up stress and anxiety.
Paced breathing: Breathe in deeply for a count of four, hold your breath for four counts, exhale for a count of four, and repeat.
Paired muscle relaxation: While breathing in deeply, tense your muscles. Then relax them while breathing out. Repeat this with different muscle groups.
These are just a few of the coping skills you may want to try. Some may work better for you than others and all will require some practice. For more ways to deal with your anxiety and to learn about its origins, book a free consultation with one of our therapists today.