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Taming butterflies in the stomach

india Updated: Dec 05, 2006 14:09 IST

OUR DAY-to-day life can hardly be free from anxieties - which is a close cousin to fear. Anxiety is the body’s red warning light that something is amiss. A manageable amount of anxiety can actually enhance our performance — by motivating us to prepare for a test, to drive with care, or to gird ourselves for a difficult confrontation. The problem, however, is when our anxiety becomes disproportionate.

Type I Stress involves a specific stressor, e.g., a cockroach in the bedroom,  a midterm exam. Type I stressors are definable and time limited and typically, once time passes or we take appropriate action, the stress dissipates. Type II  Stress on the other hand, tends to be chronic and vaguely defined.

Examples include persistent financial worries, growing up in a dysfunctional family, anxiety about one’s future or the future of the planet. With Type II stress, we often have a difficult time naming the stress, let alone feel empowered to resolve it. Type II stressors often involve a strong subjective component. The good news is that anxiety can be addressed by many techniques.

Deep breathing method
WHEN WE are anxious, our breathing tends to be shallow and fast. In contrast, deep and slow breathing tends to relax us at a physiological level. Begin this practice by lying down or sitting in a comfortable chair. Place your hand on your stomach area. Now, as you slowly breath in, draw the air all the way down into your diaphragm. Feel your hand rise as the breath comes in.

You can gently count 1,2,3, 4 as you breathe in. Breathe out to a count of 1,2,3, 4 and hold on the out breath for another 4 seconds. Repeat this practice for 3 – 5 minutes.

Body scanning method
Find a quiet room and lie down on a sofa or bed. Take a few deep breaths, letting your attention withdraw from the outer world and to focus in on your body. Now bring your full attention down to your feet. First, allow your toes to relax, then the ball of your feet, then the soul and heel. 

Mental methods
THE FIRST step toward changing our inner anxieties to become aware of it. One tactic here is to write down everything you say to yourself before and during an anxiety episode. Pay especial attention to the parts of your inner monologue that increase your anxiety or lower your self-esteem. The next step then would be to counter each anxiety-provoking statement with a more balanced, reassuring thought.

For example, If before and during a party you say to yourself, I’m such a fool, no one will want to talk to me, a more balanced thoughts might be: Most people here probably feel a little anxious etc. Affirmations sometimes can be another effective cognitive strategy.

The idea here is to re-record our negative tapes with more affirming monologues. Affirmations can help immunize us against anxiety by building up our confidence and self-esteem.

While the best affirmations are those you devise yourself, examples might be: I am a worthwhile, compassionate person etc. While these may sound artificial, are they any less grounded in reality than such statements, I am stupid . . . Everyone thinks I’m worthless . . . ?

If we have a choice about our inner monologue, then why not construct a monologue that builds up our sense of self rather than tears it down? Another cognitive strategy consists of giving ourselves simple reminders when our anxiety begins to
build, such as:

1 I can trust that things will turn work out.

2 I can trust myself to able to handle whatever contingency arises.

3 I will relax my expectations when reality has a different agenda – surprises make life more interesting.

4 The future is as interesting and fulfilling as I make it.

5 I can’t please everyone. Other people are responsible for their own happiness as I am for mine.

What about medication?
MANY FACTORS enter into an intelligent decision whether to take medication for anxiety. Some psychotherapists believe that mainstream society has been moving too far in the direction of viewing psychological problems as primarily biological, prescribing medication as a rote response to any psychological complaint. This problem has mushroomed in recent years as medications have been allowed to be advertised.

If you’re thinking about medication, it’s important to consider both the risks and rewards. One potential benefit includes immediate symptom relief, which may be especially helpful when anxiety becomes crippling. Medication might also be useful when ones anxiety reaches a level where it is difficult to perform in school or in everyday life. 

(The author is a psychologist and a professor of Psychology and Social Work at BSSS. He can be contacted at