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Alleviating anxiety

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Individuals often feel anxious, troubled, agitated, worried, and concerned. These emotions reflect an impending sense of threat or punishment, and tend to compromise engagement, intuition, and forms of creativity.

Mental exercises before stressful events

Memories of past events

Step 1. Individuals should develop a list of events they experienced in the past that promote feelings of nostalgia, perhaps a pleasant memory in which they also feel a sense of loss about some family member, romantic partner, friend, possession, and so forth. They should then reflect upon this experience immediately before an event that often provokes anxiety and insecurity.

After individuals recall a nostalgic experience, an event in the past that is regarded as meaningful, sentimental, often with a tinge of loss about some family member, romantic partner, possessions, pets, friends, music, or school, they feel more trusting and confident (Wildschut, Sedikides, Arndt, & Routledge, 2006). Nostalgic experiences seem to enhance trust and confidence. In particular, individuals feel less worried they might be rejected or excluded by their colleagues (see Nostalgia).

Memories of other individuals

Reflections about other individuals

Step 2. Individuals who feel anxious or unconfident should be encouraged to undertake a task in which they need to identify the differences between two objects or people. For instance, they might be instructed to specify the relative merits and drawbacks of two job applicants or two proposals. Second, they should be asked to consider a person they know they perceive as very anxious or unconfident.

After individuals encounter or consider a troubled or upset person, they feel more resilient, especially if they had attempted to identify the differences between two objects or people several minutes earlier (Mussweiler, 2001). To illustrate, consider employees who had been instructed to identify the differences between two objects or individuals, such as job candidates. After this activity, these employees become more likely to detect differences between other objects and individuals. For instance, they become more likely to perceive themselves as different to another person. After they encounter or consider a troubled or upset person, for example, they are therefore more likely to feel resilient in comparison.

Step 3. If possible, individuals could decide, in advance, they will experiment with a few practices and behaviours during this stressful event. They might, for a few minutes, behave like someone they admire, perhaps acting more amicably than usual. They might try to speak more eloquently or honestly. That is, they should attempt to conceptualize the event as an opportunity to challenge themselves and begin to develop a repertoire of skills and experiences. If these attempts are unsuccessful, they should merely reflect upon how they might modify this behavior in the future. They should feel proud of their attempts to experiment with various behaviors rather than ashamed of any apparent failures.

When individuals perceive an event as a challenging opportunity, and not as a threat, their physiological response to stress changes (Tomaka, Blascovich, Kibler, & Ernst, 1997). They experience a surge in adrenaline rather cortisol. They feel more excited than overwhelmed (see Biophysical model of challenge and threat).

Mental exercises during stressful events

Inflate your bodily symptoms

Step 1. While public speaking or networking, some individuals are concerned that symptoms of anxiety--such as flush cheeks, a rumbling stomach, or stuttering speech--could disrupt their performance. These individuals should attempt to exaggerate, rather than mask, these symptoms.

Individuals who intentionally magnify the symptoms of this anxiety sometimes feel more relaxed. That is, individuals will often attempt to stifle symptoms they feel could exacerbate their anxiety and undermine their performance. Suppressed symptoms, however, tend to become even more pronounced (see Ironic rebound). Instead, individuals should strive to exaggerate these symptoms, an exercise called paradoxical intention. They should deliberately strive to blush, for example. This approach is applicable only if individuals are genuinely concerned their symptoms could disrupt their performance.

Express negative words

Step 2. Individuals should not avoid events that provoke unpleasant feelings and thoughts. Instead, individuals could deliberately expose themselves to these experiences, at least occasionally. For example, instead of avoiding locations that evoke memories of a painful experience, they could visit these places intentionally, perhaps once a week or month. That is, they could engage in behaviors they believe are important and valuable, such as confront a person who has acted inappropriately, even if this act evokes unpleasant emotions.

Each time that individuals are exposed to a distressing event or context, they should utter, either audibly or privately, an emotional term, such as "pain". In addition, they could read emotional terms they had transcribed earlier in a notebook. Alternatively, they could label the emotions and sensations they feel, such as "scared". Furthermore, they should feel proud of their attempt to pursue their values, even if they feel uncomfortable (Levitt, Brown, Orsillo, &; Barlow, 2004).

