General Rules for Overcoming Anxiety

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Overcoming anxiety means fully understanding the basic mechanisms involved and retraining them. The same approach will apply whether the anxiety is triggered at the sight of a tiny harmless spider, constant worry about something that might happen, or by the reminder of your involvement in a serious accident which could easily have killed you.

Anxiety is best thought of as negative raised arousal.

As is explained in the page about the arousal system, raised negative arousal is triggered by the survival instinct whenever anything reminds it of anything which has caused you pain, fear, sadness, anxiety etc in the past.

Your survival instinct now sees such situations as possibly life threatening and will raise your arousal so as to make you aware of the potential danger and do something about it by either running away or killing it before it gets you - the fight or flight response.

The way in which you respond to any such warning determines whether you continue to receive more warnings in the future.

Also, if you do respond with raised negative arousal of some sort (fear, pain, sadness), then the more intense your emotional response the more fierce the warning will be the next time.

Understanding this basic fact is the key to overcoming anxiety in any context whatsoever.

For instance, if you are in the habit of seeing a tiny harmless spider and getting a danger signal from your survival instinct, to which you respond by tensing your body, maybe shuddering or cringing and by entertaining negative thoughts about what the spider might do etc, then you are reinforcing the warning and ensuring that it will keep happening.

The same principle applies regardless of what the anxiety is associated with.

In order to unlearn an anxiety habit you have to start noticing when you get the danger warning and consciously switch it off. You do this by not joining in with the warning, by keeping the arousal level low. How do you do this?

How to give a lower key response to startle warnings

1. Have you noticed how you tense your body when you get the warning?

2. To counteract this, let your body go Dead Weight. This means just letting all the muscles in your body relax - as if you have walked miles carrying heavy bags and you just putthem down and flop into a chair. In relaxing your muscles you are doing the opposite of what your survival instinct expects i.e. your body is not heeding the danger warning being given.

3. In addition to relaxing your body, rather than having thoughts about the feared thing and reminding yourself how scary it is etc, re-focus your mind elsewhere by using something like Calm Scene. This is an image that you have come to associate with feeling calm. You now bring it to mind and allow yourself to feel as if you're there, calm and relaxed. Thus you are not buying into the warnings from your survival instinct with your mind either.

4. Your survival instinct notices this lack of cooperation and assumes it got it wrong and whatever it was trying to warn you about is not really dangerous. So it starts to switch off the increased heart rate and other fear responses. It also notes that whatever it issued teh warning about maybe isn't dangerous so next time won't issue such a high level warning.

5. If you do this each and every time the survival instinct sends out a startle warning, you are not buying into the warnings. Therefore gradually your survival instinct will realise that these warnings are no longer necessary. It will eventually stop giving them.

Because the survival instinct is quite powerful, you must start noticing the warnings coming early in order to switch off the arousal. Therefore you may need to create a hierarchy of situations so that you can work on the easiest first. This is a list of situations you fear broken down into small steps and listed in order of difficulty. You then start working with the easiest one. If you attempt to begin with the most difficult you are very unlikely to succeed.

For example, if you are afraid to go supermarket shopping your list might be somthing along the lines of:
Step 1 - just walk up to the supermarket doorway and then return to the car
Step 2 - walk inside the supermarket and stay by the door observing the magazines for half a minute, then return to the car.
Step 3 - go inside the supermarket with a companion (who is actually doing the shopping) and fetch one item from the list and place it in the trolley. Then return to the car.
Step 4 - go with companion and fetch items from a single aisle then return to car.
etc. At all times you must keep your mind on what you are doing, the interesting bits of your surroundings. You must immediately release any negative thoughts by thinking of your calm scene and going dead weight wth your body. 

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You continue in this way gradually increasing what you do but always remaining calm. You NEVER get through any step whilst battling against anxiety. The idea is that you are retraining your survival instinct not to associate those situations with fear so it stops givig you danger warnings about them. This is only achieved by doing it step by step and remaining calm. You don't proceed to the next step until you are able to complete the previous one calmly. 

This approach may take time. It may be slow at first but the it often speeds up as you get the hang of doing it.

Most of us need to practise techniques for keeping our minds where we want them to be rather than where our instincts and habits want to take them. We need to practise the techniques when we are not under threat so as to become competent at them. That way we stand a better chance of actually using them when the chips are down. The Calm Scene technique is one such example. Practising a form of meditation or mindfulness would also be helpful if that is the sort of approach that appeals to you.