Calming techniques for fear and anxiety

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With dramatic stories of doom and gloom flooding the media in recent times, I’ve found myself digging into my store of calming techniques for fear and anxiety. I figured you might find them useful too, after all, we’re all experiencing a global pandemic together – something that none of us have had to deal with before. This article explores the nature and purpose of fear and gives you a list of action-based techniques and a list of mind-based techniques that have a calming effect on anxiety and fear.

Fear is the voice in your head trying to keep you safe

Fear is the voice in your head telling you a story that sets off a chain of physiological and psychological responses. This gets you prepared to fight off danger whether it’s really there or not, to run away from it in pursuit of self-preservation, or to freeze.

As much as we may not like the sensations that fear brings, we need to allow it. It’s helped to keep the human race alive so far by signalling to us and enabling us to draw away from danger and move towards safety.

So how do we keep these voices of fear in check so that they do their job of keeping us safe without stopping us from living a healthy and fulfilling life?

fight flight freeze OR pause breathe think

The biology of fear through the ages

Biologically, for some of us, our brains and bodies excel at responding to fear. In days gone by, we were the warriors, chiefs and the village leaders who led our families to safety, found shelter from storms, fought off predators and kept everyone together. In our modern world it’s easy to forget that people led very physically active and outdoors-based lives not that many years ago. Bodies were in constant motion throughout the day and in tune with nature and with their wired brains – the perfect combination.

But today we’ve removed a lot of the physical movement from our lives and we’ve become disconnected from the outdoors and often from each other and our inner selves too. We’ve organised the world around us to protect us from weather and hard labour. Many of us live in permanent housing in societies with building regulations requiring our homes to be resistant to cyclones, tornadoes, rain, snow, hail, and wind. We shop for our food rather than hunt and gather it. Most people around the world commute using motorised transport rather than human power. And everywhere we look there are labour saving devices such as food processors and power tools.

The signs of fear and anxiety

Although our physical activity levels have reduced and we spend a lot of time indoors, our wired brains continue to go searching for danger and find it everywhere. This is exacerbated when something unexpected happens, such as the current corona-virus pandemic. For many of us, our bodies are not moving enough or connected with the world in ways that stimulate the physiological changes that keep a calm equilibrium and so we experience more signs of anxiety including:

  • ruminating thoughts
  • difficulty sleeping
  • sweating
  • feeling on edge, irritable
  • distracted
  • difficulty concentrating
  • body tension
  • aches, pains and nausea
  • lethargy
  • restlessness

are you feeding your fears

Action-based calming techniques for fear and anxiety

When we understand the physiology of fear, that is, what’s happening in our bodies when we feel anxious, we can begin to take actions to calm it. Calming actions may include:

  • set boundaries around your sedentary activities, for example, give yourself permission to use your electronic devices at set times of the day, put them away at night, set a limit on your daily quota of usage, and limit the number of times you check the news and social media
  • move more, sit less – move as much as you can during the day and get outside whenever it’s safe to do so
  • exercise for 30 – 60 minutes each day, preferably in the morning so you’re energised for the day ahead and it doesn’t disrupt your sleep at night
  • spend time with people whose company you enjoy or create a tribe of like-minded people – this can be face-to-face (when health directives allow this once again) but don’t forget there is great value in connecting with others online or by phone, video-conference (eg Skype), text and through social media groups
  • get creative and constructive doing hobbies or other tasks
  • participate in regular yoga, meditation or breathing practices – if you can’t go to a group class, try using an app, online class or a YouTube tutorial
  • watch a funny movie or a comedy show – laughing helps you breathe deeply and relax
  • talk to a professional
  • drink plenty of water and feed your body with good nutrition
  • spend time outdoors connecting with nature using your senses to be fully present in that space and time
  • watch your posture – shoulders back, head held high and breathe fully and deeply
  • have a massage to release tension from your muscles
  • give yourself a head massage
  • use your senses to connect with activities that you find relaxing, for example think about what things you can look at, listen to, smell, taste or touch that brings you joy
  • work on improving your sleep – if you are having trouble sleeping, read my  Top Ten Tips for a Good Night’s Sleep
  • rest or have a nap in the morning or early afternoon if you need to

use nature to deal with fear and anxiety

Mind-based calming techniques for fear and anxiety

Your mind is a mighty powerful tool that can also contribute to a sense of calm. Using your mind in this way can be a bit tricky if you haven’t done it before so here are some techniques to get you started:

  • talk to yourself using a calm, kind and rational voice

I know you’re feeling scared. Is it actually dangerous, or does it simply feel scary?”

