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Published on August 14, 2018

How to Calm Down Anxiety When Your Brain is in Overdrive

How to Calm Down Anxiety When Your Brain is in Overdrive

We all experience anxiety and stress, and that’s a good thing. If we didn’t, we would not be human and would be unable to protect ourselves and our loved ones from danger.

For example, imagine that while driving you notice another car speeding, looking like it was going to run a stoplight. If you get anxious and experience a “flight or flight” reaction of what could happen, you will react quickly by stepping on the brake and might very well avoid an accident!

Although the above example shows that anxiety can be a friend in times of danger, often anxiety is maladaptive when it goes on overdrive long after the threat of danger is over. Some people cannot get themselves back to a calmer baseline as anxiety remains high – even though there is no longer any objective threat.

Anxiety on overdrive can make us actually feel sick, can cause us to hyperventilate, our hearts to race, while disturbing our concentration and our sleep and even can cause panic attacks.

Most often anxiety results from not actual threats, but our exaggerated fears of what might happen. When we are overly anxious, danger lurks in our minds and not from the outside.

“It would be awful if I goof up” “If I lose this job I might never get another job.” “If she leaves me, I couldn’t handle it.” “If I say something stupid in the meeting, people will think I’m stupid.” “It would be terrible if I make a mistake.” “I’m nervous that he’ll get angry at me.” “I can’t mess this up.”

Fears are usually more specific and realistic, while anxiety results more from our exaggerated thinking. Exaggerated thoughts of possible rejection, humiliation and failure lead to low self-esteem and extreme stress.

Getting caught up in “what ifs” rob us of a sense of self-empowerment and make us feel at the mercy of people and situations. No wonder why anxiety on overdrive leads to the development of anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder.

How about you? Do you find your self-talk increases your anxiety more than it calms you down? Do you worry about things that are not really in your control, no matter how much you try?

The following are some ways to calm yourself when you find your anxiety is on overdrive.

1. Use deep calming breaths

Deep breathing is one of the most immediate steps you can take to calm anxiety.

When we are anxious, we tend to tense up, leading to rapid and shallow breathing. Using deep calming breaths can help us immediately calm down our physiological response to our racing thoughts. Deep breathing involves diaphragmatic breathing.

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Breathe slowly though your nose and release your breaths slowly through your mouth. Consciously extend your abdomen while taking deep breaths instead of taking shallow chest breaths.

How can you tell if you are breathing deeply? Put one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest – when you breath in, the hand on your stomach should be moving up and down while the hand on the chest stays relatively still.

To help concentrate on your breathing, imagine a color as you breathe in and out.

Count slowly either forwards or backwards for up to the count of 10 as you breath in and as you release your breath.

Use a mantra you repeat on each breath, such as the word RELAX or CALM.

2. Identify distorted thinking

Most of our anxiety arises from our panicky thoughts that exaggerate danger, basically lying to us that awful things could very well happen.

When we believe our distortions, we cannot separate fact from fiction. Only by changing your thoughts can you change your feelings and quell excessive anxiety.

It is hard to “calm down” when your thinking is out of control! These are some things that might help you take charge of your thoughts:

Identify cognitive distortions. These are unhealthy thought habits that cause emotional distress.

Types of Distortions include:

  • All-or-nothing thinking, over-catastrophized thinking –“I can’t stand it “
  • Fortune telling – “I’ll never get over this!”
  • Mind reading –“He’s must hate me!”
  • Labeling – “I’m a loser.”
  • Shoulding – “I shouldn’t be so sensitive “

The Triple Column Technique introduced by Cognitive Behavor Therapy author Dr. David Burns in his book, The New Mood Therapy, uses cognitive distortions to help change distorted thinking to healthier thinking.

Using this technique, make up three columns on paper or on your computer:

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In the first column, write your anxiety-provoking thoughts, such as, “I’ll be alone the rest of my life.” 

In the second column, write the type of distortion. In this example, it would be all-or-nothing thinking and fortune telling.

In the third column, write a more rational and factual alternative such as, “I feel alone right now but that does not mean I will never find anyone – it is up to me to keep being open to new relationships.”

3. Practice cognitive defusion

Another way to distance yourself from your unhealthy thoughts causing extreme anxiety is to practice cognitive defusion techniques developed by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) founder Steven Hayes.

When you “defuse” your thoughts, you look at them and observe them instead of looking from them, as if they were fused to your mind.

