If you've ever dealt with any kind of anxiety, you know how annoying it can feel when someone repeatedly asks you what's wrong — or worse, instructs you to "just breathe." If you’re trying to curb your anxiety and calm down your mind, relaxation techniques like slow breathing can be surprisingly unhelpful.
“The ironic process of anxiety is the more you try to control it, the more anxious you’re going to feel,” Laura Lokers, a licensed clinical social worker and co-founder of the Anxiety and OCD Treatment Center of Ann Arbor in Michigan, told TODAY.
For example: It’s like telling someone not to think of a white horse. Yet instead of getting rid of the thought, it becomes the first thing to pop into the mind, she said.
Instead, Lokers often tells her patients to skip the relaxation techniques and instead stop and observe the situation.
“Treat it like you would a science experiment,” she said. Look around you and ask yourself questions like: How anxious am I feeling? How fast is my heart racing right now? Rank your answers on a scale of 1-10, and check back in with yourself every minute to see if the numbers have changed.
It may sound simple, but it’s an incredibly powerful technique. That’s because, Lokers explained, by focusing on the answers to these questions, you’re actually engaging your prefrontal cortex — your brain’s logic center — which diverts energy away from the amygdala — your brain’s emotional center.
When you’re anxious or panicking, the amygdala often takes over, which is why people often feel that when they’re anxious, they can’t think straight, Lokers said.
After the fact, they may understand that logically, they were in no danger, but are still unable to bring that logical thinking into the anxious moment. By asking these simple questions, your brain has to slow down and divert energy away from that panic.
Once you’ve gotten a hold on this anxiety, you can then use more traditional cognitive restructuring strategies to help cope with the situation, Lokers said.
For instance, if you’re stressed while going into a work meeting, you can ask yourself questions like, what evidence do I have right now that I’m in danger? Am I going to be physically attacked if I make a mistake, or get fired on the spot? You can then reason that you might feel uncomfortable or embarrassed, but only for a short amount of time.
To get to that reasoning, though, it’s important to essentially trick your brain out of its panic mode by asking those simple early questions and engaging your prefrontal cortex.
“The brain is designed for survival, not for quality of life, so we have to fight our natural instincts in a lot of ways in order to balance that anxiety, especially for folks whose brain is wired to be hyper vigilant,” Lokers explained. And by using this one simple trick, you can overcome your natural instincts and handle any stressful situation in a more controlled way.