What can I do to minimise the risk and maximise the benefits / enjoyment in this situation?”

What do I have control over in this situation? Hmmmm…. Okay, let’s just focus on that”

  • choose a positive intention or attitude for the day that will help you stay calm eg “Just breathe” or “I’ll start each day with movement and exercise”
  • remind yourself about fear’s purpose and that even in low risk situations your brain is wired to search for the danger, the difficulties, the problems – but this is only part of the whole picture
  • tune in to yourself and notice what’s happening in your body and what’s going through your mind
  • allow the fearful voices and thoughts to settle gentle as if they are snowflakes in a snow dome that’s been shaken up
  • imagine what advice a wise mentor might give you – this can help to balance up your own narrowly-focused thoughts
  • visualise wrapping your worries up as a gift and handing them over to someone or something that has more control over the situation
  • give your worries a name and imagine a safe little place that you can store them for now so that they no longer take over every part of your day and night
  • if you feel the fear or anxiety in parts of your body such as your belly or your head, imagine shrinking them down and allowing them a small space to do their thing – maybe a little corner of your belly or your little finger nail or behind your ear
  • visualise yourself walking into a beautiful garden and leaving your worries on the ancient worry tree at the gate before you go in (this idea comes from Maureen Garth’s book “Earthlight: new meditations for children”)

fear and possibility

Fear brings up other emotions

Fear is closely connected with a range of your emotions. It can keep you quiet with nervousness and shame. Fear can make you loud and angry too, or it can make you feel jumpy and agitated. It’s different for each of us, and it’s different in each situation we face too. That’s why it’s so important to have a deep store of techniques that you can draw upon when you need to. What worked for you before, may not work for you in a new situation.

Fear can be suppressed, expressed and transformed

When you think of fear as a form of energy, you can understand how it can be suppressed, expressed or transformed. Each of these processes has their purpose, but today I encourage you to focus on transforming your fear into productive and constructive actions and a healthy and helpful mindset. This takes practice and patience with yourself. Using the calming techniques for fear and anxiety that are listed in this article is a great way to begin your learning journey.

More Help?

If you would like help in managing fear and anxiety, you can chat with your doctor who may be able to refer you for counselling or to a local program or online resource that meets your needs. And check my website for my current individual and group programs including coaching, bush adventure and retreats that have been created to inform, inspire and empower you towards health and vitality.

You can listen to this article in the Outdoors is my Therapy podcast – Episodes 5 & 6!

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Discovering mountain biking as life’s ultimate parallel universe in her middle age, Kathryn Walton shares information and reflections in ‘Daisy Spoke’ that inform, inspire and empower women to a healthy and active lifestyle.

6 Strategic Tips for Introverts to Survive Christmas

Do you gain energy by having time in solitude? Or with other people? This is the fundamental difference between introverted and extroverted personality types. Most of us are somewhere in the middle ground of this spectrum. Although this article focuses on introverted types during the busy silly season that’s ahead of us, it’s important to remember that everyone needs a bit of time out occasionally.

Many of us are familiar with the good old technique of retreating to the bathroom when overwhelmed or needing a bit of peace and quiet, especially if you’ve been privileged to parent young children who shadow you everywhere you go! Taking yourself off to the bathroom can be an effective measure against overwhelm, albeit it temporary. Yet the bathroom’s not the most desirable of places to spend Christmas Day. It’s handy to have a few other strategies up your sleeve so that you’re not relying on the one-and-only. Here are a few more strategic ideas to call into action when the social rules dictate that you socialise in a busy, noisy world, but in all honesty you’ve had quite enough.

