People who suffer from anxiety understand the importance of thought. For example, if you think you will feel anxious, you inevitably will. If you believe you are going to panic, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. This exercise is about learning how to control your thoughts. By controlling your thoughts you can reduce anxiety, tension, panics and the general effects of stress.
The exercise may appear a little complex and off-putting when you first read through it. All I can suggest is that you give it time and try to persevere. The benefits do outweigh the costs of trying to get your head around it Essentially you should reach a point where you can invite positive thoughts into your mind and distance anxiety provoking thoughts. This shift in emphasis is highly empowering.
You may want to print off the exercise so that you have it to hand. The exercise extends basic relaxation, so if you have a preferred relaxation technique you should start with this. If relaxation is unfamiliar to you, learn and practice the basics first, then come back to this exercise. You could try this article to practice relaxation and imagery.
Read through the exercise first. Make sure you are in quiet, warm and relaxing surroundings and that you won’t be disturbed.
Begin by relaxing your whole body. When you are relaxed, bring to mind the image of a circle. Don’t worry if it comes and goes, just try to settle on the shape and color of a circle. Try not to allow other thoughts to intrude. Just allow the circle to be your focus of attention.
Note: when I first used this it took my mind some time to settle so I imagined a circle rather like a sun flickering. As my mind settled my ‘sun’ moved from a flicker to a red ball, rather like a sun-set. Adapt the technique and use your own image if you find that works best for you.
Now slowly move the circle further away from you until it goes into the distance and disappears. Now imagine a single digit number. Hold the image in your mind and then add another next to it. Keep both digits in mind. Now add a third, and a forth and as many more as you can ‘see’. Gradually move the digits away from you until they move into the distance and disappear.
Note: you may want to practice a few times at this level. At first it can be quite tricky holding and manipulating images in the mind. You may find thoughts begin to intrude and the technique isn’t working. Like all skills it gets better the more you practice.
Now allow a single thought to come into your mind. Your thought may be in words or pictures, or both. It may help if you imagine you are looking at it on a screen. Your thought should be quite mundane; the color of your wall, a pet, what you might have for dinner. Other thoughts may jostle for attention but just select one and focus on it exclusively. This time, allow your thought to come nearer to your mind. Hold it for a moment and then move it back to its original place. Now allow the thought to move into the distance and disappear.
Now invite another thought, but this time a thought that is affirming or reassuring, such as, ‘it’s going to be fine, you can stay calm’, or ‘you’re doing a great job, stay relaxed’. Choose the thought that is right for you. Keep the thought in front of you for a few moments and focus on it.
Now allow the thought to enter your mind. Feel how your thought is linked with your state of relaxation and feeling of calm. Enjoy the moment. To end the exercise, count backwards from 5, open your eyes, take a breath, resume life.
As you become more accomplished, you should invite more and more positive thoughts into your mind. You may, if you wish, allow one or two anxious thoughts to appear. But the task here is to push them away and replace them with positive thinking. This exercise allows you to manipulate thoughts by inviting some in and putting distance between others.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.