Anxiety disorders now affect around 1 in 5 adults in America. Anxiety seems to be on the rise in the West, with millennials now being called the most “anxious” generation (Newman, 2018). The American Institute of Stress website reports that the leading cause of stress, far and away, is occupational, with stress induced by job security skyrocketing in recent years.
A 2013 study reported that 60 to 80% of all primary care physician visits may be stress related (Nerurkar et al., 2013). Stress not only takes its toll on health, it also affects the economy. Stress-induced anxiety at work reduces productivity and increases absenteeism, which may together be costing the U.S. economy $300 billion a year (Mohney, 2018).
Such facts spotlight the importance of managing your state of mind. There are many approaches to this, from mindfulness and meditation to different forms of prayer, as well as a plethora of state-control techniques from psychology, therapy, coaching, and change work.
In the 1970s, Virginia Satir, the creator of family therapy, discussed the concept of a personal psychological “energy gauge,” accompanied by the feelings that both provide and drain your energy (Satir, 1978).
In the 90s, work from the Harvard Negotiation Project introduced the concept of “Conflict House” (discussed here), which stressed the importance of maintaining curiosity as a general outlook and attitude (Stone, Patton, & Heen, 1999).
This is echoed in Larry Senn’s (2017) concept of “The Mood Elevator,” a metaphor about staying on the upper floors of your psychological building, again with staying curious as a key concept.
When you’re feeling stress or anxiety strongly, whether in a meeting, before a presentation, or whatever, the first thing you need to do is improve your ability to quickly notice the state you are in. The sooner you deal with it, the easier it will be. (As orthodox monks used to say, strike the serpent’s head the second it passes under the door.)
Concepts like Conflict House and The Mood Elevator are good metaphors to help increase your state awareness. These can be accompanied by specific techniques to help manage your state. Let’s talk about six techniques I teach in my coaching class.
- Bilateral stimulation
- Quick coherence
- Attend to the periphery
- Step out of yourself
- Change your self-talk
The moment you realize you’re feeling anxious, stop and rate the feeling on a scale of 1 to 10. Grab something small, like a pen or a water bottle, and start passing the object back and forth, from hand to hand, crossing your vertical middle line with each pass. (This is what makes for “bilateral stimulation.”)
Keep one hand in front of you and swing the other out to your side as you pass the object back and forth, back and forth. Take a deep breath and think of what was bothering you, focus on how your feel, and again rate the feeling on the same scale of 1 to 10.
Repeat until your anxiety is diffused (or defused!). This crossing of the center line may have a similar effect as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing).
This one is based on heart coherence research done by the HeartMath Institute. With this technique, when you realize you’re feeling anxious or stressed, focus your attention on the area of your heart. This sounds weird, but pretend your breath is literally flowing in and out of your heart.
Slow your breath, inhaling for five seconds, exhaling for five seconds. Continue while still pretending your breath is going in and out of your heart area. Think of something positive, like something funny your kid did recently, your pet’s face, something that makes you smile.
Hold that feeling while you breathe and out. Do this for a minute, and notice how this changes what you were feeling.
Attend to the Periphery
When you’re on edge, highly anxious, and feeling this strongly, you are also likely locked into a strong first-person focus. The moment you realize this, here is a neat trick you can try.
Pick something to stare at, whether a spot on the wall or someone’s left eye (or whatever) and, without shifting your eyes from that spot, start to expand your awareness out to your peripheral vision, noticing how things get blurrier the farther out you go. Expand your awareness both to your right and left, then also up and down.
Notice once you’re past the bounds of your peripheral vision, there’s just nothing—no blackness, no blur, just…nothing. Now notice what you were feeling. It’s likely lessened quite a bit. You’ve broken out of that strong hardcore focus. (I learned this and the above techniques from hypnotist Melissa Tiers’ 2011 book, The Anti-Anxiety Toolkit.)
Another trick I use (which I learned from Allan Parker) is to use this exercise to quiet my inner chatter. If you are running an interview, or even just sitting in a meeting, sometimes listening to your own inner dialogue distracts from really listening to the other person. You might try this and notice that it’s not possible to focus on your peripheral vision and your own internal narrative at the same time.
It’s weird, but it works.