1. Get yourself an ally

Before an expected big gathering, have a chat with your partner, a friend, your sister or someone else who’ll be there that you know will understand your predicament. Explain that if you feel overwhelmed you’ll leave the room for a few minutes. Having a support person to help you make your exit or to cover for you while you have a break can be just the buffer you need.

2. Plan solo time

If you’re holidaying with others, having a truck load of visitors, or heading out to a big family party, make your plan to have some down time or alone time to keep your energy levels well above ‘empty’. Having a regular exercise routine is a great way to recharge in solitude, or you could save a particular task for the moment you need an exit excuse:

“I’ll get this washing hung out while the sun’s out” or “I’ve just got to check something quickly in the garden / in the car / make a phone call.”

“No, I don’t need any help but thanks for offering. You stay here and relax. I’ll be back in a moment.”

3. Space yourself

Use boundaries with yourself and others. If being a part of the crowd feels stressful, consider exiting for a few minutes, or leaving. Alternatively you can navigate your way towards someone else whose personal space is similar to yours, and spend some time chatting or simply being with them.

4. Pace yourself

Many people feel overwhelmed at Christmas time with the added expectations of going to lots of events. Be choosy. Despite what your inner voice tells you, you don’t HAVE to go to everything and you don’t have to stay for the whole time. Be choosy!

5. Pick your venue

Family and work gatherings at public places like parks and pools can be less claustrophobic and less overwhelming for some people. You can more easily wander around, check things on the periphery and enter and exit conversations as your energy levels allow.

6. Set your intention

Begin the day with a mindful intention to stay connected to an inner place of stillness despite what’s going on around you. Your breath can anchor you to your place of stillness, and because you take your breath with you everywhere you go, you don’t need any special equipment or excuses. It’s simply there within you. You might like to visualise a retreat room in your heart.

So there you go! 6 strategic tips for surviving human overwhelm over Christmas. Merry Christmas everyone!

Discovering mountain biking as life’s ultimate parallel universe in her middle age, Kathryn Walton shares information and reflections in Daisy Spoke that connect, inspire and self-empower women to make healthy choices for themselves.

Busy Head Syndrome, Weeding and Creating a Clearing

“The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett is one of those books that I definitely have in my basket of ‘all time favourites’. Having read it many times as a child and an adult, I well and truly relate to many of the scenes. One that sticks in my mind is when Mary secretly lets herself into the garden that has been locked up for many years, and without knowing anything about gardening, she instinctively clears little patches of earth surrounding the green shoots she finds in the ground.

She did not know anything about gardening, but the grass seemed so thick in some of the places where the green points were pushing their way through that she thought they did not seem to have room enough to grow. She searched about until she found a rather sharp piece of wood and knelt down and dug and weeded out the weeds and grass until she made nice little clear places around them. “Now they look as if they could breathe,” she said …..’

*AC85 B9345 911s, Houghton Library, Harvard University

It was only later that Mary discovered her instincts guided her wisely.

I remember the therapeutic effect of clearing weeds in the garden as a child. And as an adult I still get a kick out of weeding. The end result always improves the wellbeing of my much loved herb and vegetable garden, but of even greater consequence is the clearing it provides in my own head! Being self-diagnosed with ‘Busy Head Syndrome’, my mind is a veritable storehouse of ideas, thoughts, creations, experiences, fantasies, memories and dreams. It can get pretty noisy in there! But with each weed from the garden that I pile onto the compost heap, my head goes through a parallel process of clearing out and letting go.

Some people describe the process of de-cluttering the house or cleaning out a cupboard in a similar way. I’m often amazed at the different life lessons we can learn from our ordinary everyday activities – if we pause for long enough to think about it.

Now, with my busy week coming up, I’m off to do some weeding in the garden – to clear some space not only for my shallots and asparagus, but the inside of my head too!

Discovering mountain biking as life’s ultimate parallel universe in her middle age, Kathryn Walton shares information and reflections in Daisy Spoke that connect, inspire and self-empower women to make healthy choices for themselves.