An example of cognitive defusion is changing “I am a loser” to “There I go again having the thought that I am a loser.” Notice in the first statement you believe the thought is true, and in the other you look at the thought.

Using visualizations to distance your thoughts can be helpful. For example imagine each anxious thought on various leaves in a stream, and watch them as they float away and disappear. Or imagine the thoughts written on clouds in the sky and watch them from afar instead of looking from them .

4. Be mindful

Most people think of mindfulness as the act of sitting quietly with eyes closed, breathing deeply in a meditative state. However, meditation practice is just one example of mindfulness.

Mindfulness rather is a practice that doesn’t isolate you from the world, but rather one that makes you more aware of yourself and the world in the present.

Simply put, mindfulness is the practice of nonjudgmental awareness.

Mindfulness is the experience of staying in the NOW.

When you are mindful, you accept things as they are, without judging whether they are good or bad, or how things “should” be.

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When you are mindful, you are open with your five senses to the world as it is, without distractions and rumination about the past or anxieties about the future.

Being mindful is with a “beginner’s mind” experience the present as if you were experiencing it for the first time.

5. Write it out

Whether you keep a journal or occasionally write out your thoughts, writing can be very therapeutic. These are some reasons why writing can be so helpful in quelling your anxiety on overdrive.

Writing things down on paper or on the computer helps you crystallize and eliminate unhealthy ways of thinking, replacing them with healthier alternatives.

By writing out your thoughts, you will gain the objectivity needed to recognize and change unhealthy perceptions.

Writing your thoughts down makes you face them and keep focused. It makes your thoughts and issues tangible in the real world rather than in the recesses of your mind.

Writing helps problems become more solvable. Just like with many math or physics equations, some problems are just too complex to figure out in your head.

6. Stay grateful and positive

When you are optimistic and have an “attitude of gratitude,” it is hard to feel too anxious.

Positivity is a choice and reminding yourself of what you have to be grateful for will limit negativity and out-of-control thoughts.

Positive People are empowered and limit anxiety by focusing on how they are in control of their emotions instead of feeling like victims.

When you focus on what you are grateful for instead of life’s “what ifs,” your focus is grounded on reality rather then what could happen or shouldn’t happen.

Consider keeping a gratitude journal and enter at least a couple entries each day of what you are grateful for. This grateful perspective is not compatible with anxiety on overdrive as a positive and grateful attitude creates mental calmness.

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7. Don’t go it alone

Research has shown that those people are happier if they have a strong sense of social support.

When you are anxious, reaching out for support and help can be very calming:

  • Call a friend and share your upset.
  • Seek professional help.
  • Find one person with whom you can self-disclose.

In times when you are less stressed is a time to work on building a support network.

8. Talk nicely to yourself

Anxiety is correlated with unhealthy thinking which often entails self-deprecation and self-criticism.

Berating yourself for being too anxious, for example, will only put kerosene on the fire of your anxiety.

Use self-compassion to be kind and nurturing to yourself. Instead of thinking “I am an idiot for getting so worked up,” reassure yourself as you would a friend with words such as “I don’t blame you for being so anxious – you’ve gone through a lot and I have faith I will get through it stronger and wiser.”

Replace words of discouragement into words of encouragement.

Instead of shaming yourself for being so anxious, show yourself some love and unconditional acceptance.

And last but not least, literally give your self a big bear hug!

The bottom line

With these eight tips to help you calm your anxiety when it is on overdrive, you will be well on your way to a happier and more positive life.

Practice these tips even in the absence of anxiety so that when anxiety goes on overdrive you will have the “muscle memory” to calm your anxieties so you can embrace your greatness to love yourself and love your life.

Aren’t you worth it?

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

More by this author

Judith Belmont

Mental Health and Self-Help Author, Speaker and Skype/phone Mental Health Coach/Consultant

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Last Updated on November 20, 2018

10 Reasons Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail

10 Reasons Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail

A new year beautifully symbolizes a new chapter opening in the book that is your life. But while so many people like you aspire to achieve ambitious goals, only 12% of you will ever experience the taste of victory. Sound bad? It is. 156 million people (that’s 156,000,000) will probably give up on their resolution before you can say “confetti.” Keep on reading to learn why New Year’s resolutions fail (and how to succeed).

Note: Since losing weight is the most common New Year’s resolution, I chose to focus on weight loss (but these principles can be applied to just about any goal you think of — make it work for you!).

