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How Reframing Anxiety Can Lead To Positive Change


Conventional wisdom would have us believe that a tendency to dwell on the distant past can provoke symptoms of depression, whilst a fixation on what may happen in the future can elicit feelings of anxiety. Whilst this may be broadly true, it is not always as simple as that, because both conditions may be caused for a variety of reasons, which can slide up and down the severity scale.


But today, let us discuss the lower end of the anxiety scale, the type of anxiety which does not (yet) require medical intervention or pharmaceutical support, such as exam anxiety, an imminent court appearance, a job interview, or grave concern about how to make ends meet during a cost of living crisis. How can we relieve this level of anxiety quickly and independently?


As a parent of two young adults embarking on another season of exams, I have devised ways to reframe their natural anxieties, so they may positively harness the massive burst of energy generated, but without having to manifest the debilitating physical symptoms (e.g.: elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, goosebumps, dry mouth, and digestive disruption). As you know, these bodily responses are caused when our natural fight or flight instincts kick in - instincts which were originally designed to save us from e.g.: being devoured by sabre-toothed tigers. Obviously, no such beastly threats commonly exist today, but threats do not have to be so toothy to activate the sympathetic nervous system. Anything we have imbued with enough power to be considered important, risky, anxiety inducing, or downright dangerous is more than enough to necessitate a fight or flight response from our limbic system.


 


An illustration of the human autonomic nervous system


 


FIGHT, FLIGHT, FREEZE, OR FLOP


When we're confronted with risk - whether real or imagined - our autonomic nervous system activates our sympathetic nervous system, to help us fight, flee, freeze, or flop. In my earlier prehistoric example, when confronted with a sabre-toothed tiger, our ancestors could fight it, run away from it, freeze in terror before becoming a tasty snack, or flop (collapse and lose consciousness). To fight or flee would have required the body's resources to be optimised, reprioritised, and directed to the fighting or fleeing limbs, whilst the major organs supplied blood, oxygen, adrenaline, and energy to help effect the action taken. Think about it. When in peril - whether real or imagined - our pupils dilate to allow more light into our eyes, optimising vision. Our heart rate increases to pump blood to our arms and legs, helping us to fight or flee. We even get goosebumps to increase the surface area of the skin to help regulate body temperature in times of turmoil, to name but a few, but you get the gist.


Once the threat - whether real or imagined - has passed, the autonomic nervous system then activates the parasympathetic nervous system to restore our default settings. Our pupils return to normal size, because optimised vision is no longer necessary. Our heart rate restores, because such elevated levels cannot be sustained long term without the risk of harm. Our goosebumps dissipate to allow us to keep warm when necessary. And this calls to mind how cheetahs operate. As the fastest land animal, cheetahs are capable of speeds up to 80mph, but only for short bursts of explosive energy. Why? Because, whilst their heart and nostrils can facilitate their incredible acceleration and velocity, they are not designed to withstand endurance. Their speed is purposeful, not recreational.


Similarly, we have what it takes to manage our needs in the moment - to extricate ourselves from danger or negotiate risky circumstances - but our minds and bodies are not designed to withstand high performance levels for long periods of time. Adrenaline is helpful in short, sporadic bursts, but it quickly becomes toxic if it becomes an undesirable norm and we do not mindfully restore our default settings, of calm and joy ideally. So, what can be done to help us restore our default settings, to lower our heart rate and short circuit the angst?


SLOW DEEP BREATHS


I kid you not. Yes, it is that simple. Why? How? Because you will be overriding the limbic system (the part of the brain responsible for emotional and behavioural responses), whose primary function is to keep you safe and alive at all costs, but is prone to becoming a little over-reactionary. When your limbic system kicks in and you are not in literal mortal danger, but you are feeling anxious about e.g.: an impending exam or ever increasing mortgage costs etc, breathing slowly and deeply will trick your limbic system into activating the parasympathetic nervous system, resulting in the restoration of all your default settings (normalised heart rate etc). This in turn will drain the toxic thought juice you are swimming in because you have introduced a 'pattern interrupt' and persuaded your limbic system all is well; helping you to think more clearly and less catastrophically. Think about it from your limbic system's point of view: If he/she/they have time to breathe slowly and deeply, there clearly is not enough peril to warrant all this unnecessary energy expenditure. Okay body, restore default settings and calm down.


What will you do with all the new found energy you will have, once it is not wasted on catastrophising and enabling the disempowering little critters swimming in your toxic thought juice?



 

QUICK TIP: If you are prone to catastrophising and imagining the worst case scenario at every opportunity, do yourself a favour and spend at least the same amount of time and energy imagining the best case scenario. Train yourself to focus on what you do want and less on what you do not want, because your thoughts create your reality.


 


Obviously, there is more to do to maintain your mental and emotional equilibrium, but this is a good and strong, healthy start. I am mentioning the fascinating intricacies of the autonomic nervous system because knowledge is power. If you understand what is happening to you, how, when and why, then it has the potential to reduce - or even completely negate - many of the associated feelings of fear and anxiety, which commonly accompany these unpleasant bodily responses. Whilst your heart pounding out of your chest is naturally worrisome, in this context, it is a sign your brain and body are trying to work for you, not against you; actively trying to help, not harm.


So, that is Step 1 when trying to feel better, what is next?


REAL OR IMAGINED


Your thoughts are not real. They are nothing more than creative dynamic energy between firing neurons in the brain, but we choose to imbue them with enough power to create the misery of anxiety, when the same energy could be spent creating the fun of joy. Why we do this may become the subject of another blog, but I will spare you now, else this blog may become a book! Suffice it to say, the original purpose of our thoughts is to ensure our survival and maintain order in our world, e.g.: feel hungry, find food, eat food, live longer. However, through the history of our evolution, this system has gradually become corrupted and now has us believing every squeaky little brain fart with the audacity to make itself heard in our conscious mind is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and that is simply preposterous.

