How to fight a psychological scourge of the modern world.
We worry about work, money, our health, our partners, children…the list goes on.
And let’s face it, there are plenty of things to worry about, and that’s even before you’ve turned on the news. This means that when the mind is given an idle moment, often what it seems to fill it with is worrying.
Worry can be useful if it’s aimed at solving problems but less useful when it’s just making us unhappy or interfering with our daily lives.
The standard psychological methods for dealing with everyday worry are pretty simple. But just because they’re simple and relatively well-known doesn’t mean we don’t need reminding to use them from time-to-time.
So here is a five-step plan called “The Peaceful Mind” that was actually developed by psychologists specifically for people with dementia (Paukert et al., 2013). Because of this it has a strong focus on the behavioural aspects of relaxation and less on the cognitive. That suits our purposes here as the cognitive stuff (what you are worrying about) can be quite individual, whereas the behavioural things, everyone can do.
This is the step most people skip. Why? Because it feels like we already know the answer. You probably already think you know what makes you anxious.
But sometimes the situations, physical signs and emotions that accompany anxiety aren’t as obvious as you might think. So try keeping a kind of ‘anxiety journal’, whether real or virtual. When do you feel anxious and what are the physical signs of anxiety?
Sometimes this stage on its own is enough to help people with their anxiety. As I never tire of saying, especially in the area of habits, self-awareness is the first step to change.
If you’ve been reading PsyBlog for a while you’ll know all about how both mind and body each feed back to the other. For example, standing confidently makes people feel more confident. Mind doesn’t just affect body, body also affects mind.
It’s the same with anxiety: taking conscious control of breathing sends a message back to the mind.
So, when you’re anxious, which is often accompanied by shallow, quick breathing, try changing it to relaxed breathing, which is usually slower and deeper. You can count slowly while breathing in and out and try putting your hand on your stomach and feeling the breath moving in and out.
In addition, adopt whatever bodily positions you associate with being relaxed (although suddenly lying down before giving a talk in public might be a step too far!). Typically these are things like relaxing muscles, adopting an open stance to the world (unfold arms, hint of a smile).
3. Calming thoughts
It’s all very well saying: “Think calming thoughts”, but who can think of any calming thoughts when stressful situations are approaching and the heart is pumping?
The key is to get your calming thoughts ready in advance. They could be as simple as “Calm down!” but they need to be things that you personally believe in for them to be most effective. It’s about finding what form of words or thoughts is right for you.
4. Increase activity
It might seem strange to say that the answer to anxiety is more activities, as we tend to think the answer to anxiety is relaxation and that involves doing less.
But, when unoccupied, the mind wanders, often to anxieties; whereas when engaged with an activity we enjoy, we feel better. Even neutral or somewhat wearing activities, like household admin, can be better than sitting around worrying.
The problem with feeling anxious is that it makes you less likely to want to engage with distracting activities. You see the problem.
One answer is to have a list of activities that you find enjoyable ready in advance. When anxiety hits at an inactive moment, you can go off and do something to occupy your mind.
Try to have things on your list that you know you will enjoy and are easy to get started on. For example, ‘invent a time machine’ may be biting off a tiny bit more than you can chew, but ‘a walk around the block’ is do-able.
5. Sleep skills
Often when people are anxious they have problems sleeping. Sometimes when you feel anxious there’s nothing worse than lying in bed, in the dark, with only your own thoughts to occupy your attention.
And lack of sleep leads to anxiety about sleeping which can lead, paradoxically, to worse sleep.
Breaking out of this loop can be hard but practising ‘sleep hygiene’ can help. This is all about getting into good sleeping habits. I’ve covered this before in 6 Easy Steps to Falling Asleep Fast, so check that article out for the details.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.