Step out of Yourself
Similar to shifting your focus to your peripheral vision, you can also imagine stepping out of yourself. When you notice you’re in a situation and you don’t quite like what you’re feeling or how you’re handling it, pause and label what you’re feeling or how you’re acting.
Now imagine stepping out of yourself (literally) and observing the situation from the third person. Imagine it’s a scene in a movie, playing on a movie screen in a dark theater, and you are now watching it from up in the projection booth. This feels differently from being “in” the movie, doesn’t it?
As you watch how you’re acting from the third-person perspective, how would you label your own behavior now? It’s a different label, isn’t it? How would you want to change your behavior or what you’re feeling? If you could step into the movie screen and “coach yourself” in the movie, what advice would you give?
Change Your Self-Talk
This technique is from Steve Andreas (2012). Sometimes when you’re feeling stressed or anxious or depressed, how you talk to yourself can play a role. Is it like an inner bully? Your own harshest critic?
If you were to “hear” this voice, where do you feel the voice coming from? If it’s coming from inside your head, imagine it’s now coming from your elbow. Again, it’s a weird thought, but a critical elbow somehow isn’t as bothersome.
Or, if you imagine your negative self-talk is coming from in front of you, try moving it to your left…50 feet away. It’s getting quieter, isn’t it? Or imagine it’s coming from a radio near you. Now walk over and turn the volume down knob until it doesn’t bother you as much.
Or imagine your inner critic is someone who’s facing you. Imagine turning and standing beside them, facing the same direction, facing the problem together and collaborating. That feels different, doesn’t it?
This last technique is from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It combines many of the above techniques into a single process. “STOPP” is an acronym.
The “S” stands for “Stop.” When you’re feeling a heightened negative feeling, stop what you’re doing. Meeting crippling thoughts head on is a losing game.
Next, the “T” stands for “Take a break,” so stop and take a break. Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth.
Next is “Observe.” Observe whatever is going through your mind. Where is your focus? What are you reacting to? If you imagine doing a quick body scan, what are you feeling? Are your shoulders tight? Relax your shoulders. Is your jaw clenched? Drop or loosen your jaw. Are your hands clenched into fists? Open your hands.
If you’re huddled in on yourself, like you’re trying to disappear, lean back, take up more space, and adopt an open, relaxed posture. If you’re vigorously pumping your leg impatiently, take a deep breath and change what you’re doing and what you’re communicating.
The first “P” is “Pull back.” This is like stepping out of yourself. Imagine you’re viewing the situation in the third person, like you’re an owl in a tree or, again, like you’re watching from the projection booth in a theater. What advice would a trusted friend give you right now? What advice would you give your own child?
How might this situation look to an outsider? How important will this interaction be in a week, in a month? A year? Is that a fact or an opinion? Ask such questions to break your first-person focus and create space.
Finally, “Practice what works.” Now that you’ve created space and have this self-awareness about your state, what changes can you make that will be both effective and appropriate? What do you find works best that is also in line with your values? If you need to exit the situation, then do it! If a meeting has gone sideways, end it!
You can also try a combination of the above tricks. Step out of yourself, loosen your jaw, imagine how your mentor would view the situation, put a label on the interaction from that perspective, and ask yourself what the right state would be for you right now to be in. Whom do you know who best embodies that state? Pretend you’re him or her and proceed.
Again, this stuff is weird, but it works.
Let me know what techniques you use to help manage your state.
Andreas, S. (2012). Transforming negative self-talk: Practical, effective exercises. NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Mohney, G. (2018). Stress costs U.S. $300 billion every year. Healthline. Retrieved on September 30, 2019 from: https://www.healthline.com/health-news/stress-health-costs#1.
Nerurkar, A., Bitton, A., Davis, R. B., Phillips, M. D., & Yeh, G. (2013). When physicians counsel about stress: Results of a national study. JAMA Intern Med, 173(1), 76–77.
Newman, T. (2018). Anxiety in the West: Is it on the rise: Medical News Today. Retrieved on September 27, 2019 from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322877.php.
Satir, V. (1978). Your many faces. Milbrae, CA: Celestial Arts.
Senn, L. (2017). The mood elevator: Take charge of your feelings, become a better you. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (2010/1999). Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. NY: The Penguin Group Inc.
Tiers, M. (2011). The anti-anxiety toolkit: Rapid techniques to rewire the brain. NY: Melissa Tiers.