I’m Jason Demant, London clinical hypnotherapist. As well as hypnosis, I use CBT for anxiety, depression and stress.
CBT, meaning cognitive behavioural therapy, is currently the go to anxiety therapy for many. CBT is wonderful for making some big changes in a relatively short amount of time. However it also has its limitations. Like any type of therapy, CBT is great for many challenges, especially anxiety or phobias but is not quite enough for others. I like to use a combination of CBT, hypnotherapy and good old talking, as well as some more active tools to help clients experiencing anxiety. In this article I will share with you four calming CBT for anxiety tips or ‘hacks’.
Let’s start with a quote to consider:
Marcus Aurelius had many views which could be seen as earlier statements, very similar to the outlook of CBT. In particular, he was very emphatic that it’s not the events of our lives that cause us upset, but it’s our opinions of them that cause us suffering. During the 2020 Covid 19 pandemic, his wisdom was often cited.
Marcus Aurelius was a great man and thinker. However, though having a lot of truth to it, this quote is incomplete. CBT for anxiety is more complex since our thoughts and feelings are more complex that we often realise.
CBT for Anxiety addresses life’s complexities
I’m sure you will agree that you don’t just want to survive, you want to thrive! We thrive when our home, work, and general environment is at its most supportive. When our needs of food, shelter and safety are met, we can relax. When our higher needs of love, community and fulfilment are met, we feel calm and happy. When our wellness tank is full, we in fact have enough positivity, energy and resources that we can share those also with others.
When we live well, with our needs met, we have far less need of overeating, alcohol or other addictive patterns. Habits we sometimes use when we do not have our needs adequately met. We all have a strong desire to have our needs met. We experience sadness or feel down when we lack those aspects of life we do truly need.
Here is a quick video explaining how addiction can often be related to our needs not being met. I help many people with addictive patterns, such as drugs, alcohol, social media, smoking, pornography or food. The video shows that when we (or the participants in the rat park experiment!) have our needs met, we have fewer addictions.
Addiction is very connected to anxiety. When CBT is used for anxiety and addiction, this form of therapy will centre on a person’s unmet needs for important aspects of life such as love, joy, fulfillment and purpose. CBT is also helpful for lowering general levels of anxiety. If we change how we try and get our needs met, we can change how we feel too.
CBT for anxiety helps you address unmet needs
The good news is that our happiness isn’t just about what we think inside our minds. It’s also about taking action to identify and meet our needs. People who meet their needs in a balanced way are less likely to suffer anxiety. For more about needs, see the ideas of people like Abraham Maslow, who was well known for his ideas about human needs.
In the same way that thirst is a sign that you’re not meeting a need of physical hydration, addictive patterns or anxiety can be a sign that you’re not meeting important needs somewhere in your life. Of course, how we think is crucially important. Indeed it is the thoughts we have that can hold us back from engaging in the healthy patterns that work to get our needs met. Often, with clients, I use CBT for anxiety to look at thoughts around needs and see how they affect behaviours and choices.
How we feel is so important as well. Our emotions and feelings are not just a response to the way things really are out there in the world, they are also a reflection of how we make sense of our world and how we feel about ourselves.
CBT for anxiety: Changing thoughts to change feelings
It is clear that our emotions result from our thoughts. We feel anxiety because we have anxious thoughts. However we do not experience our anxiety thoughts and feelings in that order. That’s especially true when under pressure or in a tense situation. Strong emotion is experienced before we notice any thoughts. You feel that pounding heart and only afterwards see those ‘fear’ thoughts that created it.
As such it can, in fact, often be easier and more powerful to change our feelings than to immediately jump to change thoughts. Our emotions and feelings are such a fundamental human characteristic. We need that fear or anxiety response for immediate physical survival. Just think, if the sight of fire in your home only prompted a discussion group of thoughts in your head, no doubt you might not get out in time. We need that quick emotional shock ‘smoke detector’ of physical anxiety symptoms to ensure we get out quick and survive that fire. Once out of danger, the mind can catch up.
Clinical hypnotherapy is a great way to look at feelings and emotions. Changing your thoughts can be a natural consequence of a change in our emotional responses. That’s why often I pair up CBT for anxiety with hypnotherapy. We look at thoughts but also emotional responses too.
For anxiety challenges such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and phobias, initially at least, it’s less about looking at thinking but rather our instinctual emotional responses. I’m sure you will agree that for some challenges, you are very much aware of your thoughts and in fact find endless talking gets you nowhere. That’s because the solution is not about more talking but looking at how your emotions and feelings operate on an instinctual level. Repair and heal your instinctual emotional responses, as well as also looking at underlying thoughts.
Don’t get the wrong end of the stick – I’m not completely condemning CBT for anxiety at all! I believe and know that CBT for anxiety can be incredibly helpful for many anxiety conditions or challenges. I just want to widen the discussion and introduce ideas.
Four calming CBT for anxiety hacks
Okay, enough chat. Here are four simple CBT inspired tools that focus on thinking and actions, so that you can be better equipped to take back control of stress or anxiety.
CBT Tool One: Become aware of how your feelings will change
It’s great to remember that our feelings are fluid and will inevitably change. Feelings and emotions are a little like waves in the sea, they move, change and go up and down. The trick is not to be pulled down by them, by surf them like a wave. Simply go with what you’re feeling. Everything is okay and ‘this too shall pass’, is a great mantra to remember.
