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Dec. 6, 2021

How to Calm Anxious Thoughts Away

How to Calm Anxious Thoughts Away

Learn how calm down an anxious thoughts with techniques for improving wellness.

Did you know you can learn to relax anxious thoughts away?  In today's episode Therapist Frank, discusses NLP, self massage and breathing techniques s for bringing calmness to the mind and body.

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Anxious Thoughts?

Welcome to another episode of the Anxiety Therapist Podcast. I’m your show host, Frank Sasso. I’m a clinical psychotherapist and certified fitness trainer who focuses on helping people who struggle with anxiety, stress and life challenges. Please go ahead and hit the follow button on whatever app you’re listening with today – this way you will always know about the latest episode. I’m so glad you are here today, because together we can explore many approaches for healing anxiety.

In today’s show, I want to help you get into the habit of conditioning yourself to relax anxiety symptoms away. Wouldn’t that be out of this world if your mind and body could just automatically feel completely at ease – simply by taking doing some simple actions? I’m going to do my best today to help you make this happen.

Now just a fast disclaimer before I get started: This show is not a replacement for mental health counseling or medical care, and I’m not your personal therapist.

Relaxation it’s the exact kind of response we want when our sympathetic nervous system becomes anxious and starts to go into fight or flight. As you probably already know, when this part of the nervous system perceives danger – either real or perceived, a part of the brain called the amygdala sends signals out to the rest of the body to become hyper aware.

That’s where we get the phrase, fight, flight or freeze. It’s that freeze part that often gets left out because the mind starts racing with all kinds of terrible thoughts. I know for me personally, when I become anxious, my body becomes full of tension and my muscles stiffen up like a solid piece of wood. There have been times where my shoulders and back become so rigid that it actually hurt to try and move those muscles. It’s different for everyone but we all have areas of our body’s where stress and anxiety find a parking place.

How about you? When you experience really bad stress and anxiety, which areas of your body start to lock up? Think about that for a moment, through hundreds and thousands of years of evolution, our bodies have created this stress response system where it’s just ready to flee when we think were in danger. 400 thousand years ago, before modern day humans appeared on the earth, Neanderthal man and Denisovan man- who by the way were distant relatives to us – survived on our planet as hunters and gathers.

Why We Have Anxious Thoughts

Since they were constantly worried about being stalked by other animals or other tribes, their minds developed this fight or flight response system that is still with us today. When we are scared that something bad might happen to us, even if it’s not a physical danger, our muscles can quickly tense up as a way to respond to the perceived threat.  This is basically mother nature’s way of trying to protect us and keep us safe.

Related: What Causes a Panic Attack to Feel Like Your Dying

So, what we need here are some interventions that will signal the parasympathetic nervous system that everything is okay and for the body to come back to it’s natural state of peace and harmony. You know, having a body that is constantly in a state of stress and tension isn’t very healthy. In fact, it can lead to all kind of unwanted health problems. For example living in a state of tension can lead to hypertension, heart attacks, back and joint issues, weaker immune system, headaches, increased depression, digestive problems, imbalanced hormones, insomnia and the list goes on and on.

Who needs those kinds of health issues? Unfortunately, so many people out there have their lives cut short due to an erosion of their bodies from stress and tension. You want to live long, happy and prosperous lives and the best way to reduce tension is through the process of relaxation. That makes sense right? I mean you can’t be both anxious and relaxed at the same moment in time. Relaxing is a gradual process, and through practice, you really can train your nervous system to be calm as an automatic response to certain actions you take.

This concept of training your body to physically relax has actually been around for quite a while.  In the 1920s, Dr. Edmund Jackobson invented a technique for patients to deal with anxiety. He called it progressive relaxation. The process is very effective and is still used today around the world. Basically you simply tighten up different areas of your body for a few seconds, and then release. Give it a try yourself. If you’re sitting, point your toes downward and curl your toes under. As your toes are curling, tighten them just a little bit. Become aware of the tension for a few seconds and then release. Then simply just repeat the process. Now again, there are many different areas of the body where you can practice this type of progressive relaxation to relieve stress and tension like your abdominal muscles, shoulders and neck.

This simple and natural technique has many benefits like reducing anxiety levels, lowering blood pressure and my favorite – improving sleep.

