Fear is a psychological poison that can cause as much distress as a physical toxin, but there is an antidote, say authors Dr. Robert Sharpe and David Lewis.
No matter what you are trying to do, excessive anxiety ensures that you do it worse. You want to think clearly, but your mind is confused by fears.
However much you want to defend yourself in an argument, rebut criticism, make a good impression, put across your viewpoint, or demonstrate your skills, anxiety gets in the way.
Your stomach churns uncomfortably, your mouth goes dry, your breathing becomes rapid and uneven. You may blush or sweat excessively, tremble, or feel dizzy.
Anxiety can strike anyone at almost any time. It is no respecter of age, intelligence, or ability.
But there is an antidote. You can learn how to control the restricting mental and bodily symptoms of fear.
To use the Anxiety Antidote it is necessary to learn three basic skills:
- Positive Self-Talk
- Anxiety Management
This is how you can relax quickly. Sit down in any type of chair (if it is comfortable and supports your neck and head so much the better).
Now put all muscle groups under tension at the same time:
- Clench your fists
- Bend arms and try to touch wrists to shoulders
- Breathe in so your chest is expanded as far as possible
- Press your head against the chair
- Frown and close your eyes tightly
- Purse your lips and clench your teeth
- Flatten your stomach
- Straighten your legs
Hold this position for a slow count of five. Now relax – let go completely and allow all your muscles to flop as quickly as possible. Each time you breathe out focus on the keyword “relax.” After training this way for a while you should find you can relax even without prior tensing.
Panic develops out of a mixture of distressing bodily responses and negative mental statements. Your relaxation training will be used to control bodily responses. But it is equally important to banish the negative statements and replace them with Positive Self-Talk.
To be successful, positive statements must:
- Be closely relevant to the situation which is causing anxiety;
- Be realistic, so difficulties are acknowledged rather than ignored and a practical solution is offered.
Look at what can happen to a person who becomes extremely anxious while trying to stand up for his or her rights in the face of aggressive criticism. Lacking knowledge of the Anxiety Antidote, such a person will probably either apologize and attempt to placate the aggressor or remain completely tongue-tied.
With churning stomach and rapidly beating heart, the victim is probably thinking very negatively, “I’ve got to get away. I can’t cope. I am being made to look a fool.”
These feelings of humiliation are likely to make the individual depressed, lacking in confidence, and more liable to experience negative thoughts in similar situations: “I’ve failed before. I will fail this time…”
A person familiar with Positive Self-Talk strategies should be able to cope with the aggression by thinking and acting on such positive statements as these:
“It may be difficult but I am going to stress my major argument for the fourth time because they clearly have taken no notice of the last three and I am going to do it now.”
“This person is too enraged at present to listen to my point-of-view so I will ask him to discuss it with me later and then leave the room without any hesitation.”
While such positive mental statements seem no more than common sense, they are extremely difficult for the severe anxiety sufferer to bring to mind. To build up such positive and practical self-talk, it is necessary to construct this kind of statement gradually over a number of actual or imagined encounters with anxiety. For most people, it will be easier to use imagined situations at first, then increase their strength and realism by using them in practice.
To begin training, you need to make a short graded list of things which cause you anxiety.
For instance, at work these situations might worry you (increasing in difficulty from one to four):
- Handling an excessive workload
- Disciplining a subordinate
- Dealing with an aggressive client
- Having heated exchanges with a superior
A wife made anxious by her husband might make the following list:
- Having discussions about the family’s holiday plans
- Discussions over the family budget
- Asking for something extra for the house
- Talking about marriage difficulties
- Defending the children from his criticisms
You may have other anxieties, about traveling, for instance, or speaking in public, or eating in restaurants, or talking to the opposite sex – all common fears. If so, make the appropriate list. Now choose one of the anxiety situations low on your graded list and, while lying in a relaxed state, imagine it as vividly as you can.
Notice whether imagining the situation makes you feel anxious. Watch out for negative thoughts and when you have gone through the scene in your mind’s eye, write down these statements, especially comments like: “I cannot cope… everything is going wrong… I am losing control.”
Adopt a similar procedure with each situation on your list, working from the least worrying to the most. At the end, you should have built up a list of Negative Self-Talk statements.
The third step is to construct Positive Self-Talk statements based on these negative comments. Instead of “I cannot cope,” try to think of some ways in which you could make a situation bearable.
You can then begin to construct statements in the form of instructions: “It will be difficult but I think I can manage if…” or “I shall feel like trying to get out of the situation but I shall stay there as comfortably as possible by relaxing and… ” In other words, find something positive about the situation.