Ode to a Headwind

Ode to a Headwind

HEADWIND, how you frustrate me. You visit without warning in all seasons.

You turn a fun time into suffering. You change direction without warning. Swirling, confusing.

In SUMMER, you bring the hot dry desert to greet me as I walk out the door to ride.

Thirst and weariness always by my side. Dust and dirt worn with pride.

In WINTER, you sneakily invite the Antarctic spirits along for the ride.

Icicles and frostbite ripping at me, destroying my soul. In winter you take a toll.

In SPRING, you howl and whistle all around me, invading every space, disturbing every peace.

Your gale force beckons fears and nightmares. Felling trees. You have no cares.

In AUTUMN, the chill is in your breath. Pushing me. Compelling me. Exerting force.

You face me on the open hill. A reminder that change is inevitable.

HEADWIND – you are a force. Meet me face to face or back and forth.

Strength training is all I need. Ensuring power is matched with speed.

But, OH HEADWIND, honoured be your cause. The summer flies are no match for thee.

Gladly I face you as I ride east. Goddam flies! Pesky beasts!

Discovering mountain biking as life’s ultimate parallel universe in her middle age, Kathryn Walton shares information and reflections in Daisy Spoke that connect, inspire and self-empower women to make healthy choices for themselves.

The Forecast is for …. FLIES!

This season’s forecast is for flies.

Yep. That’s right.

It happens every year right about now. No matter what else the weather does, it always seems to set the right conditions for flies. And there’s no escaping it.

I generally consider myself an earth-loving kind of person. I think there’s a place for everything and everyone, but I really do have trouble allowing flies to have their space, or at least sharing it with me. I look forward to my morning run, walk or ride. I love being outdoors. I love exercising. I love nature. But I definitely struggle with flies.

So here was I this morning revelling in my ride when a fly tries to crawl into my left ear. Now that on its own makes my skin crawl. But then a swarm came at me. One on my sunglasses. One under my sunglasses. One in my eye. One on my top lip. Yew!!! Dozens on my legs and arms torturing me as they tickled, wandering aimlessly all over.

But it didn’t end there. What’s a girl to do when she’s being swarmed upon by flies while riding MTB? Not only that, but the trail suddenly got a bit tricky right at that moment when the fly attack took place. Can’t take hands off bars. Can’t swing arms or legs madly to chase them off. So I tried the only thing I could think of. I blew really hard, aiming my breath for the one on my lip whilst simultaneously visualising a force of air blowing out my ear, expelling yet another one. Scrunching up my eyes, squinting to see ahead so I could dodge the rocks and stay on the trail. Holding my breath as I rolled through the narrow gap between the trees. Whew! Made it!

Then the immense relief of being able to brush the flies off my face with my hands, take a deep breath, and remind myself we all have a place in this world. As I pedalled on up the hill, I hoped to find a fast downhill section of trail on the other side, the perfect set-up to outrun my nemesis.

 

Discovering mountain biking as life’s ultimate parallel universe in her middle age, Kathryn Walton shares information and reflections in Daisy Spoke that connect, inspire and self-empower women to make healthy choices for themselves.

7 Step Action Plan to Conquer Scary Stuff (Part 2)

In Part 1 I explained how I used a 7 Step Action Plan to conquer an irrational fear I had about riding “the scary corner” on my mountain bike. While everybody else seemed to effortlessly glide round the corner at speed and then over or around the craggy rocks as they exited on an uphill slope, I’d turn to hike-a-bike mode. I had previously ridden this corner, but somehow the fear escalated and made me feel very small and incapable.

The Scary Corner is quite photogenic! It really doesn’t look so scary here!

The same 7 Step Action Plan that I used to conquer my fear on “the scary corner” can be applied to other scenarios in ordinary everyday life. Here’s how…..

First of all, what is it that’s got your heart pumping, your mind racing and your stomach churning? Maybe going to a meeting or party where you’re not sure if you know anyone? Going in a lift? Making a phone call that you’ve been dreading? Or something else? Let’s apply the 7 Step Action Plan to your situation:

  1. Walk it through

Think it through calmly. Maybe talk it through with someone. Stay rational, logical and reasonable.

