The events of the past few years have, unsurprisingly, conditioned many of us into letting our minds go straight to worse-case scenarios when going about our daily lives.
We’re anxious, and no wonder. First, the pandemic put any sense of normality on hold. Now, having emerged from the chaos and stress of intermittent lockdowns, we find ourselves navigating a world disrupted by economic turbulence and the war in Ukraine.
I know there have been plenty of mornings when I’ve woken up wondering: ‘What else might go wrong today?’ Or when I have suddenly felt unnerved by something I can’t quite put my finger on.
We are not meant to live in a permanent state of anxiety and stress. If your default emotional setting has become fixed in a position that has you constantly primed for disaster, then it becomes difficult to relax, to feel hopeful and, ultimately, to thrive.
Now for the good news: anxiety needn’t be an insidious and unwanted backdrop to life. You can let go of your worries, turn off the fear and replace it with inner peace. And I am going to show you how.
We are not meant to live in a permanent state of anxiety and stress. If your default emotional setting has become fixed in a position that has you constantly primed for disaster, then it becomes difficult to relax, to feel hopeful and, ultimately, to thrive, says Paul McKenna (above)
Today is New Year’s Eve. Tomorrow will bring the dawning of not just another new day, but of a brand new year.
I want to help you step into 2023 ready to embrace the year ahead and be able to see it as one full of hope, promise and opportunity; for this to become a great turning point in your life, when you find freedom from the anxiety threatening to hold you back.
Tackling anxiety helps us to build resilience, which makes us better equipped to make the most of the good days and cope well with the bad. Ultimately, it makes you a happier person, who no longer sees threat at every turn; someone whose life feels richer, who is able to see and grasp opportunities, and who others enjoy spending time with.
It has been wonderful to witness the positive changes these brain-training exercises have brought about in people who had become so used to living with anxiety they were convinced they had become hopeless cases
I spent much of 2022 working with as many anxious people as possible. I helped them retrain their brains — through simple psychological techniques — so that they can free themselves from anxiety.
It has been wonderful to witness the positive changes these brain-training exercises have brought about in people who had become so used to living with anxiety they were convinced they had become hopeless cases. People who believed that feeling a constant level of background stress was such an intrinsic and unshakeable part of who they were, they wouldn’t ever be able to let it go.
The thing is, no matter how much it might feel like life is sometimes spiralling beyond our control, we can still be the master of our own emotions. It is perfectly possible to replace horrible feelings of tension, nervousness and an inability to relax with a renewed sense of calmness and peace.
Heal your divided mind
‘Worry’ comes from a Greek word that means ‘divided mind’. That is exactly what worry feels like — a stream of thoughts pulling you in different directions. Feel better by focusing on taking care of what is within your control and worrying less about what is not.
Freedom from anxiety doesn’t mean you will somehow lose your edge. Over the years I’ve worked with many high-flyers who worried that, were they to stop living life in the high state of alert that had them running off adrenalin, they’d have to trade in their motivation and drive to achieve any inner peace.
Perhaps you feel the same way, seeing anxiety as some sort of motivational strategy.
But the truth is, it stifles creativity and actually prevents people from fulfilling their true potential. That’s because constantly living in that state is exhausting and means you act in survival mode instead of considering how to best handle challenges.
What really concerns me about this new pandemic — because, let’s face it, we are living through a psychological one — is how few people have developed any real coping strategies for these heightened feelings of anxiety.
A recent YouGov study revealed that one in five of us don’t know how to deal with this difficult emotion at all.
No wonder then that every therapist I know is telling me their skills are in enormous demand.
They are being inundated with pleas for help from individuals suffering from stress-related problems: people trying to comfort eat difficult feelings away; ex-smokers reunited with their cigarettes in the hope nicotine might soothe their frazzled nerves; high achievers feeling stifled by racing thoughts; all kinds of people desperate to unpick what feels like a permanent knot in their stomach. So, if you’re finding it hard to get back to business as usual, then at least take comfort from the fact you are far from alone.
What really concerns me about this new pandemic — because, let’s face it, we are living through a psychological one — is how few people have developed any real coping strategies for these heightened feelings of anxiety
You are not to blame for these negative feelings. We’ve all had so much practice at being in a state of high anxiety that we’ve become rather good at it.
Anxiety, fear, panic, stress and worry are part of the protection mechanism that keeps us safe.
For the past few years, an ancient part of our brain, the amygdala — where we perceive and process feelings of threat and fear, triggering a fight-or-flight response — has been receiving high levels of stimulation.
But even before the pandemic and the current crises, living in the modern world could trigger it unnecessarily: getting cut up in traffic, missing the train, being late for work . . . all of these things can set it off over and over again.
It is no surprise then that so many people are feeling like they have an internal car alarm going off inside them all the time.
