3 simple yet powerful ways to reduce anxiety

Anxiety and fear are normal human responses to things that our brain perceives as threats. They can serve a useful function when you’re faced with a legitimate threat. For example, you might be crossing the road when a car drives toward you – you would naturally feel anxiety and might respond by jumping out of the way. But sometimes our brain might misread the danger in some situations, and we become anxious even when we rationally know we don’t have to be. 


Living with anxiety can be exhausting. You may experience unpleasant physical symptoms such as a racing heart, tightness in your chest, a knot in your stomach or feeling like you need to go to the bathroom, and shaking (sometimes visibly). Some experience cognitive symptoms, such as excessive worry. You might have all these anxious thoughts popping in your head and lots of ‘what ifs’, or all the worst-case scenarios. You might constantly worry about something bad happening, stopping you from enjoying your life to the full. You might have noticed that because of your anxiety, your world has shrunk, and you no longer do things that you used to do. 

Well, you are not alone. Some figures show that in the UK alone, at any one time, over 8 million people suffer from an anxiety disorder. But just because it’s common it doesn’t mean that you can’t do something about it! Whether it’s general anxiety, social anxiety, phobias or panic attacks, you can learn techniques to bring you relief in difficult moments. These are simple yet effective techniques but as with any method - they work brilliantly but only when used consistently.

Why do I shake and have heart palpitations when I feel anxious? Is it dangerous?

Firstly, I’d like you to understand what happens in your body when you feel anxious. When your brain perceives something as dangerous or stressful your body responds with a ‘fight or flight’ response. This response releases adrenaline into your bloodstream so your body can be prepared to deal with the danger.

In the times of our ancestors, danger usually involved being in physically threatening situations, so we developed this response through evolution to give ourselves the best chance of survival. Nowadays, however, we don’t face these physical threats as much - after all, how often do you find yourself crossing paths with a bear or a tiger? But we do face other challenges that our brain interprets as dangerous, such as your boss calling you to have a ‘chat’, or financial stresses, or worrying about embarrassing yourself in front of others when giving a presentation. These all can create the same physical response in our body as if we were facing a dangerous animal in our path. 

When the adrenaline starts going, we may experience symptoms such as a racing heart, butterflies in our stomach, tense muscles or blurred vision, among others. In the evolution of humanity, these physical responses were to help us; an increased heart rate meant that more blood was pumped to the muscles, getting them ready to fight or fly quicker. There are good reasons why evolution equipped us with these responses, but the problem is that these days our brain often misreads certain situations and over-exaggerates the danger.

So what can we do when we start feeling our heart pounding quicker and anxious thoughts racing? Here are some simple yet powerful techniques that can help you to cope in such situations. 

1. Breathe...

If you suffer from physical symptoms of anxiety such as heart palpitations, feeling shaky, tense, etc. 

Hear me out. You’ve likely had others telling you to take a deep breath to deal with anxiety and you’ve tried it, but it just didn’t work. I’m not surprised. It is not about taking one big breath that will help, but it’s about how we take it. There is only one way of taking that deep breath that will actually help to calm your nervous system. It is a skill that has to be learned, as it doesn’t come to us naturally. It is called diaphragmatic breathing, or 'belly breathing’.

So, what is diaphragmatic breathing? 

The best way to learn it is by doing this simple exercise:

I would like you to stand up and put one hand on your chest and one on your belly. Now, take a deep breath. Which hand moved more, the one on your chest or on your belly? 

Typically, people say that it was the one on their chest. 

Now I’d like you to imagine that you have a balloon in your stomach. Your job will be to fill it with air and pump it up. Rest your hands in the same positions. Take a deep breath and try to engage your diaphragm and fill the balloon in your belly with the air you're inhaling. Notice the hand on your belly moving more than the hand that is on your chest. That’s diaphragmatic breathing. It’s often called ‘belly breathing’ as when you breathe using your diaphragm your belly moves more than your chest. 

If you find it difficult, don’t worry. Just practice it and you’ll get it. 

You’ll notice that engaging the diaphragm when breathing allows you to take deeper breaths. It also allows you to slow your heart rate down. But the relief won’t happen just after one breath. Do it for a moment and observe how your body slowly calms down. 

2. Problem-solving and present thinking

If you experience cognitive symptoms of anxiety such as excessive worry, there is another great technique that can help. 

First, you need to identify whether what you are worried about is what we call ‘current worry’ or ‘hypothetical worry’. ‘Current worry’ is something you need to problem solve and take action on - for example, if you don’t have much money in your account and you need to pay a bill, that’s a current worry. 

‘Hypothetical worry’ is where you worry about the future and hypothetical future scenarios that may or may not happen. For example, “What if my bus is late?”, “What if the plane crashes”, “What if I lose my job”, “What if they leave me?” etc. 

The first type of worry you can address by using problem-solving skills. I’m not going to go into details of how to do it as there is an amazing workbook that will guide you through the process, step by step. 

