Feeling Anxious? Turn it DOWN!!

Have you ever gotten an anxious thought stuck in your mind and really wished you just had a mute button for your head? Wouldn’t that be great?! You’re in luck! While I don’t have a new mind-altering remote control device for you to order today, I do have a thought altering trick you can play on your mind; a trick which can significantly reduce the impact of anxious thoughts on your brain and body. A large part of anxiety is driven by your thoughts. The way you feel in your body is directly related to the thoughts you are having. Although you may feel really stuck with the thoughts, you can gain power over them. Here’s how:

When you are feeling anxious, you are reacting with fear to a thought you are having about the future. More than likely, it is a visual thought, meaning you are seeing a picture of it in your mind. The process goes something like this: you have the thought, then you see a picture of it in your imagination, and then wham, you feel anxiety sweeping through your body!

To get the idea of how this works, think of something you really enjoy doing. Imagine yourself engaged in that activity. Really see a picture of it in your mind’s eye. Now, notice how it feels in your body as you look at the picture. Do you feel happy? Excited? Your body responds to the picture in the same way it does when you’re actually performing the activity. You think of something fun, happy, or exciting and you feel happy and excited.

Here is where the cool trick comes in. Imagine yourself in the same enjoyable picture as before. Now, imagine the picture getting bigger. Make it really big in your mind. What happens? As the picture gets bigger, the feelings get more intense and enjoyable (at least in most cases). Try making the colors brighter, more vivid. Does that increase the enjoyable feelings? Bring the picture closer to your face. What happens? Are there sounds coming from your picture? Turn the sound up and notice if the pleasant feelings increase with the louder sounds.

Did you notice that you were controlling how you felt in your body by manipulating the pictures in your head?! You have a lot more power over how you feel than you thought! The good news is that you can use these kinds of manipulations in reverse to help lower your anxiety.

To try it out, choose something that only MILDLY causes you concern, maybe something like losing your shoes or seeing a police officer suddenly driving behind you (no lights on, he/she’s just driving!). See the picture of it in your mind. Notice how you’re starting to feel anxiety in your body. Now, shrink the picture down to the size of a pencil eraser. How does that feel? Take a few deep cleansing breaths. Try some of the other manipulations you used on the good picture. Move the disturbing picture far away, maybe even across the street, or across town. Change the colors to black and white. Mute the sound. Take some time to try out these various manipulations with your mildly disturbing picture to find out which ones work best for you. In addition, you can have an enjoyable picture ready to take the place of the disturbing one. For example, immediately after you shrink (or move away, turn to black and white, or mute) the disturbing picture, pop up a nice large, colorful version of your enjoyable picture.

The more you practice manipulating the pictures in your mind, the better you’ll get at it. That way, when you’ve got more anxiety producing thoughts racing around in your head, you’ll be ready to manipulate them down to a much more manageable image. Sometimes the thoughts go around in your head so fast it’s hard to see the pictures attached to them. It can help to slow them down enough to notice the pictures if you will take a few slow, deep cleansing breaths and do some grounding exercises. (see my article Back To The Future…Not! – Two Essential Self-Calming Skills to learn about grounding your energy) These mind-picture manipulation exercises can be very helpful for mild, moderate, or urgent anxiety. If you are experiencing chronic extreme anxiety, you may need more professional help with learning to calm yourself.

© Copyright 2010 by Becki Hein, MS, LPC. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Michael

    September 25th, 2010 at 1:52 AM

    Wow! Thanks a lot for this. I opened this page because I am feeling very anxious about my academics right at this moment and you have given me a way to overcome that every thing. Thanks a million! I have given it a try immediately and yes, it is working, although a little less compared to what I would want. But as you have mentioned, I hope I get better at it with practice :)

  • amy

    September 25th, 2010 at 12:09 PM

    Hope that this works for me in the middle of the night, that is when all of my anxiety tends to start to creep in.

  • OJ

    September 25th, 2010 at 12:38 PM

    hmm…sounds like a nice way to deviate your mind away from something unpleasant and bring a happy picture into your mind.

    but will this not actually be a bad thing because although you are getting rid of the future picture in your mind,the future itself is not got rid of and will arrive without you even having thought of a good solution because you were busy sending the unpleasant picture away and with staring at the pleasant picture…?!

  • Becki Hein

    October 12th, 2010 at 8:01 AM

    Great, Michael! I’m glad the exercises are helping. Yes, you’ll get better with practice. And sometimes, when your anxiety is especially active, you can add getting up and moving your body to the exercises. Walking up and down stairs, walking briskly outside, jumping on a mini-trampoline, or any activity that forces you to use your leg muscles will help. Of course you’ll have to visualize with your eyes open so you don’t run into anything!

  • Becki Hein

    October 12th, 2010 at 8:06 AM

    Hope the exercises are working for you at night. They can be helpful then, although for night time, I and many of my clients find that doing focused abdominal breathing helps alot. Take deep breaths, slowly, from deep in your abdomen. Inhale and exhale slowly while focusing only on the sensation of breathing. Focus on the sensation of air passing through your nose, or the feeling of your abdomen rising and falling. Relax all your muscles as you inhale, and tense them as tightly as you can on the exhale. Do the muscle tensing 10 or 15 times, and then just focus on the sensation of breathing. Anytime a thought comes to mind, “see” it turn into a spark and flame out, then return to your breathing. If you’ll practice this for a few minutes during the day, you’ll get better at it and it’ll get easier at night.

  • Becki Hein

    October 12th, 2010 at 8:12 AM

    Hi OJ,
    I hear your concern! You’re right, the future will come, but there is a difference between uselessly getting caught up in pictures of things you are afraid of, and using your brain power to plan and imagine exactly the outcome you WANT. You want to see and focus on pictures of what you WANT, not what you don’t want, because what you pay attention to most in your mind is what you have a high probability of creating in your life. So, yes you need to spend a LITTLE time making plans for all possible outcomes, but then, you spend your precious mental energy focusing only on seeing in your imagination the outcome you want. That gives your brain a direction. Your thoughts tell your brain what direction to go, so the more you see exactly what you want in your mind, the more likely you will take the steps needed to get there in your life. Thanks for your comments!

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