This practice alleviates the intensity of their responses to these events (Tabibnia, Lieberman, & Craske, 2008). Distressing events, if coupled with negative words, activate the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, inhibiting brain regions associated with intense emotions, such as the amygdala (see Lieberman, Eisenberger, Crockett, Tom, Pfeifer, & Way, 2007).

Mental exercises immediately after an upsetting event

Perspective of another person

Step 1. After employees experience an upsetting or traumatic event, they should be asked to imagine this incident from the perspective of another person. That is, they should imagine the scene that a person who had been observing the incident would have observed. Second, they should focus their attention on the reasons they experienced these emotions. In other words, they should consider why they experienced these upsetting feelings from the perspective of another person.

After an upsetting experience, such as a conflict or disagreement, individuals are less likely to feel distressed if they imagine this event from the perspective of another person--a person who was observing the incident (Ray, Wilhelm, & Gross, 2008)--as well as focus their attention on the reasons they felt their emotions. Specifically, after an upsetting event, some individuals relive the conflict as if they were experiencing this incident again. In addition, they often focus their attention on the precise emotions they were experiencing. These thoughts provoke intense emotions and concrete images, which tend to persist over time and thus promote distress and impede insight (Kross, Ayduk, & Mischel, 2005).

In contrast, some individuals imagine this incident from the perspective of a person who was observing this event. Furthermore, they focus their attention on the reasons they experienced these emotions. Consequently, they distance themselves from the event, diminishing a sense of immediate threat and curbing anxiety (Kross, Ayduk & Mischel, 2005).

Potential outcomes

Step 2. After employees fail to achieve some goal, they should be asked to imagine two alternative outcomes: one favorable and one unfavorable outcome. For example, suppose employees are unable to write as many reports as they had planned. They should first imagine how they would have felt had they completed the necessary reports in half the designated time. Second, they should imagine how they would have felt had they completed even fewer reports. These images ensure the memory of this failure vanishes rapidly from memory and thus restores their confidence.

Usually, employees can readily envisage two alternative outcomes. As a consequence, they unwittingly assume that many other alternative outcomes could have eventuated. Hence, the outcome they actually experienced suddenly appears less inevitable. For some reason, outcomes that seem less inevitable fade from memory. As the outcome fades from memory, the failure seems more distant and remote rather than recent (Sanna, Chang, & Carter, 2004).

Future aspirations

Step 3. Sometimes, individuals begin to obsess over a problem, called rumination. To overcome rumination, they should first be encouraged to identify one facet of their life they value, such as arts, community support, politics, finance, sport, science, or religion. In other words, they should reflect upon the activities they enjoy and regard as meaningful and important. Individuals should then consider why this value is so significant. Focusing thoughts on values tends to overcome rumination

That is, when individuals recall a facet they value, they experience a sense of security;; their need to fulfill other desired goals tends to decline. They become less upset over goals that had been obstructed, such as a failure to prevail in a sporting competition. For example, studies have shown that individuals who fail an intelligent test will, hours later, still recall many of the words that appeared on this examination, reflecting obsession and rumination. This tendency subsides, however, if they first reflect upon an issue they value (Koole, Smeets, van Knippenberg & Dijksterhuis, 2006; see also Self affirmation theory).

Step 4. Second, individuals should reflect upon some of their possessions, traits, achievements, or relationships. In addition, they should identify some of their needs or desires that such possessions, traits, achievements, or relationships fulfill. For example, they might need or desire credibility, they might then recognize that a recent accomplishment might have fulfilled this need.

Many individuals assume that anyone who has purchased, achieved, or demonstrated everything they want will tend to be happy. Recent research, however, has shown that individuals who learn to want everything they have ready purchased, achieved, or demonstrated also tend to be happy (Larsen & McKibban, 2008). That is, individuals who often experience a sense of gratitude towards their possessions, traits, relationships, or accomplishments also experience appreciable happiness. This gratitude increases the likelihood that individuals feel their desires have been fulfilled, curbing anxiety and dejection.

