3 Mind Tools That Anyone Can Use
We thrive in environments that help us meet our innate needs. As human beings, we have innate needs, and we have an instinctual desire to fulfill them. And when we don't, we unavoidably suffer.
I think it's reassuring to let you know that your happiness isn't just about what you do inside your minds. It's also about taking action to identify and meet your needs. People who meet their needs in a balanced way are less likely to suffer anxiety.
Just as thirst is a signal that you're not meeting your need for hydration, anxiety is a signal that you're not meeting some need. Now, this isn't to say that what we do with our minds has no relevance to our happiness or lack thereof. Of course it does.
The way we feel is not just a response to the way things really are out there in the world, it's also about how we make sense of that.
I, when I was but a fledgling therapist used to practice cognitive behavioral therapy. As time went on, I of course thought I was good at it, and I was, but I also became aware that there were some things missing in that approach that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. What hit me one day was one of those “Duh!” moments. CBT was too stoic! We are humans, not machines. Long term follow-ups were disappointing. I have one other issue with CBT that I need to air before I give you three easy-to-apply CBT techniques for treating anxiety that I have found useful.
The shaky theory of changing thoughts to change feelings.
Strong emotion arises not after thoughts but before them. So it is often easier and more powerful to change feelings than it is to change thoughts. My roots grew deeper into this, what I call a basic solution focused, results oriented neuroscience that really contradicts classical CBT. Emotions are a fundamental human characteristic, essential for immediate physical survival. They are more powerful than thoughts, occurring more quickly than cognition and sometimes with no associated thoughts.
I now believe that solution oriented and often times conversational clinical hypnosis is the best way to change feelings, and a change in our thoughts is a natural consequence of a change in our emotional responses. For Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and phobias it's not faulty thinking that is the problem, and the chances of making significant progress through CBT are super remote.
But I'm not completely condemning CBT here! I do believe it can be useful for less severe anxiety conditions – but only when used with skilled approaches that work directly to calm feelings, like Solution Focused Therapy, for instance.
Here are three simple techniques that focus on the thinking and behaving part of a person to help them take back control.
1. Focus on how you intend for your feelings to change.
I often remind clients that feelings are fluid and inevitably change. So even if, after all the relaxed mental rehearsal work we've done, they find themselves starting to feel a little anxious, I want them to be thinking about what their feelings will be once they've started to feel better again.
It might help to write down those expected changes in a few words. So if they are nervous about a presentation, they might write down something like:
"I am feeling somewhat nervous, which is natural. When those feelings change I expect to feel calm, outwardly focused and clear headed again." Not a lofty goal, is it? So that is where they are headed when sitting with me in my office.
On top of this I will ask them to imagine what are the very first little signs they will notice, along the way, that tells them that those alterations in feelings are starting to happen. I call them “film clips”. Someone who has been struggling with public speaking anxiety might tell me that they will see/hear themselves speaking more spontaneously to small groups of people. It might be helpful to write this down too.
Feelings always shift, and even just remembering that is useful. Having your client visualize, write or think about how they expect their feelings to improve and the first little indications that anxiety is transforming into calm take that concept to the next level.
All good psychotherapy interventions help change expectations, and this technique is no exception. The next technique can be applied in lots of ways and is more behavioral than cognitive.
2. Do 1 thing differently
Anxiety is a survival response, not an illness. But it's a response that can go wrong, sometimes to the point that it hinders rather than helps. Like a guard dog that feels like it's helping even as it bites the leg of the friendly neighbor, your anxiety response kicks in because it senses a threat, even though that perceived threat may not actually be in existence.
One way to train anxiety to be selective and 'behave' is to give the more primitive part of your brain some feedback to let it know: "Thanks, but there is nothing I need to do – there is no threat."
Because anxiety takes its lead from what people do, as well as simple emotional pattern matching, then if the person acts in ways they wouldn't in a real emergency, the anxiety will fade away. For example, during an emergency we wouldn't:
• Talk softly and calmly, "There is nothing I need to do in this moment"
• Salivate (chew gum)
• Breathe deeply fully and slowly
• Have an open body posture. Uncross legs and arms
If we adopt some of these behaviors, even just one of these behaviors, when we begin to feel stressed, then we alter the feedback to our fear response system (our sympathetic nervous system). We send it a message: "See, if there was a real threat I wouldn't be salivating, talking normally, breathing out for longer than I breathe in."
Something even the most anxious client can easily do is chew gum (or even just imagine they are). This is something you would never be doing during a genuine threat, producing saliva in anticipation of eating.
We don't tend to have the luxury of eating in life-threatening circumstances. So we can encourage our clients to 'act normal' during stressful times to quickly change the feedback loop and switch off anxiety fast. And just knowing they can do this can give them a huge boost in confidence.
Anxiety is all about expectation – which tends to be catastrophic! So let's bring some thought to it next.
3. Catch the underlying assumption and chase down logical conclusions.
If someone feels anxious about something, it's because they have a fear of some consequence. But what is that consequence?
If I fear attending a party I might ask myself, "What consequence do I fear?"
I might decide, "I fear meeting new people."
But what is the consequence of that? "They might not like me!"
But what is the consequence of that? "I will feel upset."
But what is the consequence of that? "I will feel that I am unlikable!"
And so on. Then we can go on to, "But how will I deal with that?"
"I will remember people who do like me."
"I will soon forget about the party."
"I will remember that I can be wrong when assuming people don't like me."
I have done this with people who are insecure in relationships by having them describe what it is they fear and begin to see that the relationship breakdown wouldn't be some kind of catastrophic end but a step along the path to something else that wouldn't necessarily be bad.
When someone comes to feel that even if the relationship did end they would and could survive, even thrive, then the fuel for the insecurity dries up.
So the therapy takeaways here are:
1. Strong feelings shape thoughts, not the other way around. We can directly help lift and calm feelings so thoughts fall into line with calmer emotionality.
2. Working to reframe thoughts can be really useful.
3. We can help people remember that feelings always change and focus on how they expect any current unpleasant feelings to change. This alone can begin to bring about the very expectation they have imagined.
4. We can teach clients to alter their behavioral feedback so as to send the message to their sympathetic nervous system: "Nothing to report here, no emergency, stand down!" And just knowing this is possible can help clients feel more secure and confident.
5. Finally, we can enable clients to catch underlying assumptions and follow logical conclusions to think about how they would actually survive – even thrive – if the 'worst' did happen.