Approaching Anxieties

Elsewhere, I have identifed how safe experiments might be categorised. This activity has helped some people.

Another approach to ‘organising’ safe experiments is to think neurologically. There is a good account of how our neurons fire at:

The key point is to bear in mind that an experience can happen and not get registered in our consciousness. The cascade of neuronal firing simply did not get that far; the event happened but it’s not recorded in our awareness. I expect you’ve had the experience of your emotions going from 0 – 60, only to find they have taken over your reactions – seemingly – without any warning.

Now, there was a warning, but it was out of sight. Consequently,  I miss the micro-second of opportunity to meet that high emotion in a different way. Coming into therapy, many people will struggle to notice the Subjective Unive of Discomfort (SUD) at levels 1 – 4; they are mainly sensitive to 5+. Noticing our feeling at SUD’s 5 or 6 leaves us too lilttle time to make a difference, as the diagram, below, will demonstrate. One function of therapy is to find ways to notice the 1’s, 2’s, 3’s and 4’s in order to use th extra micro-seconds the improved sensitivity will give to me.

One way this thinking helps with designing safe experiments, is to consider our response to our own anxiety levels. Things that can be done apply to anxiety but also to other feelings such as anger and fear. It may not be so good with complex feelings such as depression, shame and guilt.




This graph suggests there are three sets of experiments you may want to develop. Apologies for the tatty design; it’s one of my oldest diagrams and has stood the test of time!

The first level of safe experiment – SUD’s 1-3 – involves ‘talk’ and ‘self-talk’. Here, I am back to that internal dialogue I mentioned eslewhere. It is about the way we talk to ourselves as well as the actual conversations we have with others (talk). Therapists are often interested in the supports that their clients have – because that network of people may make a decisive difference in the path to healing.

When you do a body scan and notice any feeling, you can identify a Subjective Unit of Disturbance (SUD)  to measure the level of feeling. Where the SUD is lowish, say, 1-3, then it is possible that conversation and inner re-assurance will lower the SUD without further ado.

In the middle ground, around 4 -7, you may need more active strategies; these are termed distractions or diversions.

In the higher ground, from 7 upwards, the diagram identifies but one experimental strategy that will help. It is a strategy, however, that can take many forms.  The ultimate intention, here, is to acknowledge that, by and large,  people do not die from high emotions. This is despite the many sayings that suggest we can, e.g ‘you are killing me‘, ‘I will die of a broken heart‘ or ‘he died of fright‘.

Instead, is it possible ‘to go with the flow’  – to be mindful – in the certain knowledge that human beings are hard-wired for our emotions to become more intense and, inevitably, come down again. This is epitomised in the phrase, ‘this cannot last for ever‘. The neural pathways creating the flight, fight and freeze responses are not designed to go on for ever  even though there are occasions when those pathways give a good impression that they can!  Indeed, some psychological problems arise when the neurons try their best to persist and that is a condition requiring the services of a therapist. Of course, you may faint but even that is one way to help the level of emotion to subside.

The problem is that humans can imagine. We can imagine our SUDs continuing, onward and upwards, relentlessly. It is that imagining that can create much trouble. Effective therapy uses our power to imagine to help us meet an experience, rather than magnify it.

Once it is possible to ‘just notice’ the experience we are having, it may be feasible to step back and watch it coming and going. Nothing lasts for ever.

AN ACTUAL EXPERIMENT: cast your mind to a time when you were highly anxious.  How did the incident actually pan out?  Some people tell me it petered out with a whimper, because all the imagined fears came to naught. Other people tell me that they experienced panic symptoms in their bodies. They survived it but became sensitive to the possibility that similar things might happen again.

What happened to you? What conclusion did you draw from the experience? Do you view it differently now, compared to then? Does the diagram offer you some alternative experiment to try out in similar situations?


The diagram above is central to the management of high emotion.Consequently, where this is an issue for you, a whole range of experiments will have to be developed. Create yourself the best ‘toolbox’ you can. Your toolbox will be different from mine; this has to be personal.I can only introduce some typical experiments:


This might seem easy. After all, we talk all the time to other people. However, the initial experiment is to choose some-one and the next step is to chose what to say.

Be careful with your choices; for instance, please avoid your children, if you have any. Even grown-up child might be best avoided lest you ‘put upon them’ and they feel reluctant to say ‘no’. For a start, make sure it IS some-one who can say ‘no’ and that you can respect their choice and go on to do something different.

That said, it does not have to be a big deal. It may be sufficient simply to say ….”can I tell you something that is important to me …..”. Please note that asking for support here is not optional.

With those preliminaries complete, speak slowly and personally, using the first person, “I”, to describe what you are noticing. If the person you are with knows about SUD‘s, you can use them to describe what you feel – the emotion you have now – and the strength of that feeling.

As and when they reply, simply accept whatever you get. If you do not like it, wait until they have finished, and ask to say more. That said, avoid explaining, and re-explaining. At the end of the day, your experience cannot be fully known to any other person. You, in your turn, cannot fully know what prompts another person to reply as they do.

Accept what you are told at face value and focus more on your inner experience. Name, in your head, the feeling you have and apply a SUD to help identify whether the intensity of that feeling goes down, stays the same or increases.

If it persists in going up, then do something different, say, take time out for yourself. If it stays the same, discuss with your partner ways in which you might reduce the level of feeling further. They may be very willing to help you experiment. If it goes down, be curious. What made for that change?

Accept any safe experiments put forward, and notice how, sometimes, you will want to argue about it. Don’t; just listen to them and notice what you are feeling!


