General Rules for Unlearning Anxiety

Search this site here:

Unlearning 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 we respond to any such warning determines whether we 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 unlearning 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. 

The following flowchart shows how to go about doing this...

Flowchart showing how to unlearn anxietyFlowchart showing how to go about unlearning anxiety habits

As is shown in the diagram, when teaching your survival instinct that certain warnings are no longer required, you must divert your attention away from those old habits.

The old habits have a pull and to begin with your survival instinct will be trying to keep you focusing on them - that's its job!

three steps showing the stages needed to unlearn anxiety

Therefore you need replacement behaviours and these need to be good - you must have become skilled at doing them by practising them first, before getting to this stage. That's why the three steps to unlearning anxiety list "learning techniques" as the second step.

In order to be able to keep your mind away from the old scary habits and focus on something mindfully instead - such as your breath, or something you're touching etc, or even picturing a calm scene - you must have practised the technique so it comes easily to you. Otherwise this just won't work!

If, however, you have followed the instructions and taken the steps in the correct order, you will find that you are able to get the results shown in the flowchart and day-by-day, little-by-little, your anxiety habits will be unlearnt. 

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. 

Full step-by-step details for overcoming an anxiety habit are set out in my book:

cover image of

"Can't Meditate, Won't Meditate"
Self help in a book for overcoming anxiety the Feelgood Way without struggle and ENJOY DOING IT!

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 is also helpful if that is the sort of approach that appeals to you.

For less than the cost of a single session with a therapist you can follow my online course at your own pace to fully understand your anxiety habit and go about unlearning it:

"Overcoming Anxiety the Feelgood Way"
Online video course to do in your own home at your own pace,

  1. Overcoming Anxiety
  2. Unlearn Anxiety