Brian is the primary writer for this blog.

One of the most fundamental problems with anxiety and stress is that we tend to project into the future. That is, we tell ourselves, “I’m going to be so tense next week when I take that driving test. I’ll probably lose my concentration and fail.” No doubt you have been guilty of this sort of future thinking. How does it make you feel? Do you agree that such anticipation only stirs up your emotions and raises your inner tension? Is this how you want to spend the next week, mired in some sort of dread condition?

How about learning to refocus your thinking back to the present to reduce this inner tension and to take charge of your current reality? How about living in the present moment to prepare yourself for the future? The techniques below have been shown to be quite effective in helping this process by helping you relax and blocking out distracting thoughts.

—-Do some breathing. When you’re anxious one of the first things to change is your breathing rate.  How can you get your normal respiration back?  First empty your lungs, “blow out the birthday candles,” so to speak. Exhale all the air you can. Then take a deep breath in through your nose for about 5 seconds. Repeat this about 5 to 10 times.

Next, try to gain a rhythm, such as 3 seconds in through the nose and 3 seconds out through the mouth. No need to focus on timing things; just make each phase last a moderate period. With practice several times each day you will become quite proficient at loosening yourself up in a stressful situation.

—-Along with the breathing technique you can use your senses and the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 progression.  This method uses your five senses to orient your thinking to the present. First, picture five things you can see around you and describe each using an adjective or two. Ideally find objects that give you a relaxed feeling. For instance: “I see a black chair; I see a table that has a computer monitor on it; the table is on a blue rug; I see a window and bright sunshine outside; near the window is a tree full of green leaves.” Next, describe four things you can touch, again using an adjective or two. “A part of my chair has a metal frame that is cool to the touch.” Next, describe three things you can hear (“There is a soft hum of the air conditioner.”), then two things you can smell (it’s OK to lean over and smell the flowers on the desk), and finally one thing you can taste (take a swig of your water or coffee).  You can do these in any order but typically it works best if you follow this order of the senses as it hard to engage a number of things for each sense, for example it is hard to smell 5 things at once.

—-Another distraction technique is called serial 7’s. Say the sentence, “I will be a more positive person,” seven times. Then go back and say each word of the sentence seven times: “I, I, I, I, I, I, I, will, will, will, will, will, will, will,” etc. Then go back and say the entire sentence seven more times. You should pace yourself and follow this procedure about one word per second, fast enough so other thoughts can’t come through and distract you. This is a good technique to get your mind off whatever started making you anxious. Once again it is best to combine this method with your breathing exercise.

—- An additional distraction technique that works for many people involves focusing on one thing in great detail. When you start to feel anxious, this technique has you focus on one thing, imagining every possible detail. Then take each detail, name it, and focus on various characteristics. If you picture a car, for instance, how many details about a car can you name? This sort of mental effort can go a long way getting your mind off of the topic that was making you anxious and serve to relax a lot of inner tension.  If you still feel anxious after you try this once, move on to another object and continue to count the details.  As always, pair this process with your breathing exercise.

—-Each of us has many small things that we find personally satisfying and relaxing. It could be an object, a mental image, an activity, just about anything. It is these small things that often have the most effect in helping you cope with stress and anxiety. Perhaps a music playlist of your favorite songs; going for a short walk; playing with the family pet; stretching to increase your blood flow and your oxygen flow. Identify those things and, if possible, activate one of them when you feel stressed. At the very least, think about how you will use one of those things later when appropriate.

To give yourself some reassurance, write on index cards those things that bring you calmness and serenity. Keep the cards handy so you know you will have a quick and easy way to reduce any stress that may be coming your way with activities you can do that work to help you, or things that bring you some kind of peace of mind or calmness

—-Finally, it’s useful to “check in” with yourself throughout the day. What have you been thinking about? Have your thoughts been realistic, rational, and positive? Have you been excessively focusing on some problem that may not be real, or may not be under your control? The check-in process allows you to monitor yourself. You would be amazed at how often you fail to evaluate your mental status during a typical day; failing to do so can get you into all sorts of problems and before you know it, you have made yourself an emotional wreck. Activity transitions are a good time and place to do this checking and would include: When you’re arriving at work, when you’re going to the restroom, when you’re taking a break, even when you stand up after being seated for a considerable time. Whatever you have been doing, before you transition to the next activity, ask yourself: “How do I feel?” “Am I tense anywhere?” “Am I letting any minor things get to me?”  Remember, the more information you have, the more likely it is that you can take charge, empower yourself, and reduce inner tension.











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