For example: “There will be a lot of pressure brought to bear by my boss but I know that if I just say no to extra work and avoid being made to feel guilty, my workload will not become more crippling than it already is.” Or: “I always hate having to discipline a subordinate but I know that if I walk around the office while doing so I become less anxious than if I stay trapped by my desk.”
Notice that these statements relate to a specific piece of behavior that you are going to attempt, and they do not make unrealistic claims about the outcome.
The danger is that you will regard anything less than total achievement as a failure. Instead of thinking, “Well the outcome wasn’t exactly as I hoped, but I did manage to get this point over,” you chalk up another personal disaster and think, “Why bother?”
By making it clear to yourself at the outset that there will be difficulties and you may not achieve everything you want, you are establishing realistic goals.
After an encounter in which you used Positive Self-Talk, think back: remember what you said to yourself before and during the confrontation. If you discovered some approach that helped you, then incorporate this into your next set of Positive Self-Talk statements.
Build on any success, however small. Don’t compare yourself with somebody who can apparently deal with the situation effortlessly. Instead, notice how you came a step closer to being able to cope and feel pleased with yourself.
Your third weapon, Anxiety Management, involves training the body to respond to an initial spurt of anxiety with relaxation, rather than with spiraling panic.
Get a friend to make a loud noise – for instance, hands clapped sharply together – to startle you. Notice how the shock feels. Usually, it involves a sharp lurching sensation in the pit of the stomach as Adrenaline is released. As you experience this, relax immediately.
If you cannot get anyone to help with your training, you will have to find a way of making a sudden noise. One way which has been used successfully is to balance a tin tray between the backs of two upright chairs. Put some knives and forks on the tray to add to the crash. Tie a string to one of the chairs and jerk it to produce the startle response. This works well, but it means you have to get up after each crash to reconstruct your noise-maker. Before you do so, be sure you have fully relaxed.
After a few days of practicing this, your body will start to respond automatically with feelings of relaxation whenever it experiences a startle. If you can fit in two periods of training each day so much the better, but leave several hours between sessions so you continue to be startled.
When you can handle imaginary situations, you can start putting the Antidote to work in real life.
The keynote to success is to take your time. Most people with anxiety troubles are so determined to get difficult situations over and done with that they rush blindly through them – hoping to succeed through sheer speed and willpower. This simply increases the likelihood of anxiety.
An important strategy is the WASP procedure: W-Wait, A-Absorb, SP-Slowly Proceed.
Four situations which commonly produce anxiety are:
- Being criticized
- Feeling angry
- Having to join groups of strangers at a party or other gathering
- Being bored
Here are strategies you can use in these situations.
A confident person may take criticism as a slur; the under-confident are likely to see it as confirmation of their failings.
If the criticism is constructive and justified then you may benefit by following the advice given. If it is merely malicious then it is best to be able to dismiss it from your mind.
If you judge a criticism to be justified then the most useful response is to this effect: “Yes, I think you have made a good point there. It would be worth trying to incorporate it into my way of running things.”
There is no need to feel you have lost face. It simply shows that you can change your behavior and capitalize on feedback.
If you feel strongly that you have been misunderstood or attacked for no good reason, then you should make a direct statement on these lines: “I think that is an inappropriate comment and you have misunderstood the situation. I will go over it with you should you wish to correct any misunderstandings, but I think you should reassess your opinions.”
You must also realize that you have a perfect right to disregard the comments completely, whether they are justified or unfair, helpful, or malicious.
What sort of tone was used in making the criticism? Was it a point-scoring tactic to make you feel small? Or a stupid retort blurted out in anger? When you have decided whether to accept or rebut it, Slowly Proceed to reply. Try to stay calm both while considering and replying to the criticism.
You will find it helpful if you practice these skills with a friend in a role-playing situation and in real life. Set up rehearsal sessions in which your friend offers various criticisms, some justified, some ridiculous, and merely unhelpful. Respond and then assess how well you did. If you feel you failed to answer effectively, think about how you might have improved.
Mental rehearsal of this kind is especially valuable if you know you will be going into an encounter where criticism is to be expected.
Anxiety about feeling anger toward somebody can often lead to a building up of tension which keeps you on edge for days or weeks. You may then explode with rage against someone who has done nothing to justify your wrath.
The suppression of anger is usually due to two main anxieties. The first is to worry over how those responsible for the anger will react. Will they become very angry and perhaps violent themselves? Will they simply think less well of you?
