If you’re reading this, it stands to reason that you are feeling anxious and are looking for tools such as CBT techniques to calm your anxiety.
Anxiety is a particularly devious beast.
It’s there for a reason, to give us the necessary fight or flight tools we need to survive. But if it gets out of control, it can restrict our lives and cause us more harm than good.
The problem with anxiety is that it easily escalates. Fear breeds fear. The more we worry something bad will happen, the more we convince ourselves it is likely to happen. We have set ourselves up to fail before we’ve even started.
We might start avoiding certain situations. However, although we may feel immediate relief by avoidance, we never learn that whatever we are afraid of isn’t actually that bad.
But you know what? When you are in the grip of a phobia, stuck in a repeating cycle of OCD, or suffering from social anxiety, it’s hard to be rational. And this is where cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT techniques can help, no matter what type of anxiety you are experiencing.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Franklin D. Roosevelt
FDR was right on the money about fear, but how can CBT techniques help us when we are crippled by anxiety?
8 CBT techniques for anxiety that will calm an anxious mind:
Our thoughts make us anxious
The first thing to recognise about anxiety is that external factors are not making you anxious, your internal thoughts are. And if your inner thoughts are causing the problem, you can change the way you think about the situation.
Of course, this isn’t easy. We trust our brains to deliver the right information quickly so we can go about our business. So it can be hard to realise that our thoughts are giving us the wrong messages.
The first step in CBT therapy is understanding how our thoughts are responsible for the way we feel. There is nothing in everyday normal life to feel anxious about. The only thing that is making you anxious is you. But, you can change that.
Thoughts can’t hurt you
You’re having a panic attack and you feel as you’re going to die. In a social situation, a person with social anxiety might think they’re going to collapse. Someone with OCD might feel so stressed about checking or counting they feel physically sick.
How do we get to such extreme physical symptoms from a single thought? Because we’ve programmed ourselves to have an automatic reaction to the stressful situation. Our thoughts tumble out of our minds with no chance of stopping and escalate into a full-blown panic attack.
But think – thoughts cannot hurt you. Look around you now. Focus on a book or a lamp and say to yourself “Oh my God if I look at that book, I’ll faint.” No amount of you thinking it will make it happen.
The next time you feel anxious, remember: just because you think it, it doesn’t mean you can make it happen.
Don’t set yourself up to fail
What’s the difference between a person with driving phobia and someone who drives without anxiety? The person who drives normally doesn’t think about driving before they set off.
Someone with the driving phobia will already be worrying about the journey, what will happen, what could go wrong, will they get lost, have an accident, or will they have a panic attack?
Now think about the driver who didn’t have anxiety. What do you think would happen if he or she started thinking the same thoughts as the anxious driver?
The chances are that the once confident driver could now start to feel a little anxious about driving. But the roads haven’t changed, nor has the car they are driving. Only their thoughts. Don’t forget, your thoughts are responsible, not external factors.
Be rational and logical
Time to think like Spock. When you are in a stressful situation, your mind starts racing and is out of control. The best way to stop this is to take a step back and think rationally. It helps if you look at the situation from another perspective or another person’s point of view.
Let’s take that driving example again. For every worrying thought that crops up, look at it in a rational manner as if you were talking to a friend.
What if you did get lost? Do you have a sat nav or a map? What if you do break down? Do you have breakdown cover? Identify what you feel is dangerous about the situation and look at it calmly and rationally.
Ask yourself ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’
What for you is the worst thing that could happen? If you get anxious during interviews, what do you fear the most?
Not being able to answer a question? Do you feel trapped in a social situation that you can’t escape from? Are you worried you’ll have a panic attack on an aeroplane?
Identify your worst fear and then examine it logically. No one has died from a panic attack. Panic attacks end. Yes, they are extremely horrible, but you are safe, you are not in danger.
Talk to yourself and reassure yourself about the thing you are most afraid of. By analysing them in a logical way, you take their power away.
Start taking small steps
So, you know that your thoughts are making you anxious and that they cannot hurt you. The next way to beat your anxiety with CBT techniques is to start taking small steps that will build up your confidence in the situation you find stressful.
The best way to tackle this is to make a ladder with the small steps at the bottom that cause you some anxiety but you can do, and goals at the top that cause you extreme anxiety and you cannot do.
The way to work through the ladder is to start at the bottom and go through each step until you are bored with it. Only then do you move onto the next step. Most importantly, reward yourself after each step to reinforce a positive emotion with your success.
Be patient and kind to yourself
If you have suffered from a phobia or anxiety for years or decades, remember that these CBT techniques won’t work overnight. Your brain has been programmed to feel anxiety.
You have learned over the years that a certain situation is dangerous. Now your brain has to unlearn all the lessons you gave it. This takes time, patience and endurance.
Remember, you may have setbacks as well as good weeks. Don’t expect your progress to be without a few bumps here and there. But reward any small victories and don’t downplay your successes.
Remember, what’s easy for some is really hard for you. It is also very easy to slip into a ‘Why me?’ way of thinking but this doesn’t help in the long run. Of course, lots of people have got it easier than you, but equally, a lot more have it much harder.
If all else fails, act normal
It helps to remember that anxiety is a natural response to stress. As a result, adrenalin rushes through our bodies preparing us to fight or flight. Blood is drawn away from areas such as the stomach (we don’t need to digest food in an emergency situation) and directed to the legs and arms for running or fighting.
One way to train our brains that anxiety is an incorrect response is to do something that lets the brain know adrenalin is not required.
For example, I remember being in the middle of a panic attack and my friend said something ridiculous which made me laugh. All the anxiety dissipated because my laughter informed my brain there was nothing to be afraid of.
It is hard to stop being frightened, but try having open body posture, smiling, talking calmly, and breathing slowly. Even chewing a piece of gum will help as it redirects blood back to the stomach.
Being in the grip of an anxious episode is extremely frightening. However, remember that you are in control of your thoughts, and by using these CBT techniques, it is possible to calm your anxiety.
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A nice reminder of the effectiveness of CBT, thanks Janey. The ability to reframe our perceptions is incredibly powerful and I’ve found stoic philosophy very helpful in practicing these mental models.