Step 5. Individuals should attempt to list, perhaps in a diary, ten or so words that reflect their true self. Their true self represents their traits, qualities, interests, preferences, tendencies, and flaws they sometimes conceal. That is, the true self includes characteristics they seldom express or demonstrate, except perhaps with their closest friends.

After individuals become more aware of their true self, their life seems more meaningful (Schlegel, Hicks, Arndt & King, 2009). This sense of meaning tends to improve mood (Melton & Schulenberg, 2008).

Exercises in unthreatening situations

Acceptance of flaws

Step 1.To enhance confidence and reduce anxiety, individuals should not attempt to suppress or disregard their limitations or flaws. Whenever they contemplate a flaw in their personality or character, they should attempt to identify a friend or colleague who shares a similar deficiency but is successful nonetheless. Perhaps they feel they do not speak eloquently, and they might recall a manager with a similar problem.

Alternatively, they should consider one or two tangible acts they will undertake in the next week or so that could marginally diminish this flaw. Third, they should plan or attempt to concede this flaw to someone else. Indeed, managers should inform their employees that accepting, rather than controlling, upsetting thoughts and feelings is a signal of strength, as shown by Spada, Nikcevic, Moneta, and Wells (2008).

After individuals attempt to disregard doubts about themselves, their anxiety rises (Borton, Markovitz, & Dieterich, 2005). For example, sometimes individuals consider the possibility that perhaps they are not especially interesting. Usually, to improve their mood, they will then deny this possibility. That is, they will attempt to suppress or disregard this thought. Individuals, regrettably, become more sensitive to faults they attempt to suppress. They might, for instance, become more inclined to notice or remember occasions in which they are perceived as uninteresting. Hence, their self esteem drops and anxiety escalates.

Nevertheless, when they concede a flaw to another person, they should perhaps highlight the deficiency is not extreme, but nevertheless a tendency they would like to modify. In other words, they need to demonstrate a balanced perspective--accepting but neither trivializing nor exaggerating their faults. They might state "Although I am good at Maths, my verbal skills are not as strong". This balanced perspective, called self compassion, tends to improve wellbeing (Neff, Kirkpatrick, & Rude, 2007 see Self compassion).


Step 1. Individuals should be encouraged to attempt, if possible, not to evaluate themselves too often. That is, they should be encouraged to accept their faults, inclinations, and behaviors. Specifically, they might be encouraged to reach decisions about which tasks they will undertake. Once these decisions have been reached, they should merely engage in the task, observing their feelings, bodily sensations, and thoughts, without judgment or evaluation. That is, not every task they undertake should be assessed or criticized.

Individuals who tend to engage in activities with undivided attention and often observe their thoughts, smells, and feelings, but without any judgment or evaluation ,a state called mindfulness, are less inclined to feel anxious or ashamed, especially in social settings (Dekeyser, Raes, Leijssen, Leysen & Dewulf, 2008). That is, some individuals develop the capacity to observe their life like an independent person as well as become entirely absorbed in their activities, rather than worry, plan, and judge incessantly. Because they do not continuously plan future activities and evaluate themselves harshly, they feel more liberated to engage in acts that align with their core, inherent values. Consequently, they tend to feel proud, rather than ashamed. They become less sensitive to problems and criticism.

Step 2. Individuals should attempt to undertake one task at a time, rather than shift erratically across activities. They could, for example, decide to maintain focus on one task for at least 15 minutes before then contemplating the next activity.

Step 3.Third, every week, individuals should attempt to identify one thought or feeling they might be attempting to suppress or neglect, perhaps a concern over their behaviour towards a friend or perhaps their worry they might not be able to fulfil some deadline. They should reflect upon this thought or feeling, for a moment, without attempting to generate solutions. They should merely be aware of this cognition or emotion.