Relax your Body To Reduce Anxious Thoughts

I want to give you an example of what it’s like to have a completely relaxed body. If you have a cat or maybe you have ever played with a cat then you can appreciate this. When a cat’s body is totally relaxed-you can touch it’s body and what you will find is your finger can actually sink all the way down into it’s skin. That’s because the cat is so relaxed and calm that it isn’t holding any tension in it’s muscles.  I notice this all the time with my own cat Neptune. Now when he’s anxious, his body is stiff because he’s on high alert. But when he’s calm, his muscles are soft as a pillow and he begins to purr in this kind of state of feline harmony.

Dr. Herbert Benson, published a book back in 1976, called the Relaxation Response System. He is basically a true pioneer in field of wellness and the founder of the Mind/Body institute at Mass General Hospital in Boston. In his book, he re-discovered ancient techniques for self-care and taught that practicing a routine of short, relaxation activities on a daily basis can relieve a variety of health issues like anxiety, depression and chronic stress.

So the keyword here is practice, because you really want to make it routine for your body to respond in a calm, controlled and relaxed manner when you start to become anxious.

Related: 3 Ways to Stop Negative Thoughts With CBT

Years ago, before I started getting into a routine of training my body to relax – I would become anxious at the drop of a pin. I think my natural temperament was to have a fight or flight stress response that could be triggered by the smallest events. In other words, it really didn’t  take much for my mind to catastrophize situations and my body would respond by panicking and respond like I was running from a bear in the forest. You know what I’m talking about – that kind of fear where you’re in the life or death, fight or flight scenario. 

So the idea here is to train your brain to respond in a calm way to fight or flight, rather than just automatically react! Think about that for a moment. Wouldn’t that be incredible if you first response to anxiety would be to just start relaxing.

Of course we all love the mental health benefits of reducing tension but the best part is it feels out of this world because we know how tranquil it feels.

Let’s do a thought experiment. Take a deep breath and imagine that you see this warm, luxurious hot tub in front of you. I don’t know if you like it with lots of bubbles floating to the top or if you just like the water nice and still. Allow yourself to submerge your body into that hot tub to the point where it’s almost as if you can feel your muscles start to relax! Doesn’t that experience feel out of this world? How about imagining that your sitting on the warm sand at the beach or even stretching out on a nice comfortable bed after all the chores are done around your home. It’s the best feeling in the world to finally be able to just chill out – isn’t it?

We’ve spent a lot of time in previous episodes talking about cognitive behavioral therapy and using it to challenge anxious thoughts and over worrying. But today the focus is on just using different ways to relax your body – so that you can physically combat tension and slow bring yourself out of the fight or flight response system. Because what we are really trying to do here is create a cushion or a barrier so that we can help us maintain balance when life becomes overwhelming and crazy.

I want to give you some super easy ways that you can train your body to release tension and send relaxation messages to your brain that it’s time to be calm and relax.

Now before I do that, I just want to mention the great deal we have going on with our shows sponsor.

2 Ways to Help Anxiety

Okay- let’s get into some ways you can perform some simple actions that will send a calming message to your brain. We are focusing on the body, so a lot of these actions you will take should be repeated on a regular basis to create a relaxation response. Remember you want to create new patterns in your neuropathways that respond to anxiety by simply relaxing the body instead of going into fight or flight. The best way to bring out meaningful change is to practice self help skills routinely.

You know in my private practice; I tell my patience that the real work – that real transformation doesn’t occur during our 50 min together in therapy- It actually happens when they do the self-work on their own – in between counseling sessions. That’s because you have the power to improve your anxiety symptoms and stress levels – you actually can bring your body back into it’s natural state of harmony though simple practice.

Think about it for a moment. You didn’t always know that  1 and 1 make two or that 5 and 5 make 10. Even as a child, you had to practice basic addition skills over and over again until it sunk into your brain, and you were able to automatically know the answer. It’s really the same thing here. Practicing consistently is what’s going to make pay off in the end.

Pursed Lip Breathing

Alright, the first one I want to mention is called pursed lip breathing. It’s a wonderful technique for slowing your heart rate and pushing nervousness and stress from your body. When you start to feel anxious, pursed lip breathing helps get more oxygen into your lungs and can send a signal to the amygdala that everything is okay – there’s no danger on the horizon.

A great way to do this technique is to simply find a comfortable place to sit down and then relax your neck and shoulder muscles. Once your muscles are relaxed, take a nice deep breath in through your nose – all the way down to your tummy. I like to imagine that it’s almost as if I’m breathing a laser beam in thru my nose and visualize it going past my chest and into my stomach.