  1. “Is anything missing?”

Are there skills or equipment that will help you be successful? For example, learn how to make small talk, have a dot point list in front of you, play music through your headphones.

  1. Make modifications – physical and / or psychological

Would it help to ask a friend to accompany you, place your chair near the exit, or use the phone on speaker so your hands are free?

  1. Identify your focus

Refocus your attention on what you want to happen, where you want to go, what you want to say, how you want to feel. The scary thoughts or feelings will keep popping up, but don’t give them the attention they are seeking. Keep refocusing.

  1. Practise your exit

Have an exit plan. If things get too much, what will you say, what will you do, where will you go? Knowing there’s a safe and valid way out brings a greater sense of ease and improves your rate of success.

  1. Make your entrance!

This is where you just do it. Every thing’s in place. You have a plan. Trust it. Trust yourself. What’s the worst that could happen now?

  1. Celebrate your growth

Your reward for stepping up to the challenge my be felt internally with a surge of relief or confidence. Or perhaps you’d like to reward yourself in another way.

Remember, everyone feels nervous about something at least some of the time. It’s a normal mechanism designed to keep us safe, but if it’s keeping you small, then it’s time to do something about it. If your nervousness is impacting heavily on your functioning or contributing to ill-health, you can seek support from your GP to access counselling. Counselling is a bit like having a coach provide step-by-step guidelines and support as you learn new skills to achieve your goals.

7 Step Action Plan to Conquer Scary Stuff (Part 1)

I knew I was physically capable of doing it, I’d done it several times in the past. So what was getting in the way of me ACTUALLY doing it NOW??? Over a period of a few months, the idea of riding “the scary corner” on my bike loomed bigger and scarier and I felt worse and worse. I don’t know what had changed in my mind – nothing had changed on the trail, so I figured it was some sort of powerful intra-psychic voodoo playing with my confidence and keeping me feeling small and pathetic. I couldn’t even blame it on a fall or anything like that!

After much soul searching, I made the commitment to myself that I was going to conquer the fear that had irrationally built up in my mind. I really wanted to take charge of my fearful thoughts which seemed to be controlling my actions. It was as if my own thoughts were bullying me. The longer it went on, the worse it became. I knew that if I could get this sorted, I’d be able to transfer the skills and processes to other situations that make me nervous and better manage them as well.

So here’s the 7 Step Action Plan that helped me overcome my fear of riding “the scary corner”:

  1. Walk it through

That’s right. The first thing I did was leave the bike behind, put on my sports shoes, and simply walk the corner – repeatedly! I familiarised myself with every stone, stick and slope. I walked it forwards and backwards. I looked at it from every possible angle. “The scary corner” and myself got to know each other well, and we gradually became friends!

  1. “Is anything missing?”

By getting down close and personal with the scary corner I was able to see that there was, in fact, nothing in it that I couldn’t ride. Tight left bend – check. Six inch drop over a rock – check. Angle of slope – check. Width of trail – not a problem. Nope ….. I wasn’t missing any particular skills apart from the ability to curb the fantastic stories my mind was creating about how scary the corner is! And as for equipment, well my bike is well maintained and more than capable of negotiating this terrain.

The Scary Corner is quite photogenic! It really doesn’t look so scary here!
  1. Make modifications – physical and / or psychological

I’d been noticing that other people often lowered their seats when descending. I also noticed my own urge to get my weight lower and further back on similar corners on other trails. So, I lowered my saddle and instantly felt a lot more secure about my body position on rough descending trails. This triggered a whole new attitude of positivity and hopefulness.

  1. Identify your focus

    Keep your eyes on the sticks, NOT the cactus or the steep slope or the rocks!

Our eyes are naturally drawn towards danger. It’s a protective mechanism which sometimes backfires on us. Mountain biking is often counter-intuitive. If you focus on the obstacle, that’s where you’ll go. To help train my eye away from the steep slope, rocks and trees that I wanted to avoid as I approached the corner, I lined the ground on the right side with small twigs to act as a visual aid (a bit like the white line marking on the road). Then I walked the trail again and again, practising keeping my eye on the twigs and not looking at the stuff I wanted to avoid!

