Effectively Managing Anxiety

Anxiety is what we feel when our system perceives a threat in our environment. It manifests at four levels: feelings, thoughts, physical sensations and behaviours.


Anxious Feelings

As part of our survival mechanism, fear alerts us to danger in our environment and also helps to encode memories of such dangers so that the next time we are confronted by them, we recognize them faster. This way our past experiences inform our present and also our future predictions.  If you are feeling anxious, validate that it is okay to feel anxious. If we ignore our alarm systems, they only ring louder.Label this feeling. Identify what has triggered it and why this trigger has meaning for you. Observe how it feels in your body. Notice how as you engage with your anxiety, it changes and transforms.


Anxious Thoughts

Our thoughts can change the way we feel about something and even impacts what we notice in our environment. If we are always thinking about negative outcomes, our brain strengthens this associative pathway and will start to direct our attention to things that align with this negative mindset. Research shows we are more prone to noticing things that confirm our pre-existing expectations than things that challenge them. 

If we struggle with anxious thoughts about the past or future, we can start reality checking these thoughts until the associative pathways weaken and our brain allows us to reshape our neural network. Identify your thoughts. What past experiences did this thought originate from? Find evidence for this thought. Find evidence against this thought. Why do you think this thought is so relevant for you? What’s a more balanced view?

For our Thought Testing Worksheet, CLICK HERE.



Anxious Sensations

Anxiety is felt in our bodies. It is what pushes our bodies to activate our fight or flight system: there’s a threat that we need to survive. Many threats in modern society are not directly life-or-death situations, but they sure can feel that way. Anxiety can trigger among other things enhanced heart rates, sweating, rapid breathing,dilated pupils, and tingling or trembling.

If you are noticing that your body is anxious, you can calm it using physical techniques. Breathing is key. Conscious, steady slow inhales into your belly and conscious, steady slow exhales. Another method is slowing scanning your attention through your body from the crown of your head to your feet. Really pay attention to sensations, especially where the weight of gravity connects you to the ground and in regions that you don’t usually think of, like your ears, elbows and knees. Drop your shoulders. Deliberately relax your muscles. That is you telling your body that everything is fine and that it can drop into rest and recovery mode instead. 

For our guided Body Scan Exercise, CLICK HERE.


Anxious Behaviours

It’s called fight or flight for a reason. When we get anxious, we may snap and lash out, or we withdraw and hide. If we feel we are completely helpless in changing a situation, we may freeze and collapse. 

Recognize when you are engaging in anxiety-driven behaviours. In those moments, you may simply be reacting; when you actually would be better of responding – making a conscious choice on how you act. Identify whether the behaviours are helpful or unhelpful at making yourself feel better. 

It is useful to think back on previous situations in which you reacted to anxiety so you can get a sense of what your typical survival response is. This will make it easier to notice when you are sliding into this behavioural pattern the next time you are experiencing anxiety. Decide on how you would like to react when you are anxious and how that would improve the situation. Use those ideas to make an action plan to put into practice when anxiety starts. 

To deep dive into your anxiety and find ways to manage it that work for you, get in touch on e.terrighena@mind-balance.org.

Dr Esslin Terrighena - Psychologist in Hong Kong

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