That’s because we hold a great deal of tension in our chest – so we want to bring that oxygen into our body and let it travel all the way to our mid-section. After you have filled your belly with fresh air, you want to pucker your lips in a way that like you’re going to give a kiss or whistle and then very slowly exhale. Again, this isn’t a fast process. You’re purposefully filling your lungs with air, and then slowly letting it out. Let me give you and example, So I breathe in thru my nose and purse my lips, and then I exhale. Next release.  

Notice how long I took on the exhale. I didn’t force the air out, but instead I let it simply escape from my pursed lips in a natural way – almost like letting the air out of a balloon. This technique is effective for calming the body because it can bring down your heart rate – and release carbon dioxide from your lungs. It also keeps your airways open longer, and relieving symptoms like shortness of breath.

Foot Massage for Anxious Thoughts

Another easy way you can automatically release pressure and send a relaxation signal to your brain is by rolling a ball under your feet. You can use a tennis ball or if you prefer a little rubber ball with squishy spikes on the end. This is a great little exercise because you can do it at home or if you’re at the office you can do it at your desk.

You just remove your shoes and place the ball under one of your feet. As your sitting, place one foot on top of the ball, and let your other foot stabilize your body. Take a nice deep breath in and as you exhale, roll the ball under your foot with a little pressure. It might tickle at first but you will become used to it after a while. After rolling your foot over the ball 5 or 6 times, slowly switch to the other foot and repeat the exercise. You know besides relieving anxiety, rolling a ball under your foot improves blood circulation. In fact, back in 2004, a Korean study reported that performing a simple foot massage on yourself can lower blood pressure – and who wouldn’t want that.

Related: Good Guided Meditation for Stress Release 

Using NLP to Anchor Pleasant Thoughts

Here’s another one you can do- it’s called anchoring a response. It comes from the world of neuro-linguistic programming. With this, you’re going to associate a pleasant memory or image in your mind with some sort of slight movement you make with your body. In other words, you’re going to create a stimulus that will illicit a pleasant response from your brain. Think of it like this, maybe you’ve heard a song on the radio that when you hear it played- the song instantly and automatically brings back memories of a happy time in your life. You might not have heard the song in many years  but just as soon as you hear it played – the music has the power to magically transport you back to that wonderful memory.  This anchoring technique works in very much the same way.

Here’s how you do it. First, gently close your eyes and imagine a person that you love – and more importantly loves you -a person who when you are around them fills your heart with joy. And  If you can’t think of a person, that’s okay,  maybe think of a place you’ve been, like a beach or a lake or even somewhere in nature – any place you’ve been that you experienced peace and tranquility. Once you have this image in your mind, whether it’s a person, or a place, allow yourself to recall the details of the image in your mind. For example, I like to recall a beautiful beach I’ve been to in Puerto Rico. I allow myself to notice as many details as possible about the scene in my mind.  As you are focusing on this image in your mind, notice any sounds you might hear. Perhaps you can hear the persons voice your thinking about or in my case, I can hear the gentle sounds of the ocean waves, crashing against the shore.

What you’re doing here is activating 2 of the five senses. Your activating your sense of sight and sense of sound – and attaching it to the happy image you’ve conjured up.

Once you have the pleasant you’ve thought about locked into your mind – close your eyes and take a deep breath. As you exhale touch your index finger to your thumb. You know you’re doing this right if your hand looks like it’s making the Okay sign. So again, as you think of this pleasant image in your mind, close your eyes and gently touch your index finger to your thumb and concentrate on the scene in your mind while you exhale.  You want to hold that image in your mind as your touching your thumb to your index finger for a good 15 to 30 seconds. Let that image cement into your neuropathways as you hold those fingers together. After 15 or 30 seconds of concentrating on this image – open your eyes and think of something completely different. Wait a little while and repeat the anchoring process again.

Now this is going to take practice because you are purposefully training your mind to have a positive response whenever you fire your anchor – or in other words – touching your finger and thumb together. I would recommend repeating this process several times throughout the day until your brain automatically pulls forward that happy thought in your mind – whenever you touch your thumb to your index finger. I have to tell you this isn’t a one and done kind of thing. It make take you 10 or 15 times of doing this exercise until your brain makes the automatic association and eliciting the relaxing response you want.

I’ve personally used this anchoring technique on many occasions. Especially before I get on an airplane, and I start to get nervous before takeoff. By doing this anchoring technique, I’ve been able to calm my body and tell my brain that all is well. Everything is going to be okay because I’m thinking of positive thoughts.

The goal with doing any of these exercises is to activate your parasympathetic nervous system – that part of your nervous system that keeps your mind and body feeling safe and relaxed.