We all experience some worry. We can all probably think of unpleasant thoughts that we cannot get out of our head. They are like annoying bugs that keep buzzing around and refuse to leave us alone.
It’s normal to have worries — everyone has them from time to time. It’s only a problem when our worries get in the way of other parts of our lives, or if they make us unhappy. In Overcoming Anxiety, psychologist David Berndt introduces several strategies to help us work on reducing our anxiety, worry, and stress, including some interesting ways to separate our worries from the rest of the day.
Sometimes in therapy a skill or tool comes up, but the client leaves not using it. Why? Because that particular type or style just does not fit for them. So, rather than present a one-size-fits-all formula, Berndt presents techniques in their most basic form and encourages us to mold them, customize them, so that they actually work. By making each technique our own, Berndt writes, we will be more likely to use it in times of stress or anxiety.
He also writes that the aim of the book is to help us shrink anxious feelings, not to get rid of them completely, as these feelings can signal that something is not working.
One method Berndt emphasizes is the 54321 technique, which was initially used for PTSD patients experiencing flashbacks. Berndt has refined the technique to manage anxiety and other strong feelings. I tried it and it works — and I even taught it to my family members.
So what is this 54321 thing? It makes use of three different approaches to managing feelings: distraction, mindfulness, and self-hypnosis. The idea is to be in the here and now, be aware of our five senses, be aware of our feelings without judgment, and create more of a sense of curiosity and acceptance for those feelings. Berndt describes self-hypnosis as a grounding method that takes us from stress, anxiety, and/or panic to a neutral place. We’ve perhaps experienced self-hypnosis already, such as when we reach a destination without being fully aware of the walk or the drive.
Berndt asks us to pick three senses, to notice what is around us, and to tick off five things that we see, hear, smell, taste, feel — then count down to one thing. But the 54321 technique, he explains, does not always have to be about what’s in front of us. It can center on powerfully interesting memories, key memories, or pleasant memories that we can re-experience as the here and now to take away unwanted fear and anxiety. One of Berndt’s clients, for instance, used the memory of her grandmother’s jams as a way to do the focusing activity. It generated a pleasant sense for her and she was able to experience the smells and tastes of the jams she enjoyed as a child.
Helpful as the technique can be, Berndt cautions us not to use it in times when we are in real physical danger. He also writes that in cases of phobias, urges, or compulsions, exposure interventions may be more appropriate.
Another method he provides is called four square, or box breathing, which turns on our relaxation response and tamps down anxiety and stress. The body cannot engage in two opposing feelings at the same time, Berndt writes. With deep breathing, we are turning on the parasympathetic function and releasing the body’s relaxation response — reversing our flight-or-fight (or sympathetic) response.
For chronic worriers — those who worry excessively — Berndt discusses how we can develop a framework for more effective worry. While it may sound funny, the first step is to schedule the work of worry. Chronic worrying disrupts our sleep, builds tension in the body, and increases cortisol levels. By narrowing down a specific day or time to put the effort into our worrying, Berndt writes, we can start worrying in a more focused and effective way.
You might, for instance, take twenty or thirty minutes a day for worry-time, with one full day off to rest. If you notice worry creeping into your off day or outside your designated time, tell yourself, “I will deal with that at the appointed time,” or whatever word or phrase works for you. (I usually just tell myself, “Stop.”)
Part of cordoning off the worrying instead of letting it bleed into everything we do, Berndt writes, is to find a place to worry. Another step: to write out each worry, so that no worry goes unnoticed, but without at this point trying to solve everything.
A word of caution: this is not about making a to do list or crossing things off. It’s about dumping our worries onto a piece of paper so we can address them over time. Be as specific as possible. Berndt gives an example, someone who has gotten a DUI. In this scenario, rather than just write out “I got a DUI,” he recommends breaking it down into specific worries, such as “should I get a lawyer?”, “how can I find a good lawyer?”, “will I go to jail?”, “will I lose my insurance?”, and so on. After a few sessions like this, you have a list of worries that you can then begin to tackle.
But, of course, just because a worry pops into your head does not mean it is true. Berndt goes through a list of cognitive distortions and negative thoughts, as well as how we can build new neural pathways. I use some of the thought-stopping techniques he suggests, such as saying Stop to yourself, or visualizing a stop sign, when confronted with a negative assessment of yourself. According to Berndt, you basically interrupt the thought, then replace it with a more positive, newer thought. (Completely suppressing a negative thought, though, usually only makes it stronger. You want to restructure the thought and make it a less negative one.)
This is a simple, straightforward book. And as evidenced by my use of the techniques, it is a very helpful one, too.
Overcoming Anxiety: Self-Help Anxiety Relief
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, June 2015
Paperback, 188 pages