A Google map of North Northamptonshire highlighting traffic congestion in Finedon

ACCEPTANCE OF WHAT IS


Please review the accompanying map of North Northamptonshire. You will note there is traffic congestion in Finedon, highlighted in red, whilst all surrounding areas are largely clear.


We are going to assume for the purposes of this example, that you want to get from Burton Latimer (north of Finedon) to Higham Ferrers (south of Finedon) for an important job interview. You are feeling anxious about the interview, and nervous about your prospects of getting the job you want. Will you perform well? Will you sweat through your shirt? Will you remember to breathe? Will they like you? All standard fare. You are wise enough to check your proposed route before heading out and notice the traffic issues in Finedon, what do you do? You can either spin out, panic, wading through horrible fight, flight, freeze, or flop responses - wasting valuable time and energy resources doing so - or you can chart a different course because, you know... you are capable, autonomous, and intelligent that way.


You take a different route and get to your interview, still nervous - but nerves in moderation are a good thing because they help you feel more alert and prepared for the unknown - but you are not anxious, due to breathing slowly and deeply enroute, convincing your limbic system that all is well, and avoiding the horrible fight, flight, freeze, or flop responses (pounding heart rate etc). So, what is the point of the Google map?


The map helps to illustrate that life happens, and almost all of it is outside your control or influence. You can spin out about the congestion, or problem, all you want but it is not going to influence the flow of traffic, or the existence of your problem, so the best use of your time, intelligence and energy is to accept what is and respond accordingly. You can do this by choosing to sit in the congestion for whatever reason, drive around it, or cancel the interview for a job you dearly want, but only one of those choices is resourceful and optimally productive. And this is essentially the model behaviour for whatever your problem may be in future: focus on what you want and what you can control or influence and do that, then just keep doing the next right thing until resolved. And of course, at the top of the list of things you can control and influence is you.


What's important to remember here is this: there is no emotional content in any event or circumstance, other than what you choose to imbue it with. For example: you can respectfully observe a laden hearse as it drives past you on the way to a funeral ceremony and not feel emotionally distraught, because you didn't know the deceased. You would not imbue these circumstances with the power of your grief. Of course the opposite is true when you attend the funeral of a dearly departed loved one, because you have imbued those circumstances with the power of your grief, and rightfully so.


My broader point is, your emotional response does not have to happen to you in every day-to-day life experience. You can choose what is worthy of your mental, emotional, and/or physical investment, or not, and where your thoughts go your feelings follow, so choose your thoughts wisely. You can choose to look at any situation as a blank canvas before asking yourself which colours you would now like to paint with going forwards. You get to control the outcome and your feelings towards it by imbuing it with your power, attention, and energy, or not. You get to choose what you think and feel, but too many people still don't understand this, which is what keeps me so busy as a mindset coach!


So, immediately after identifying a challenging or problematic situation, centre yourself as previously discussed and take control of your bodily responses by oxygenating your brain to help the limbic system believe all is well. The more efficiently you breathe, the more efficiently you will think and behave. You must mindfully push the override button and take control of yourself, instead of passively becoming a hostage to your runaway trauma responses and their associated feelings. By acknowledging the possibility that your limbic system has overreacted out of a devoted sense of protective responsibility towards you, you can persuade yourself not to spin out unnecessarily, risking the magnification of those horrible trauma responses as you go. But please do not just take my word for it, give it a go, because feeling the breathing is believing.


BACK TO THE MAP


The road congestion marked in red represents all kinds of clogs, uphill travails, challenges, and thwartations in life; they will always exist because there is no growth without adversity. You cannot become stronger without overcoming resistance, so all you can do is your best and respond to what is, rather than wasting finite life equity wailing about what it is not, and may never be; because if it might happen, it might not happen also (- which prompts me to direct your attention back to my Quick Tip above). Wailing, panicking, spinning out, or losing your temper changes nothing, and may negatively impact your mental and physical health, so please stop doing that.


The traffic incident, or road works, represented on the map will never be impacted or influenced by your reaction to it. It is what it is, for as long as it is, and your anxiety (in this context) is caused by a deeper sense of powerlessness in the moment. But you are not powerless. You are never powerless. You always have options and control over your mind. Let me reframe this a little...


MINDSET IS EVERYTHING


Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison under a corrupt and abhorrent apartheid regime, enduring gruelling, mind-numbing tasks designed specifically to break his spirit (e.g.: digging deep holes only to have to fill them in again), but his spirit was never broken. In fact, upon his release from prison on 11 February 1990, his mindset was carved in stone forever...

As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew that if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.

And as a man of his word, Mr Mandela went as far as to invite his former prison guard, James Gregory, to his presidential inauguration on 10 May 1994.


My point is this, we can do hard things. We may not have the grace, wisdom, and fortitude of Nelson Mandela, but we can aspire to. These are qualities we can develop, if we want to. Let's face it, if Mr Mandela could find it in his heart and mind to forgive prison officer Gregory, we can start to manage our limbic system by breathing slowly and deeply, in a continuous quest for self-improvement and healing.


You now have the fundamental basics to make a strong and healthy start, and I am here when you are ready to take it up a notch, but for now please know, and repeat after me: YOU ARE NEVER POWERLESS.


In every moment, be as great as possible and start making shift happen!


Karan x


 







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