Here’s where I come in. Over the next three days I am going to teach you how to switch that alarm off, through the latest psychological techniques.
For the past few years, an ancient part of our brain, the amygdala — where we perceive and process feelings of threat and fear, triggering a fight-or-flight response — has been receiving high levels of stimulation
As ever, approaches that work extremely well for some people might not have the same effect on others. That’s why I’m giving you a smorgasbord of different exercises — some providing instant fixes, others longer-term solutions for the anxiety that everyone feels at some point.
Even if you find that just one results in you feeling calmer and more resilient to life’s challenges, then having that tool at your disposal will help you to change your life for the better.
Firstly, let’s make a distinction. Concern, preparation, anticipating potential problems and heading them off at the pass are functional ways of thinking and acting.
Anxiety, however, is different. If you worry from the minute you wake up and can’t relax because you fear that if you do you will miss something, or if you can’t switch off, you are suffering from anxiety.
If you’re forever running disaster movies in your mind, have a constant feeling of foreboding and a knot your stomach, if even when things are going fine you tell yourself it won’t last, that’s anxiety too.
If your quest for perfection drives you to high standards but you don’t enjoy it, as you are looking for faults, that is also anxiety.
But that is about to change. Today, I want to show you how to achieve immediate relief from anxiety using deceptively simple but stunningly effective Psycho-Sensory and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) exercises — where touch and visualisation transform the way that you feel.
If you worry from the minute you wake up and can’t relax because you fear that if you do you will miss something, or if you can’t switch off, you are suffering from anxiety
Most of us don’t realise just how much control we can have over our thoughts, as we are not taught this at school. We are told what to think, not how to think.
The mind and body are linked in a cybernetic loop — one is always influencing the other.
If you have stressful thoughts about catastrophes then that will alter your body chemistry and, in turn, change your physiology so your muscles tense up.
In contrast, when you have relaxing thoughts and think, say, about going on holiday, that changes your feelings and your body chemistry. It also relaxes your physiology.
Research also shows that nearly half of what people do every day is just a habit. Some habitual behaviour is good — for instance, you don’t have to think: ‘Shall I tie my shoelaces?’ — we just do it.
However, many people also spend their lives living in hope that calm feelings will similarly just magically show up. But how can they, when the habit that has been nurtured inside your brain is to anxiously try to anticipate every bad thing that might possibly go wrong?
When you are anxious, your sole purpose is survival. When the volume has been turned down on anxiety, you have more room to seek out and find other things that you can enjoy. That could be becoming financially independent; creating something that helps lots of people; or something as simple as being a good friend or caring for your pet.
So, where do we start? Well, how about I teach you something that will abate anxious feelings the very moment you experience them. An instant fix that will interrupt and reduce feelings of being overwhelmed, replacing them with a sense of calm and being in control.
It’s called Freeze Frame — it’s a quick remedy that, once learnt can be implemented any time or place you feel emotionally overwhelmed.
Used alongside the other exercises and techniques featured on these pages, you’ll be amazed how quickly it can help you to think clearly again.
‘Freeze frame’ your emotions
The Freeze Frame technique was created by the HeartMath Institute, which was set up in the early 1990s to study the role of the physical heart in health and wellbeing.
It has been taken up around the world, including by all four branches of the U.S. military. So when people are in battle trauma or stress they can use this to reset themselves ‘in the moment’.
The Institute discovered that actively focusing on the physical heart measurably reduced the presence of stress hormones, increased anti-ageing hormone levels and enabled peak performance in a wide range of situations.
They have developed a number of tools that are all built around one basic idea: when you shift your attention from your head to your heart, your body relaxes, your mind gets clearer and your brain releases positive chemical changes of natural relaxation.
You can use Freeze Frame any time you are experiencing stress in your body or your mind. It will help you to feel better almost immediately — usually in less than a minute
I taught Freeze Frame to a high-powered lawyer who would come out of a courtroom, fired up on adrenaline. In order to calm herself down, she’d immediately eat a huge pizza, using junk food to self-medicate.
After working with me, when she came out of court, all cranked up, before she ate anything, she did the Freeze Frame technique.
This meant she could calm herself down quickly without having to inhale a pizza to change her emotions.
You can use Freeze Frame any time you are experiencing stress in your body or your mind. It will help you to feel better almost immediately — usually in less than a minute.
Read through this technique several times first and practise the whole sequence as many times as you wish until you know you have memorised it well enough that it is almost automatic when you actually need to use it.
First of all, check how your anxiety level is on a scale of one to ten, one being the lowest and ten being the highest.
1 Become aware that you are experiencing a stressful feeling in your body or that your mind is racing.
2 Put your hand on your heart and focus your energy into this area. Take at least three slow and gentle breaths into your heart, maintaining your focus on the feeling of your hand in the centre of your chest.
