3 simple steps for releasing anxious thoughts

Living with stress and anxiety can take a very real toll on our mental AND physical health if we aren’t able to manage anxious thoughts in a healthy way.

We’ve all certainly had some extra worries in recent months, whether that was leading people on the frontline or transitioning folks to working remotely. And now, the second wave of lockdown in some regions and waiting for the Covid-19 vaccine has many leaders struggling to cope with return to work anxiety.

When we surveyed readers and clients a few months ago, we had a tremendous response and many of you shared how anxiety is particularly amplified for you right now.

Trying to figure out the way forward when there are so many uncertainties is unprecedented for most of us. (Pro tip: Cultivating an attitude of gratitude for dealing with uncertainty is possible — and helpful!)

To help, today we offer you three simple steps to help release anxious thoughts:

  1. Acknowledge what is at the root of the anxious thought.
    Many of us try NOT to think about what’s making us feel anxious. We try to think about something else, get busy or ignore it — but it’s still there. Others feel consumed by anxious thoughts and can’t stop thinking about them. Just take a moment and think about what has you worried and anxious. This is the tricky part: Recognize and acknowledge what’s making you anxious, name it, but don’t get caught into the bad habit of spiraling the thought into all the potentially awful outcomes that could result. The first step is just to notice and articulate to yourself what is causing anxious thoughts for you right now. It can sometimes help to write it down.

  2. Take a deep breath to calm and relax your body.
    Whenever we are anxious, our bodies go into a temporary state of alarm. This puts us into the fight, flight or freeze response because the mind is preparing the body to deal with a threat. It’s entirely natural and normal to feel anxious (that instinct keeps us aware and vigilant!), but if allowed to build or spiral it can work against us. Take a moment and breathe in deeply (fill your lungs), slowly inhaling and then even more slowly exhaling. This is important because when we’re feeling afraid or anxious, we either stop breathing or breathe shallowly. Restoring oxygen to the brain in a calm and measured way actually counters that stress response. As you breathe in and out, notice the rest of your body: Are you clenching your jaw? Is your neck tense? Is your heart racing? Are you holding tension in your back or lower back? Are your arms tense or your hands clenched? How does your stomach feel? Keep breathing in and out, slowly and deeply, while you mentally take an inventory of tightness and tensing. As you do, gently stretch and release tension from every part of your body. Many people find it helpful to start at the top of the head and work their way down to their toes, inhaling and exhaling as you notice each different part of the body.

  3. Let go of the anxious thoughts.
    After you feel less anxious and tense physically, keep breathing in deeply and shift to releasing whatever anxious thoughts you have. As you breathe in, contemplate what’s worrying you (count to 4 or 5) and then visualize that anxious thought leaving your mind as you exhale (count to 6 or 7 — the exhaling is always longer). Repeat this, slowly, a few more times and be really mindful of acknowledging the anxious thoughts and then letting them leave your mind.

Once you calm your mind and body of anxious thoughts, you will feel better able to cope with moving into action. Not that you have to tackle the world, but you can start to determine your daily and weekly goals while also potentially putting things in a bigger perspective.

If you start to feel those anxious thoughts, pause and go through the three steps again. And if you sense there is quite a bit of employee anxiety on your team, share this article with them.

Coach’s Questions:

What anxious thoughts came to your mind reading this? Try going through the three steps slowly, right now. How do you feel? What changed?