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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 January 3, 2020

The 10 Essential Habits of Positive People

The 10 Essential Habits of Positive People

Are you waiting for life events to turn out the way you want so that you can feel more positive about your life? Do you find yourself having pre-conditions to your sense of well-being, thinking that certain things must happen for you to be happier? Do you think there is no way that your life stresses can make you anything other than “stressed out” and that other people just don’t understand?  If your answer is “yes” to any of these questions, you might find yourself lingering in the land of negativity for too long!

The following are some tips to keep positive no matter what comes your way. This post will help you stop looking for what psychologists call “positivity” in all the wrong places!  Here are the ten essential habits of positive people.

1. Positive people don’t confuse quitting with letting go.

Instead of hanging on to ideas, beliefs, and even people that are no longer healthy for them, they trust their judgement to let go of negative forces in their lives.  Especially in terms of relationships, they subscribe to The Relationship Prayer which goes:

 I will grant myself the ability to trust the healthy people in my life … 

To set limits with, or let go of, the negative ones … 

And to have the wisdom to know the DIFFERENCE!

 2.  Positive people don’t just have a good day – they make a good day.

Waiting, hoping and wishing seldom have a place in the vocabulary of positive individuals. Rather, they use strong words that are pro-active and not reactive. Passivity leads to a lack of involvement, while positive people get very involved in constructing their lives. They work to make changes to feel better in tough times rather than wish their feelings away.

3. For the positive person, the past stays in the past.

Good and bad memories alike stay where they belong – in the past where they happened. They don’t spend much time pining for the good ol’ days because they are too busy making new memories now. The negative pulls from the past are used not for self-flagellation or unproductive regret, but rather productive regret where they use lessons learned as stepping stones towards a better future.

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4. Show me a positive person and I can show you a grateful person.

The most positive people are the most grateful people.  They do not focus on the potholes of their lives.  They focus on the pot of gold that awaits them every day, with new smells, sights, feelings and experiences.  They see life as a treasure chest full of wonder.

5. Rather than being stuck in their limitations, positive people are energized by their possibilities.

Optimistic people focus on what they can do, not what they can’t do.  They are not fooled to think that there is a perfect solution to every problem, and are confident that there are many solutions and possibilities.  They are not afraid to attempt new solutions to old problems, rather than spin their wheels expecting things to be different this time.  They refuse to be like Charlie Brown expecting that this time Lucy will not pull the football from him!

6. Positive people do not let their fears interfere with their lives!

Positive people have observed that those who are defined and pulled back by their fears never really truly live a full life. While proceeding with appropriate caution, they do not let fear keep them from trying new things. They realize that even failures are necessary steps for a successful life. They have confidence that they can get back up when they are knocked down by life events or their own mistakes, due to a strong belief in their personal resilience.

7. Positive people smile a lot!

When you feel positive on the inside it is like you are smiling from within, and these smiles are contagious. Furthermore, the more others are with positive people, the more they tend to smile too! They see the lightness in life, and have a sense of humor even when it is about themselves. Positive people have a high degree of self-respect, but refuse to take themselves too seriously!

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8. People who are positive are great communicators.

They realize that assertive, confident communication is the only way to connect with others in everyday life.  They avoid judgmental, angry interchanges, and do not let someone else’s blow up give them a reason to react in kind. Rather, they express themselves with tact and finesse.  They also refuse to be non-assertive and let people push them around. They refuse to own problems that belong to someone else.

9. Positive people realize that if you live long enough, there are times for great pain and sadness.

One of the most common misperceptions about positive people is that to be positive, you must always be happy. This can not be further from the truth. Anyone who has any depth at all is certainly not happy all the time.  Being sad, angry, disappointed are all essential emotions in life. How else would you ever develop empathy for others if you lived a life of denial and shallow emotions? Positive people do not run from the gamut of emotions, and accept that part of the healing process is to allow themselves to experience all types of feelings, not only the happy ones. A positive person always holds the hope that there is light at the end of the darkness.  

10. Positive person are empowered people – they refuse to blame others and are not victims in life.

Positive people seek the help and support of others who are supportive and safe.They limit interactions with those who are toxic in any manner, even if it comes to legal action and physical estrangement such as in the case of abuse. They have identified their own basic human rights, and they respect themselves too much to play the part of a victim. There is no place for holding grudges with a positive mindset. Forgiveness helps positive people become better, not bitter.

How about you?  How many habits of positive people do you personally find in yourself?  If you lack even a few of these 10 essential habits, you might find that the expected treasure at the end of the rainbow was not all that it was cracked up to be. How could it — if you keep on bringing a negative attitude around?

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I wish you well in keeping positive, because as we all know, there is certainly nothing positive about being negative!

Featured photo credit: Janaína Castelo Branco via flickr.com

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