The second fear is that it may not be possible to control one’s anger once it has been unleashed. People are often convinced that they will become “blind with rage” and do or say something they will greatly regret.
In fact, it is much more likely that the man or woman who is constantly repressing anger will one day lose control, rather than the person who knows how to handle these emotions as a result of training and practice.
The meek-mannered husband who was mutely patient with his nagging wife for 20 years and then buried a meat cleaver in her head is not exactly an unfamiliar figure in criminal history. In fact, the majority of murders take place in the home and involve people who have lived together for years with “never an angry word.”
Anger is only explosive if it is allowed to build up under pressure, but being able to lose your temper in a controlled manner can be learned.
The main rule is that you should always express anger at the time and in the context to which it belongs. Suppressed rage always creates anxieties, either by being diverted to innocent parties – which often leads to feelings of guilt later – or by being absorbed.
When expressing anger, it is not necessary to use clever, cutting remarks. You should simply make clear your annoyance at the other person’s attitude or conduct. This is all that is needed to state your position while providing the other person with valuable feedback as to your true feelings, and such a response will not make other people think any less well of you. Indeed, it will probably increase their respect when they find you are willing and able to defend yourself.
In situations where you feel a display of anger is necessary, allow yourself to externalize the feeling physically and vocally. Thump the table, stamp your foot, raise your voice.
This physical expression of fury is especially helpful if you are one of those people who find it difficult to become angry. Simply by acting in an enraged way you will become enraged.
You can train yourself to express anger through a series of simple exercises. It will be necessary to find a friend or relative to help:
- Anger by numbers. In this exercise, the two of you have a stand-up row using numbers rather than words. This is to enable you to shout angrily without the overtones attached to words. Take it in turns to yell any number at one another and put as much feeling and anger into each word you shout as possible.
- Give me the towel. In this exercise, each of you takes hold of an end of a towel and you begin shouting angrily at one another: “Give me the towel” and tugging at it. This exercise helps to increase the bodily expression of anger through the muscle tension associated with vigorous exercise. Really pull at the towel and yell with as much power and feeling as possible.
- Insults and abuse. In this exercise, you hurl abuse at one another, taking turns to shout insults of the type: “You stupid imbecile… you make me sick… I can’t stand you.” Carry on for 5 or 10 minutes and put as much feeling as possible into the session. Do not worry that this sort of exercise will produce difficulties between you after the event. The fact that it has been set up as an artificial situation ritualizes it.
These three exercises should be practiced regularly.
JOINING GROUPS OF STRANGERS
To anybody who suffers anxiety in social situations, parties and similar gatherings can present a bewildering scene. Groups seem to form and reform in a continuous movement of bodies as people circulate, chat, and move on again. The ease with which some guests attach themselves to different groups is often a matter of surprise and envy to the socially anxious.
Learning to interact socially requires a series of definable skills:
- Observation. First go along to some parties to examine, in a non-envious way, the actual mechanics of interchanges between groups. You will notice several methods. Some people stand just on the edge of a group for a few seconds, listening to the conversation, and then break-in. Others may approach with physical gestures, such as touching one of the existing group on the arm to attract attention and thereby slipping into the group. Yet others may break into the group conversation by asking whether anyone wants a drink or food or by requesting a light.
- Setting Social Goals. Now begin to go to parties with quite clearly defined goals. Initially, a useful goal is simply to join as many groups as you can.
- Exit skills. Usually, it is quite easy to leave a group you have entered. A phrase such as: “Excuse me, I must go and see where ‘X’ has got to” or “It’s been very interesting talking to you – I hope we meet again later” combined with turning away will leave the others satisfied with the interaction.
Boredom can produce a number of anxieties. There may be fear that life is slipping past with nothing being achieved, worry that you are wasting your talents in unstimulating activities. One of the main problems with boredom is that it saps the will for change. A bored person can all too easily become apathetic. Strange though it may seem, a boring existence is sometimes regarded as preferable to change and challenge, which are seen as anxiety-producing.
The first thing to decide is whether you really want change, and if so how much. Is your lifestyle so unstimulating that you would willingly reject it completely in favor of something more exciting? Or are you going to be happy if you simply inject high points into the weekly routine?
Take practical steps toward change. Too little action has been responsible for your present state of boredom. Make a list of all the things you have ever wanted to do. Be imaginative. Write down every social and leisure activity which appeals to you.
Now pick out two or three you especially like. What practical steps will be necessary?
Always have several things on the go at the same time. Remember that some interests will decline, some may not prove as attractive as they seemed.