3 Now, recall a time when you felt really good — a time you felt love, joy or real happiness. Return to that memory as if you are back there again right now. See what you saw, hear what you heard, and feel how good you felt.
4 As you feel this good feeling in your body, imagine your heart could speak to you. Ask your heart how you could take better care of yourself in this moment and situation.
5 Listen to what your heart says in answer to your question and act on it as soon as you can. Now, consider your anxiety level again on that scale of one to ten. You should now find that it’s lower. If it’s not yet as low as you want, then repeat the technique until it is.
Avoid stress ‘crash landing’
Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb, the former director of the UK Special Forces and of the British Field Army, once gave me a great metaphor for the effect that anxiety and stress has on the human body.
He explained that some military helicopters allow the pilot to override safety protocols in an emergency by increasing power above safe operating norms — this stresses the engines, providing greater power. While this can save you from an immediate crisis, if the engines are allowed to run on, you replace the first problem with the very real possibility of a catastrophic engine failure and an inevitable crash landing.
Exactly the same can be said for the human body — it can cope with stress in short bursts, but it cannot, without negative health consequences, be exposed to unrelenting anxiety.
Flip uncomfortable feelings
USE THE APEX TECHNIQUE: It is possible to flip all sorts of uncomfortable feelings including stress, anger, guilt, grief and frustration by summoning an uncomfortable emotion then countering it with its opposite emotion. You then move your attention above your head, which has the effect of distancing yourself from the feelings.
It’s a bit like a graphic equalizer that sounds shrill as only the treble is turned up. When you turn up the base, one balances the other out. So, peaceful feelings will help to reset anxiety to a lower level.
Read the exercise all the way through so that you understand it before starting.
1 Place your hands out in front of you with your palms turned up.
2 Next, let yourself focus on the feeling that is bothering you, whatever it is. It could be a fear, anger, or something else.
3 As you notice it, ask if there is anything that feeling would wish to say to you. If there is, make a note of it — if there is not, that is fine, too.
4 Now imagine holding the feeling in your left hand, in front of you and get in touch with it.
5 Now I’d like you to think of the opposite of that feeling — for example, peace, calm, comfort.
6 Bring that opposite feeling to mind — peace, calm, and comfort — and notice how it feels.
7 Now imagine placing that opposite, positive feeling in your right hand, in front of you.
8 Now move your attention up to a few inches above your head and keeping your attention in that position now experience both feelings at the same time.
9 Continue to feel the two emotions simultaneously with your attention above your head. As you do that, your emotional system will re-calibrate so that you can experience that difficult emotion at a lower level as it re-integrates into your emotional intelligence.
It is possible to flip all sorts of uncomfortable feelings including stress, anger, guilt, grief and frustration by summoning an uncomfortable emotion then countering it with its opposite emotion
Stop making panic a habit
People who are anxious have practised making pictures and sounds in their minds that frighten them.
They’ve done it over-and-over again, and so have built up neural networks in their brains that mean they can do it very well — they’ve made anxiety a habit.
Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology, says in his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: ‘Essentially, we humans live well enough and long enough, and are smart enough, to generate all sorts of stressful events purely in our heads.’
He adds: ‘We can experience wildly strong emotions (provoking our bodies into an accompanying uproar) linked to mere thoughts.’
People who are anxious have practised making pictures and sounds in their minds that frighten them. They’ve done it over-and-over again, and so have built up neural networks in their brains that mean they can do it very well — they’ve made anxiety a habit
I used to wonder why some people get stressed while others don’t seem to care about anything. My conclusion is that both types of people are extremists. Constant anxiety is draining and the belief that it keeps you safe is a fallacy as over-surviving all day and experiencing emergencies that never happen stops you thinking with clarity.
But those who never worry also don’t see potential dangers, and so put themselves at risk, too.
There are a few lucky people whose default is that they don’t get upset about things but they still keep alert enough to spot trouble and deal with it.
Back in the 1980s, one of the pilots who taught me to fly was like that. Once, we were coming in to land in a Cessna and I forgot to put the flaps down. As I continued my descent, he calmly said, ‘We are going to die.’ I screamed, ‘Argh! Flaps!’ and disaster was averted.
I have found the highest achievers systematically evaluate risk and potential outcomes before making decisions until it becomes second nature. As a result, these people are functional, successful and happy.
So my objective is not just to make you free from anxiety, but also help you to become happier and even more functional.
Spinning wheel that soothes your fear
The Spinning Technique creates immediate relief from anxiety — and I should know: I used it during a hairy helicopter landing a few years ago in the South of France when the pilot had to battle against some extremely windy conditions. I felt very scared. Fortunately, just a few days earlier, I had learnt this technique. It takes feelings of fear and uses visualisation to send them in the opposite direction, reducing them and then switching them off.
