Legend has it that Nasrudin was walking alone at night when he saw a group of people approaching in the far distance. Instantly, his imagination began to toy with him: “They are surely robbers!” he thought. “No, why just robbers? Murderers, cutthroats! About to set upon me, a lonely traveller, leave me for dead and steal all my possessions! How are my wife and children going to cope without me?!”
Nasrudin’s heart began to pound. His mouth became as dry as his palms became wet. He shook from head to toe and found himself breathing like an unfit man running to the finishing line of his first marathon.
Having thoroughly terrified himself, he stumbled into a nearby graveyard and cowered shaking inside an open tomb, awaiting his fate. Meanwhile, the harmless strangers, worried by his dramatic behaviour, approached him and looked with concern down into the tomb. “What, pray, are you doing down there?” they asked.
Nasrudin, calming down quickly, said: “Well, put it this way: I am here because of you and you are here because of me!” (1)
Imagination is a tool to be used, but how many people misuse it to torment themselves? Imagination and emotionality are closely linked and what we imagine can feel very real to us (even when it isn’t at all).
As the author Katherine Paterson once said: “To fear is one thing. To let fear grab you by the tail and swing you around is another.”
If you find yourself becoming overly anxious, use the following steps to help you calm down and start to regain control.
1) Breathing is the short circuit for anxiety
I know I know, you hear a lot about ‘deep breathing’ to help you relax and reduce anxiety, but bear with me.
Quicker, shallower breathing is the first trigger which catapults all the other anxious symptoms into action. So by controlling breathing you control all the other anxiety symptoms as well.
If you purposely breathe out longer than you breathe in, your body has to calm right down (regardless of what tricks your imagination is playing on you).
So if you start to feel fearful:
- Focus on your breath
- Take a breath in (to the quick count of 7 in your mind)
- Then slowly breathe out (to the quick count of 11 in your mind)
If you do this for a minute or so, you’ll be amazed how quickly you’ve calmed down. We call this ‘7/11 breathing’ but the numbers are up to you, just as long as the out-breath is longer than the in-breath.
“That’s all very well!” I hear you say. “But when I get anxious I forget everything and all good advice goes out the window!”
Good point and well made. This brings us to…
2) Prepare for peaceful performance
If you get anxious and fear upcoming events, you’ll notice that just thinking about that interview, speech, or whatever will start to cause physical responses – namely, anxiety.
So you might be thinking about next Wednesday’s dental appointment and find yourself breathing more quickly or your palms getting moist. This in turn primes your body to become even more anxious in the actual situation and so the vicious cycle continues. And note the role of the imagination in priming your mind and body to feel fearful (see opening story).
But you’re going to find that breathing in a relaxed 7/11 way whilst imagining the upcoming situation ahead of time calms the association down, priming your mind to feel more relaxed naturally and automatically when the actual situation arrives.
So when you find yourself thinking about the future event, do 7/11 breathing.
One symptom of too much fear or anxiety is not being able to think clearly (Nasrudin stumbled into the nearest tomb!). This happens because the emotional part of the brain ‘swamps’ the thinking part so as to avoid, say, over-analysis getting in the way of running like Bejessus from a lion.
But in most modern situations we want to retain clear thought. And keeping your ‘thinking brain’ working actually calms you right down. The next step helps you do that.
3) Use a different part of your brain
When we become very anxious, it’s harder to think clearly. But if we force ourselves to use parts of ‘the thinking brain’, this will dilute the emotion and begin to calm you down.
The easiest way to do this is with numbers. You can scale your own fear from 1 to 10, 10 being the most terrified it’s possible to be and 1 being the ultimate relaxed state.
When you’re feeling anxious, ask yourself: “Okay what number on the scale am I right now? Am I a 7, or a 5?” Just doing this will lower anxiety because it kick-starts the thinking brain, diluting the emotion and automatically making you calmer.
I recall the first time I gave a speech to three hundred people. Just before I was about to start, I was feeling more anxious than I would have liked. So I scaled myself at a 6, breathed longer out than in for a few moments, and waited for myself to go down to a 3 before starting. I took control. Scaling (sometimes known as ‘grading’) your fear puts a ‘fence’ around it, making it more manageable, and forces you to think.
4) Get control of your imagination
Fear and anxiety thrive when we imagine the worst. We developed imagination to be able to project into the future so we can plan ahead. However, a side effect of being able to imagine possible positive futures is being able to imagine things going wrong. A bit of this is useful; after all, there really might be muggers or loan sharks. But uncontrolled imagination is a nesting ground for anxiety and fear that can spoil otherwise happy lives.
Some people misuse their imagination chronically and so suffer much more anxiety than those who either future-project their imaginations constructively or who don’t tend to think about the future much at all. Anxious, chronic worriers tend to misuse their imaginations to the extent that upcoming events feel like catastrophes waiting to happen. No wonder whole lives can be blighted by fear and anxiety.
Some people don’t even really know they are doing this. So:
- Sit down and do your 7/11 breathing.
- Count yourself down from whatever number you deem yourself to be to a 2 or a 1.
- Imagine seeing yourself in the situation you were dreading, but see yourself being calm, composed, cool, and comfortable and things going well. Doing this starts to recondition your mind to feel calmer and more upbeat about upcoming events or regular situations which were causing anxiety.
5) Use the AWARE technique
Fear and anxiety can feel as if they ‘just happen to us’, but we have much more control than we realize. AWARE is an acronym standing for:
A: Accept the anxiety. Don’t try to fight it.
W: Watch the anxiety. Just watch it and when you notice it, scale your level of fear and start to breathe longer on the out-breath.
A: Stands for ‘Act normally’. Carry on talking or behaving as if nothing is different. This sends a powerful signal to your unconscious mind that its over-dramatic response is actually not needed because nothing that unusual is going on. Like fire fighters coming out and seeing that no emergency is happening and so going back to the fire station.
R: Repeat the above steps in your mind if necessary.
E: Expect the best. One of the greatest feelings in life is the realization that you can control fear much more than you thought possible.
Overcoming fear and anxiety will give you the ‘spare capacity’ in life to focus on what you really want to be and do. It takes effort, but imagine the rewards.