In terms of hypothetical worries and “what if…” scenarios, one very straightforward and simple technique to address them is to become mindful of the present moment. It is crucial to realise that there is no point in thinking about the future as we don’t know what the future holds, it has not happened yet, and we cannot predict it. By coming to terms with these truths, you will see that all you have is this particular moment.

Worrying about ‘what if’s’ is unhelpful as a million different scenarios can happen, and it is impossible to prepare yourself for all of them. Besides, if you look at your past experience of such worries, you’ll realise that most of the things you have worried about never even happened. 

So what can you do when you notice that your mind is starting to generate hypothetical worries? How can you direct your attention from unhelpful ‘what ifs…’ and other anxious thoughts to more helpful thoughts? How can you refocus on the present moment and stop worrying about the future? 

Well, the easiest way is to engage our senses. If we stimulate our senses and they absorb different stimuli, and we bombard our brain with a variety of sensory information, there is less room in our head for creating all these worst-case scenarios and ‘what ifs’. The technique to help you to do this is attention training. 

Attention training helps you to become aware of the here and now.

You have five basic senses, and it is good to engage them in whichever way you can. For example:

  • With sight, you can look around your environment, and focus on what you can see in the room or outside the window. You can also run a commentary in your head, describing what you can see just to engage your brain even more on the present moment.
  • In terms of sound, you can focus on what you can hear, be it traffic noise, birds singing outside, the radio, or the TV.
  • The third sense is touch - you can touch something that is within your reach, such as the chair you’re sitting on or the table in front of you, and focus on how the surface feels. Is it soft or hard, warm or cold?
  • The next sense you can use is smell; you can take a deep breath and try to identify the smells and scents in the air, or you can pick up something like a nice-smelling candle and inhale deeply, allowing yourself to focus on the pleasant scent.
  • The last one is taste; if you’re eating something when you catch yourself worrying, you can then focus on the taste of the food in your mouth. 

This technique helps to ground you and bring you into the present moment. However, there are a couple of important points here:

This technique is called attention training, and it is called this for a reason. Bringing yourself to the present moment is something you need to train yourself to do before it can become more effortless. It is called ‘training’ as you are actually training your attention-shifting muscle. It is just like with physical training; you won’t be able to run 5k if you haven’t trained beforehand. You have to go out and alternate running and walking for short distances and build up the distance over several weeks before you can run that 5k. It’s the same when you’re training to shift your attention from worrying thoughts to the present moment. It requires practice, patience, perseverance, and determination.

Initially, you’re going to be able to shift your attention to the present moment for only short periods of time before the worrying thoughts start coming back. The important thing is not to get angry or annoyed. What is more helpful in these situations is to notice the worrying thoughts, and say to yourself, ‘I am noticing that my worries are coming back, which is OK – it was something to be expected – but I am going to choose to shift my attention yet again to the present moment,’ and then use your senses again to do so.

By saying that you notice what’s happening, you take the stance of an observer rather than someone caught up in these anxious thoughts. Semantics plays an important part here – there is a difference between saying, ‘I worry,’ where you’re connecting with the feeling, and, ‘I am noticing I am experiencing a feeling of worry,’ where you’re disconnecting yourself from the negative feeling, and observing it rather than jumping on it.

The attention training technique can also be very useful when people experience panic attacks.

I have a couple of recordings I have prepared for my clients to help them cope with panic attacks, which you can find here: 

3. Bilateral stimulation

Another very powerful technique to reduce anxiety quickly, which I use in my private practice is called bilateral stimulation.

It actually stimulates different parts of the brain, so the brain gains a more rational perspective on things and allows the physical symptoms of anxiety to dissipate.

It works wonders for work-related stress, negative past experiences, social anxieties, any hypothetical and ‘what ifs’ worries and more. It has great support from research on its effectiveness in reducing cognitive anxiety. It is, however, a technique that needs to be taught in a therapy session with the therapist present so that they can guide you through it. It is tailored to your individual needs, and it works wonders for most people. In therapy sessions, I tend to introduce this technique quite early in the treatment, as it can provide instant relief for my clients and my goal is to help my clients as quickly and effectively as I can.

I’m not going to go into details of this technique here but if you’d like to find out more, you can watch a video where I explain bilateral stimulation as part of EMDR - fast forward to 6:40min. Or you can always email me via my profile so I can tell you more about bilateral stimulation. 

If you are considering starting therapy with me, you can book a free 15-minute consultation via my profile to see if it is appropriate to address your problem. 

Remember, you’re not doomed to live in an anxious state for the rest of your life! You can learn how to reduce it. I know this not only from the great results that my clients have achieved but also from my own experience where many years ago I suffered with anxiety but learned to overcome it. Life can be enjoyable, playful and fun and that’s what I wish for you. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Taunton TA1 & London WC2H
Written by Joanna Bieszczad, MSc, PgDip, BSc (Hons), BABCP (Accred)
Taunton TA1 & London WC2H

I am a BABCP accredited senior CBT and EMDR therapist with 4 degrees in psychology and psychotherapy (yes, I love learning!) and over 15 years of clinical experience.
I love helping my clients to find courage to live their lives true to themselves and find ways to enjoy it and achieve their full potential.

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