1. You’re treating a marathon like a sprint.

Slow and steady habit change might not be sexy, but it’s a lot more effective than the “I want it ALL and I want it NOW!” mentality. Small changes stick better because they aren’t intimidating (if you do it right, you’ll barely even notice them!).

If you have a lot of bad habits today, the last thing you need to do is remodel your entire life overnight. Want to lose weight? Stop it with the crash diets and excessive exercise plans. Instead of following a super restrictive plan that bans anything fun, add one positive habit per week. For example, you could start with something easy like drinking more water during your first week. The following week, you could move on to eating 3 fruits and veggies every day. And the next week, you could aim to eat a fistful of protein at every meal.

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2. You put the cart before the horse.

“Supplementing” a crappy diet is stupid, so don’t even think about it. Focus on the actions that produce the overwhelming amount of results. If it’s not important, don’t worry about it.

3. You don’t believe in yourself.

A failure to act can cripple you before you leave the starting line. If you’ve tried (and failed) to set a New Year’s resolution (or several) in the past, I know it might be hard to believe in yourself. Doubt is a nagging voice in your head that will resist personal growth with every ounce of its being. The only way to defeat doubt is to believe in yourself. Who cares if you’ve failed a time or two? This year, you can try again (but better this time).

4. Too much thinking, not enough doing.

The best self-help book in the world can’t save you if you fail to take action. Yes, seek inspiration and knowledge, but only as much as you can realistically apply to your life. If you can put just one thing you learn from every book or article you read into practice, you’ll be on the fast track to success.

5. You’re in too much of a hurry.

If it was quick-and-easy, everybody would do it, so it’s in your best interest to exercise your patience muscles.

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6. You don’t enjoy the process.

Is it any wonder people struggle with their weight when they see eating as a chore and exercise as a dreadful bore? The best fitness plan is one that causes the least interruption to your daily life. The goal isn’t to add stress to your life, but rather to remove it.

The best of us couldn’t bring ourselves to do something we hate consistently, so make getting in shape fun, however you’ve gotta do it. That could be participating in a sport you love, exercising with a good friend or two, joining a group exercise class so you can meet new people, or giving yourself one “free day” per week where you forget about your training plan and exercise in any way you please.

7. You’re trying too hard.

Unless you want to experience some nasty cravings, don’t deprive your body of pleasure. The more you tell yourself you can’t have a food, the more you’re going to want it. As long as you’re making positive choices 80-90% of the time, don’t sweat the occasional indulgence.

8. You don’t track your progress.

Keeping a written record of your training progress will help you sustain an “I CAN do this” attitude. All you need is a notebook and a pen. For every workout, record what exercises you do, the number of repetitions performed, and how much weight you used if applicable. Your goal? Do better next time. Improving your best performance on a regular basis offers positive feedback that will encourage you to keep going.

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9. You have no social support.

It can be hard to stay motivated when you feel alone. The good news? You’re not alone: far from it. Post a status on Facebook asking your friends if anybody would like to be your gym or accountability buddy. If you know a co-worker who shares your goal, try to coordinate your lunch time and go out together so you’ll be more likely to make positive decisions. Join a support group of like-minded folks on Facebook, LinkedIn, or elsewhere on the internet. Strength in numbers is powerful, so use it to your advantage.

10. You know your what but not your why.

The biggest reason why most New Year’s resolutions fail: you know what you want but you not why you want it.

Yes: you want to get fit, lose weight, or be healthy… but why is your goal important to you? For example:

Do you want to be fit so you can be a positive example that your children can admire and look up to?

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Do you want to lose fat so you’ll feel more confident and sexy in your body than ever before?

Do you want to be healthy so you’ll have increased clarity, energy, and focus that would carry over into every single aspect of your life?

Whether you’re getting in shape because you want to live longer, be a good example, boost your energy, feel confident, have an excuse to buy hot new clothes, or increase your likelihood of getting laid (hey, I’m not here to judge) is up to you. Forget about any preconceived notions and be true to yourself.

  • The more specific you can make your goal,
  • The more vivid it will be in your imagination,
  • The more encouraged you’ll be,
  • The more likely it is you will succeed (because yes, you CAN do this!).

I hope this guide to why New Year’s resolutions fail helps you achieve your goals this year. If you found this helpful, please pass it along to some friends so they can be successful just like you. What do you hope to accomplish next year?

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