Dialing Down Anxiety

rough waves on coastal shore


There is little debate that most anxiety is a symptom of internal cognitive/psychological machinations. That is, we are thinking in a way that is generating the anxiety. We think in both mental pictures and internal dialogue and depending on what we are telling ourselves, and what we are seeing, we may generate irrational anxiety. We often do not hear what we tell ourselves, or see those internal mental images, consciously; but they nevertheless exist as a subconscious process and have tremendous power over our moods and emotions. As an example of just how powerful our mental imagery can be, imagine sucking on a lemon rind. You may find yourself salivating, from nothing more than a mental image, an imagination. Anxiety too is a chemical response produced by imagination. Those imaginative images in our mind may not be true at all, but they nevertheless produce neurochemicals – and anxiety.

Since imagination can produce anxiety, it is reasonable to assume it can also minimize or reduce anxiety. So, the following is an exercise using imagination in a way that may help diminish anxiety responses when they arise. You may need to practice this exercise initially while not anxious to get the hang of it. But, once you are familiar with it, you can do it easily at the onset of anxiety.

Imagine a dial; a large dial with a movable needle pointing to a scale between 10 arcing to the left and 0 arcing to the right. In the middle is 5.0. Imagine increments from 0 beginning with 1 and then 2 and then 3….up to 5. From 5, see the dial’s increments divided even more definitively, such as 5.5 to 6 to 6.5 to 7. From 7 see it with even more divisions such as 7.25, 7.5, 7.75, 8, 8.25, 8.5, and 8.75. And then from 9, it goes 9.1, 9.2, 9.3, and 9.4 up to 10. Imagine this dial in detail with color and texture. You can make the needle and the numbers any color, and any texture, you like. Develop a mental picture of this dial and become very familiar with it. 10 represents very high anxiety/panic levels. 0 represents extreme relaxation and calmness.

At some time when you are most relaxed and comfortable, visualize this dial and note where the needle is pointing. Perhaps it is pointing to 2. This is a calm and relaxed state and the anxiety meter is indicating such. As you see the needle at the 2 level, note what you are feeling in your body. What does this level feel like? Let this feeling flood over you…really FEEL it.

The next time you feel anxious, visualize this dial and note where the needle is pointing. Perhaps it will point to 7.75 on your anxiety meter. Then, because it is YOUR imagination, you can lower the needle to 7.25 and then 7.0 and then 6.5. Each time it lowers a notch, take a deep breath. Slowly, you can bring the meter down to a 5 and maybe even a 4. As the meter gets closer to the 2 level, the calm and relaxed feeling associated with that level will increase, as the anxiety level associated with 7.75, or wherever you may have placed it during an anxiety attack, will decrease.

The key to success with this method is to focus on the dial and seeing it move slowly downwards notch by notch taking a deep inhalation and exhalation of breath with each movement to a lower notch. If the mind is focused on the imagery of the needle moving to lower numbers, it won’t be able to entertain the irrational imagery and internal dialogue generating the anxiety…and the anxiety will diminish, as the needle moves down to lower numbers.

It certainly cannot hurt to give it a try; it is simple, safe, non-medicinal and free.

Are You In Need of Eustress?

iao stream


Eustress is good stress. It is a term coined by Dr. Hans Selye, a Canadian medical doctor, in the 1950’s. We often think in terms of stress as being bad as in “I’m all stressed out.” But, if we had a life of no stress at all, we’d be bored, lethargic, unmotivated and apathetic. We need some stress in our lives. We might say that good stress, eustress, is the “spice in our life.” Of course, some people prefer more mild spice whereas others may like it hot. Each person has their own threshold for their optimal level of stress. What is eustress for one person could be “distress” for another. Distress is the word used to represent those pressures, tensions and strains upon us that can make us ill; it is the “bad” stress.

Stress, either eustress or distress, is not entirely caused by external situations such as pressures on the job or conflicts in the home. Stress is caused as much, or more, by how we interpret our situation. Still, if we are experiencing distress, we are likely not happy, healthy or performing are our best. Some of the symptoms of distress can be moodiness, irritability, depression, insomnia, excessive worry, poor memory, feeling overwhelmed, loss of appetite, decreased sex drive, substance abuse and pessimism. Though these symptoms may be caused by problems other than distress, they are, nevertheless, signs that something is not quite right.

If you are experiencing distress and telling yourself you need to get rid of or reduce your stress, perhaps that is not the best approach. It’s difficult, if not altogether impossible, to visualize a negative. It works a lot better to visualize a positive, which would be to increase the eustress in your life. What does that look like for you? What is positive stress for you? Stress reduction methods are important, such as relaxation techniques, watching a pleasant movie or something as simple as a walk in the park. But, those are not necessarily eustress activities. Eustress activities are stressful; they add some tension and pressure to our life. But, they are fun. They are exciting. They are uplifting.

Some activities that can generate eustress include: learning something new, engagement in a meaningful project, travel to a new place, meeting new people, stretching yourself outside your comfort zone. Of course, all of these can generate anxiety as well. However, anxiety and excitement are very similar. Physiologically, i.e., the body response such as sweating, increased heart rate, faster breathing, etc, it may be difficult to distinguish between anxiety and excitement. What makes a situation anxiety producing or exciting has a lot to do with how we interpret the event. Just understanding that stress can be positive and healthy, that we actually need some stress in our lives, can transform what we was distress into eustress. And, of course, the amount of stress we subject ourselves to is important. Eustress can become distress if it is prolonged. Exercise is a good example. A one-mile walk can be eustressful; but, if it should become a 10-mile walk, it may become distressful.

Stress management is part of our overall health maintenance. It is a topic of considerable importance in the medical field, as well as in business, for we all know that stress causes both physical and mental health problems. But, let us remember that we don’t want to eliminate stress. We want to keep our distress down, and our eustress up.