  1. Practise your exit
Practise the technical parts of the exit – keep on track, get over the drop-off, & time your peddling to get past the craggy rocks as you go back uphill!

I now began to think about actually riding the corner. But there were a couple of tricky parts and I noticed a feeling welling up inside me – the fear of getting halfway round the corner then getting trapped because I mightn’t be able to exit properly. I visualised myself falling off on the rocks and knocking my head on a tree as I tumbled down the slope and through the prickly pear. So, I needed to do something to allay my concerns. I set to work practising my exit skills on “the scary corner”. Repeatedly I walked my bike halfway round the corner so I could ride the second half of it only, over the drop-off and carefully navigate between the large protruding rocks, timing my pedal strokes just right so that I didn’t knock myself off. This built a lot more confidence and eliminated a few of the scary factors that had been distracting me.

  1. Make your entrance!

    A short steep downhill section between and over the rocks forms the entry to the sharp-ish left hand corner.

Well now that I knew I had it all together in my head and that I could physically do it, all that was left was to make my entrance. Get down low and go, go, go! I think I even remembered to breathe, and suddenly I’d done it! In a brief second or two, I’d successfully navigated “the scary corner” and wondered what all the fuss had been about!

  1. Celebrate your growth

It may seem trivial to other people, and you may be the only one who truly knows what your achievement means to you. But don’t let that stop you from learning, practising, growing, and celebrating. Whatever your style – whoop out loud to the universe, punch the air, pat yourself on the back, or maybe even write a blog about it!

What things make you feel nervous? Maybe going to a meeting or party where you’re not sure if you know anyone? Going in a lift? Making a phone call that you’ve been dreading? How might the 7 Step Action Plan help you to conquer your fear or change a behaviour habit?

Read my next blog post about applying the 7 Step Action Plan to some “everyday scenarios” that commonly get our nerves going and our minds racing.

 

Mountain Biking is my Parallel Universe! (Part 2)

Life is unpredictable, and so is mountain biking!

This is another life lesson that I’ve been reflecting on over the past few months as I’ve challenged myself in “My MTB Experiment”. My hypothesis was that I’d reconnect with the fun side of mountain biking by getting out on my bike more often, and so far it’s been proving itself correct!

One of my discoveries has been that those things that freak me out on the trails (you know those things …. normal everyday features of nature like stones, sticks, tree roots, mud, sand and dust) really aren’t so bad after all. Sure they’ll always be there and I can’t do much about that, but I can change the way I react.

It happens that these trail features have led me to feeling like I lack control of my bike, and I’ve actually fallen off a few times over the past few months and hurt myself. A few bruises and scratches and scrapes here and there is all part of the fun, like collecting souvenirs on a holiday. But then there was a chest injury from a heavy impact fall when I fell on a rotting tree stump, and a suspected broken toe from another tree stump. I don’t like falling off and I don’t like hurting myself. It’s scary, and ….. well, hurt-y! And it stops me getting back out exercising at my preferred intensity for WAY TOO LONG afterwards!

Recently, as I’ve focused my attention on my body position whilst riding, I’ve become more mindful of my whole self. I’ve become more aware of my self in space, my thoughts, body feedback, and internal reactions when encountering unpredictable elements on trail rides. I’ve found that I’ve had time and space to take a breath in between noticing what’s going on and responding. With this time and space, I’ve been better able to choose my response rather than simply reacting in an instinctive way. So, for example, as my back wheel slips sideways because a stone has kicked out from underneath, I’ve been able to breathe and stay calm, keep my weight low and centred and focus on steering myself in the direction I want to go, and I know that my back wheel will follow me.

Dealing with unpredictable trail features has also helped me to deal better with the unpredictable nature of life in general. I’ve noticed that when various unexpected things have happened in life recently, I’ve been able to keep going calmly in the direction I choose, holding onto my power and control, refusing to be thrown by situations that I can’t control.

BUT ….. I CAN control MY own responses. And that’s where the real power is!

Happy Mountain Biking!