It made my fear during that scary landing disappear. Now, let me walk you through it so you can use it in situations where you feel scared and anxious, too.
NB: The Spinning Technique which is used here is with the written permission of Dr Richard Bandler.
Think of something that really scares you and notice where in your body the feeling of fear starts and moves to. Give it a colour. See it as a wheel spinning (image 1).
Float the spinning wheel out of your body and see it spinning in front of you (image 2).
Flip it over, so it’s spinning in the opposite direction (image 3). Change the colour.
Pull the new spinning wheel back into yourself and feel it spinning in the opposite direction (image 4). Keep it spinning inside yourself until you feel completely calm.
Shed anxiety: Stroke it off
A calm mind is much more open to positive thinking — something that anxiety is very good at blocking.
That’s why I’m such a fan of a brilliant technique called Havening — based on the idea of a ‘safe haven’ — another psychosensory therapy that uses simple touch to soothe the body and mind. It’s one of the quickest, most effective techniques I know for instantly reducing stress and anxiety.
Indeed, I used it myself some years ago when I went through a relationship break-up and was in terrible emotional pain. Vivid images of my now ex-girlfriend’s face kept coming into my mind as I experienced awful feelings of loss, betrayal and upset.
A calm mind is much more open to positive thinking — something that anxiety is very good at blocking
Havening works by simulating the way your mother comforted you as a baby, when she cradled you in her arms. The soothing action of being held becomes hard-wired into all infants.
This technique is not merely a distraction — studies have shown that when we use Havening we reduce stress chemicals in our body and change the way our brain processes thoughts and feelings.
I used Havening to help me de-link thoughts of my old relationship from the difficult feelings I was experiencing. The large colour picture I’d had of my ex-girlfriend shrank to the size of a postage stamp, was drained of all colour and I gained the freedom of indifference.
That was more than a decade ago now and I continue to consider Havening to be the granddaddy of all the psychosensory techniques.
Now, I’d like you to give it a try.
Please read through the following exercise before you do it.
You should practise this sequence of eye movements, body touches and visualisations several times until you know it off by heart. Then you will be able to use it anytime you need to get rid of unhappy feelings and swiftly feel calm and relaxed.
1 Pay attention to any stress or traumatic memory you wish to re-code and notice what it looks like in your imagination and how stressful it feels. Now, rate its strength on a scale of one to ten, where ten is the most powerful and one is the least. This is important as it lets you measure how much you are reducing it.
2 Now, clear your mind, or just think about or imagine something nice.
You should practise this sequence of eye movements, body touches and visualisations several times until you know it off by heart
3 Stroke your forehead and the cheeks of your face repeatedly [see image above].
4 Now, stroke your hands down the sides of your arms, from the top of your shoulders down to your elbows, and keep doing this downward stroking motion, again and again, throughout this process [see image below].
Now, stroke your hands down the sides of your arms, from the top of your shoulders down to your elbows, and keep doing this downward stroking motion, again and again, throughout this process
5 As you carry on stroking the sides of your arms, imagine you are walking on a beautiful beach. With each footstep you take in the sand, count out loud from one to 20.
Where Havening began
Havening was created by Dr Ronald Ruden, an expert in neuroscience, who discovered that patterns of repeated touch to parts of the body have a rapid, reliable and predictable effect on our feelings.
In the past, eye movements were part of the process, but Dr Ruden recently upgraded the Havening protocol and replaced this element with touching your forehead and the side of your cheeks, where there is an abundance of sensory receptors. This dramatically increases its impact.
6 Still stroking the sides of your arms, imagine you are walking outside in a beautiful garden. With each footstep you take in the grass, count out loud from one to 20.
7 Now, open your eyes and check how you feel on your scale from one to ten. How much lower is the stress level now? If it is way down the bottom of the scale, congratulations — you have personally changed your own state. If you think that the unhappy feeling is not yet reduced enough, just repeat the Havening sequence until it is reduced as far as you want.
Many people experience remarkable positive changes immediately after a Havening session. However, even if you are one of those people, I recommend you do this Havening exercise as often as you want.
You should now be feeling significantly calmer with more emotional equilibrium when you think about things that are challenging you. Practise these techniques as often as you feel you need to, until they become second nature. Some people will find they get instant and dramatic results. Others might feel a little calmer at first, noticing an improvement every time they repeat an exercise. Some might only notice a marked improvement after a week . . . but trust me, those feelings of peace and calm will come.
- Extracted from Freedom From Anxiety by Paul McKenna, to be published on January 5 by Welbeck, £14.99. To order a copy for £13.49 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Promotional price valid until 07/01/23.