‘This too shall pass’, is a great mantra to remember.
It might be helpful to write down thought and feelings. This will help make any anxiety or nervousness about an upcoming event or situation, easier to manage. For example, if you have a work presentation coming up, you might note down what you feel. Remember also that those feelings will change and you will soon feel differently:
“I am feeling a little nervous, which is totally expected and natural. When those feelings change I expect to feel calm and relaxed again.”
You might already imagine what the very first little feeling might be of that new more relaxed state of mind. Get more in touch with that calm and you may find yourself speaking more calmly and spontaneously to the audience.
Remembering that feelings ebb and flow is so important to keep in mind. You won’t feel like you do right now forever. Later today or tomorrow you WILL feel differently.
CBT Tool Two: Pause and wait, stay composed
Anxiety is a very important and natural survival response. It’s not an illness and it’s perfectly normal to feel anxiety. However, it’s a response that can get it wrong sometimes, being fired too much or too quickly. Just like a smoke detector or guard dog, anxiety feels like it’s helping us out even as it bites the leg of a friendly visitor, who means us no harm. We sense a threat and our anxiety response gets set off.
One way to train our anxiety response to be more selective is to feel those feelings but say calmly to that anxiety response part of you, “Thanks, but you’re not needed right now.” You can add in other reassuring phrases, such as, “I’ve got this”, “I can do this”.
Try acting in ways that anxiety is not currently encouraging. For example, you might instinctually want to roll up in a ball when anxious. Instead stand tall, stretch, smile, and breathe deeply and slowly, into your whole body. Alternatively, you might find yourself getting loud, shouty and stressed out from anxiety. Again, do something physical that is the reverse of the instinctual pattern. This might be to take some deep breathes again, and sit quietly or walk slowly rather that ramping up the emotions which was the instinctual response.
Since during an emergency we wouldn’t:
- Talk softly and calmly
- Breathe deeply
- Have an open body posture.
Try adopting some of these behaviours. Give it and go and see what would work for you. We are all different, so some but not all suggestions might be suitable. The idea is to send a message to the nervous system that it can reduce the high alert level. Think of similar healthy ways to ‘self soothe’ and calm you also.
CBT Tool Three: Catch the underlying thoughts and note the likely conclusions
When we feel anxious about something, it is probably because we fear some unwanted consequence. So let’s get clear about those consequences.
For example, if I am worried about going to a party, I might ask myself, “What is the consequence which I fear?” The answer might be “I fear meeting new people and appearing stupid to them.”
Let’s form a chain of what would then be the consequence should that actually happen. If I appear stupid, then, “I will feel that I am unlikable!”
Again, what is the consequence of that? “I will feel upset and sad.”
I hope you see the process in action here. You can keep the chain going to get to more thoughts about the feared situation.
Then we can go on to, “But how will I deal with that?”
You can think about helpful or more realistic thoughts. For example, “I know that I’m not stupid and am likable”. “I like myself”. “It’s strangers at a party, who cares what they think”. “In the past I realised that people do like me or at least don’t actually think anything in particular about me.”
This process will be different for different people, as we all think differently. It’s a unique and personal process. This is really an example of a very basic CBT for anxiety process. If you feel insecure or anxiety in relationships, you can also use this CBT process and describe what you are nervous about. You can then see how your thoughts might be jumping to the worst case scenario. You can begin to think differently and therefore feel differently too.
CBT Tool Four: Relax, relax and relax
Sometimes we can go in circles. You feel anxious or down about something, be it big or small. You might choose to do an exercise in which you write out your thoughts. As helpful as this can be, you still feel anxious. That’s normal. It’s comparable to an echo or even simply to the food left on your plate after a good meal. The meal has finished but there is still some residue on the plates. You need to do the washing up!
My forth CBT for anxiety tip is to engage in exercise, mediation or other healthy activities that shake out that old emotional reside that anxiety can leave behind. This is really self care. Just because the situation has ended, the person has left the room or you left work for the day, you can still be carrying around the day’s emotional residue home with you. You might then comfort yourself with food or alcohol.
Find instead ways to let go of old emotions. Exercise is great for this. Anxiety can feel like emotions being trapped inside, so get outside! Go for a walk or run. Go have fun. Smile. When you smile, the anxiety fades a little. If you have a pet, take that dog for walk. Spend time with calming people.
CBT for anxiety final thoughts
Don’t ignore your feelings. They are the gateway to thoughts. Consider how you instinctively react to feelings. It can indeed happen that when we calm our emotions, then our thoughts calm too. However some thoughts and feelings are running on a deeper level, which means that the magic of CBT for anxiety needs the support of techniques which address the subconscious more, such as hypnotherapy or other forms of psychotherapy.
CBT for anxiety can help you reframe thoughts. Doing this together with other deeper, but also practical, tools is a great way to create positive change.
Remember that your feelings always change. What you feel today will pass and change. Remember the mantra that ‘This too shall pass’. This outlook can be calming in an anxiety provoking situation.
When experiencing anxiety, positive self talk is also helpful. Talk nicely to yourself and send the message to your sympathetic nervous system: “I’m okay, I’m simply experiencing feelings of anxiety. There’s no emergency.”