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Want to know how to manage anxiety? Start by activating your soothing system

27 July, 2021

Need tips for managing your anxiety? Counselling psychologists, Sue Winter, talks you through a few simple Compassion Focused Therapy techniques for boosting your ‘soothing system’…

horse in a field without blinkers

As described in Don't worry, anxiety is totally normal — and here's why it happens to you, when we feel anxious, our threat system has been triggered, and our brain focuses on the potential threat.

We become like racehorses wearing blinkers, with no peripheral vision.

Positive emotions are switched off and the part of our brain responsible for logical thinking and problem solving is turned down. Our minds are focused on certainty and self-protection. It is usually not possible to think about things from other perspectives until we have soothed down the threat system, by activating our brain’s soothing system.

There are many ways to do this:

Changing what we pay attention to

Our attention is like a spotlight we can move around, and what we focus it on affects how we feel emotionally and physically. If we focus our attention on a sensation in our body, that sensation becomes stronger. If we focus on imagining an item of food we love, we can find ourselves salivating. We can decide what we want to experience and then focus our attention on what is most likely to trigger it.

Learning mindfulness can help us pay attention to the present moment with curiosity. We can learn to notice when we have started feeling anxious, before it has completely taken control, and when it is easier to manage. There are lots of free recordings on the internet; however, if you have experienced trauma, mindfulness is best learned with a therapist.

Using the body

The vagus nerve runs between our brain and body, with 80% of the information travelling from our body to our brain. Changing what is happening in our body can be an effective way to change what is occurring in our brain (the physical organ) and our mind (thoughts, feelings).

Posture

When we are feeling anxious, often our head drops and our shoulders curl forwards. We unconsciously avoid eye contact and protect the front of our bodies from harm. This posture sends a signal back to our brain confirming that we are in a scary place. It also makes breathing more difficult.

If instead we lift our head up, move our shoulders back, and sit or stand with our feet a shoulder width apart, this sends signals to our brain that we are feeling strong and confident. Breathing also becomes easier.

Changing how we breathe

When we are anxious, our breath tends to quicken and we do not breathe out enough. We take in too much oxygen which is not used up by physical activity (we do not 'fight or flight'). This can create sensations such as chest tightness, light headedness, dizziness and trembling.

We can soothe down our threat system if we:

  • Breathe slow, light breaths through our nose (the nose filters air).
  • Breathe so that the lower part of our chest expands (creating more space for our lungs to fill up) — this is called diaphragmatic breathing.
  • Make the out-breath longer than the in-breath (perhaps count up to 4 during the in-breath, and up to 6 during the out-breath). Try to keep to the same rhythm so the breath is smooth rather than jerky.
  • Take on a friendly facial expression, by imagining we are facing someone we care about and we want to communicate this.


Slow breaths through the nose send a signal of calmness to our brain. It is important to practice doing this while we are feeling relaxed, so it becomes easier and then we can do it when we really need it, at times of anxiety.

If you have any distracting thoughts, just let them go and bring your attention back to the breath.

If you find that focusing on the breath triggers anxiety, try focusing on something external, such as a relaxing smell or bring to mind a helpful image such as the sea, with the sight and sound of waves coming in and out with your breath.

Touch

From birth, our threat system is designed to be soothed by caring touch. If no-one is available, or touch from others has become a source of threat due to past experiences, there are alternatives:

  • Hugging a pet
  • Touching a comforting object (such as a soft blanket)
  • Self-touch, such as stroking our hands or giving ourselves a “butterfly hug” (crossing our hands across our chest and slowly tapping our hands on our chest, alternating left and right).

Other strategies to reduce anxiety:

  • Music: Listening to music, singing, chanting, drumming, especially if done as part of a socially supportive group.
  • Exercise: This triggers endorphins (feel-good hormones) and uses up nervous energy. It can be especially beneficial if we can exercise around nature.
  • Nutrition: Our brains and bodies need a healthy diet and enough water to operate well. Stimulants (such as caffeine and sugar) are best avoided before a stressful situation, as they trigger anxiety-type sensations. Eating breakfast can be important as anxiety in the morning may be due to not having eaten for several hours.

Please note: The human brain is extremely complex, with everything interconnected. 'Threat system' and 'soothing system' are metaphors, simplifying what actually takes place and there are many different ways to describe the same mechanisms.

This blog draws heavily from the writings of Paul Gilbert, deviser of Compassion Focused Therapy.

Looking for support for with anxiety? Book an appointment with Sue Winter, counselling psychologist.

Struggling with anxiety, stress or life pressures? Book an in-person, video or live chat appointment with one of our compassionate therapists..


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