I was asked this touching question recently, exactly as it was worded. The answer is so straightforward it sounds flippant, “You simply stop doing it.” But ‘doing it’ requires going about it in the right way, and that means first unlearning the habit(s) that are keeping the anxiety in place.
Living in fight or flight
I’m familiar with the expression ‘fight or flight’ (though I think ‘fight or fright’ is much more evocative). It is an explanation of a primitive mechanism underlying our response to stress. It has to do with the autonomic nervous system and how our bodies are primed for action when we face a threat (real or perceived).
There’s a lot more I could say – about physiology, anxiety, stress, cognitive activity and many more related topics – but no more technical explanations now, I promise.
I think there are just a few steps to changing an ever-present feeling of ‘living on the edge of my seat’ or ‘living in a constant state of alert’, as clients have told me.
Whenever clients come to me because of stress or anxiety, these five steps are at the heart of what we’ll do together*. Not necessarily in this order, nor all on the same day, but that always inform the approach we take.
- Accept it – part of when keeps the problem in place and wears you out is the effort it takes to try and avoid it. Attempts at avoidance also keep anxiety alive (you have to think about it while you are trying to stop thinking about it).
- Most importantly, learn relaxation. This is the only thing I think is mandatory. Watch video instructions here if you like, or my a free two-minute relaxation exercise for your smartphone. There are many, including a couple on my relaxation techniques page.
- If you don’t like the idea of this sort of exercise then join a class (almost anything which fully engages you will help; tai chi, Yoga, mindfulness). The reason for this (and the step above), is that you need to re-educate yourself about relaxation.
- Change your thinking. Anxiety is a physiological emergency state. It is not designed to be permanently ‘switched on’, and in fact it isn’t (even though it seems that way sometimes). What happens is that it is constantly re-triggered by thinking catastrophic thoughts, anticipating, worrying about what could go wrong, etc. This thinking style is a significant feature in people who complain of anxiety. If you want to know more about how to do this, see a good therapist, or get hold of a copy of The Feeling Good Handbook, by David Burns.
- Look for exceptions, learn about yourself. Make a point of noticing the times when the anxiety isn’t bothering you. Understand how and when that happens. What are you doing at those times? How can you do more of it? This too is a way of re-educating your mind and body; the more you do relaxing things the easier it becomes, over time, to relax at will.
- Practice regularly, I mean at least daily, and probably several times a day (I usually recommend five two-minute breaks). Once you have learned a quick relaxation method, practice it on waking, before sleep, and at least three times throughout the day. Your (anxious) mind will come up with loads of excuses, but don’t accept them as excuses not to act. Just do it! Use one of the relaxation recordings mentioned in (2) above.
Practice makes perfect. The more you do it the better you will become, even though it probably won’t seem that way at first.
*Every client is different, so clearly I’m not going to do the same with each person; therapy is designed on a case-by-case basis.