Again, this sounds simple. After all, I have already mentioned ‘internal dialogue‘ and the fact that it is with us 24 hours a day.  However, the problem with a lot of self-talk is the quality. Too often it is critical.  Just stop for a moment, and notice your ‘internal dialogue’ as it is running, now. If you have struggled with this part of my blog, what are you saying to yourself?  It could be a rude remark about my writing style but, as often as not, it will be a self-criticism: “why can’t I understand this ... “. It is only too easy to blame ourselves, if not others!

In this typical experiment, however, I want you to notice both the problem you are experiencing, when it rises, and to use language that is more kindly –  about yourself. Typically, this might be “I notice that I am struggling [with whatever it is; naming things is important in such experiments] and I will give myself some more time to consider it further [or re-read something]” .

The key is the use of that first person, I, plus the ‘and‘ – the intention to do something that will help you. Watch out for buts instead of ands. But often heralds an excuse and it won’t help here.

A second issue is to keep it brief and direct: what is the feeling? What can I do about it now?

Other ‘kinder’ internal dialogue might be: “I am feeling [what ever it is is] now, and I am going to respect it.

Here is a sample list of common ‘cognitions’, that is, beliefs about ourselves.  How many negative beliefs, in square brackets, and how many positive beliefs do you subscribe to easily?

I [do not]  deserve love;

I am [not] a good (loving) person.

I am [not] fine as I am.

I am [not] worthy;

I am [not]honourable.

I am [not] loveable.

I am [not] deserving (fine/okay).

I [do not] deserve good things.

I am (can be) healthy.

I am [not] fine (attractive/loveable).

I am [not] intelligent (able to learn).

I am [not] significant (important).

I am [not]  okay just the way I am

I [do not] deserve to live.

I [do not] deserve to be happy.

There is a large number we could develop. Do you have another that makes more sense for you, now? Most of us have a few ‘favourites’ – we might not want them on one level, but they hang around!


What have you done in the past to neutralise unwanted beliefs?

If little specific comes to mind: what antidote might you design now to face up to one or more negative cognition?


Let’s move away from talk and self-talk. There are many diversions and distractions we could use in experiments. The words are not really  so separate one from another so I will use both words inter-changeably..

Controlled breathing can be a diversion.  You notice some discomfort and you start to ‘think-about-breathing’. Instead of doing it on auto-pilot, as is normal, you stop, take a longer, gentle in-breath (not a sharp or deep in-breath, as is often recommended). You take this breath in only through your nose. Use a slow count of three, possibly four, as a guide, but do not let your breathing become laboured. It is not a competition.

Use the same slow count to breath out. Continue this for  around 30 seconds, no more than 45 seconds, and then stop and complete a body scan. This body scan will help you notice what you are experiencing in even more detail. From that information you will design further experiments to become more at peace with yourself.

Another diversion experiment is to do something completely different, as Monty Python used to say. Just as ‘thinking about breathing’ can help, so do other actions. This can include tapping on different parts of your body, as mentioned earlier on. Also, very practical tasks such as getting out a notepad, making notes or a  developing a ‘to do’ list would be practica


Typical distractions can involve using your body. In your mind’s eye it may be possible to create different images. One very important image is the use of the safe place.

The safe place experiment is so important that  I will address it in detail later on. For the moment, just consider whether, in your mind’s eye, you have a safe place to go when the going gets tough. An alternative to a safe place in your head is simply to take time out, that is, remove yourself from the vicinity of the current source of stress.

Another distraction is to use your eyes. If you notice a strong emotion, some people find they can do ‘first aid’ by raising their eyes up, say, toward the ceiling. Do this without straining; a small move up should suffice. At the same time, look to your left and move your eyes slowly to the right. Repeat this back and forth movement of the eyes, still raised, for a short while. Record a SUD of the intensity of any feeling from time to time. Use the body scan to notice discomfort within your body. Devise ways to ‘talk’ to that discomfort differently.

In time, I may well re-record digital records, mp3’s or mp4’s, to help with this part of the experiment.

Experimenting with the Dan Siegel approach to Body Scanning

This American doctor has some very interesting things to say about the process of change. Those wanting to research his work may want to start with:

The reason why I mention his work is that his Wheel of Awareness fits very well into the Body Scanning experiments I have included many times. I cannot reproduce his wheel for copyright reasons, but take a look at it. It may help you devise experiments that lead from the ‘inner’ body scan I have focused on. See if your next experiments can incorporate the ‘Seven Senses’ Dan Siegel describes.

His wheel is helpful in adding a scan of our relationships into the process. This moves us from the internal experience into our much more complex social world.


A typical experiment here is to ensure that the feeling you’ve got is named. Most often, you will find a word that describes an emotion: anxious, angry or puzzled etc. Be aware that this label is something you are applying to a whole load of sensations in various  parts of your body. That is you giving meaning to the otherwise meaningless.

Use the body scan to identify and explore those sensations. Note where they are located: nausea in the stomach, tightness in the chest  or a lump in the throat. Most emotions are accompanied by a number of different sensations in different parts of our body. Look, again, at the diagram above relating to body reactions where several such sensations are listed.

The aim of ‘going with the flow’ is not to do the body scanning, the labelling and the location of sensations but these are helpful preliminaries.

Going with the flow is the seemingly simple act of saying ‘hello’ to what you’ve got. As I have said, nothing lasts for ever and your emotions are not going to kill you. What goes up must come down. These are all everyday sayings that may help you find your way of ‘going with the flow’.

Don’t fight it and you will recover. The key experiments will come after your recovery as you take small steps to generate small victories and become more confident in your ability to build that ‘toolkit’ and manage your emotions just a little bit differently.

Return to:


What is a nudge?

How to design safe experiments

More on managing high emotions