Some individuals often experience some emotion or pain, but are oblivious to this feeling or discomfort until some time later. They also frequently engage in tasks without really being aware of their behaviour. They tend to reflect upon the past or plan the future instead of attending to ongoing activities. These individuals are less likely to feel satisfied with life (Brown & Ryan, 2003). Individuals should instead experience an awareness of objects in their immediate environment as well as their current thoughts and feelings. When eating a meal, for example, they should sometimes direct their attention to the immediate tastes as well as feel aware of their increasing sense of satiation, even distention of the stomach. In particular, mindfulness might correspond to an awareness of personal needs, values, and interests. Consequently, individuals are able to choose courses of action that align with their core values, ultimately promoting wellbeing.

Social settings

Step 4 Whenever individuals arrive at a social setting, they should attempt to identify the person they would like to approach first, if the opportunity arises. That is, as soon as they enter a room, they should attempt to identify the person who seems most supportive and agreeable.

After individuals often attempt to direct their attention towards supportive cues, they become less likely to notice expressions that might reflect hostility, resentment, or contempt (Dandeneau, Baldwin, Baccus, Sakellaropoulo, &Pruessner, 2007). In contrast, if the self esteem, confidence, and sense of pride of individuals is low, they often direct attempt to potential threats, especially to the left side of their body. Anxiety escalates, cortisol levels rise, and their health deteriorates.

Related objectives

See also articles on:


Borton, J. L. S., Markovitz, L. J., & Dieterich, J. (2005). Effects of suppressing negative self-referent thoughts on mood and self-esteem. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24, 172-180

Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 822-848.

Dandeneau, S. D., Baldwin, M. W., Baccus, J. R., Sakellaropoulo, M., & Pruessner, J. C. (2007). Cutting stress off at the pass: Reducing vigilance and responsiveness to social threat by manipulating attention. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 651-666.

Dekeyser, M., Raes, F., Leijssen, M., Leysen, S., & Dewulf, D. (2008). Mindfulness skills and interpersonal behaviour. Personality and Individual Differences, 44, 1235-1245.

Gabriel, S., Renaud, J. M., & Tippin, B. (2007). When I think of you, I feel more confident about me: The relational self andself-confidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 43, 772-779.

Koole, S. L., Smeets, K., van Knippenberg, A., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2006). The cessation of rumination through self-affirmation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 111-125.

Kross, E., Ayduk, O., & Mischel, W. (2005). When asking "why" does not hurt: Distinguishing rumination from reflective processing of negative emotions. Psychological Science, 16, 709-715.

Larsen, J. T., & McKibban, A. R. (2008). Is happiness having what you want, wanting what you have, or both? Psychological Science, 19, 371-377.

Levitt, J. T., Brown, T. A., Orsillo, S. M., & Barlow, D. H. (2004). The effects of acceptance versus suppression of emotion on subjective and psychophysiological response to carbon dioxide challenge in patients with panic disorder. Behavior Therapy, 35, 747-766.

McLeod,A. K., & Conway, C. (2005). Well-being and the anticipation of future positive experiences: The role of income, social networks, and planning ability. Cognition and Emotion, 19, 357-374.

Melton, A. M. A., & Schulenberg, S. E. (2008). On the measurement of meaning: Logotherapy's empirical contributions to humanistic psychology. The Humanistic Psychologist, 36, 1-14.

Mussweiler, T. (2001). "Seek and ye shall find": Antecedents of assimilation and contrast in social comparison. European Journal of Social Psychology, 31, 499-509.

Neff, K. D., Kirkpatrick, K. L., & Rude, S. S (2007). Self-compassion and adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 139-154.

Philippot, P., Baeyens, C., & Douilliez, C. (2006). Specifying emotional information: Regulation of emotional intensity via executive processes. Emotion, 6, 560-571.

Ray, R. D., Wilhelm, F. H., & Gross, J. J. (2008). All in the mind's eye? Anger rumination and reappraisal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 133-145.

Sanna, L. J., Chang, E. C., & Carter, S. E. (2004). All our troubles seem so far away: Temporal pattern to accessible alternatives and retrospective team appraisals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 1259-1371.

Schlegel, R. J., Hicks, J. A., Arndt, J., & King, L. A. (2009). Thine own self: True self-concept accessibility and meaning in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 473-490.

Silvia, P. J. (2002). Self-awareness and emotional intensity. Cognition and Emotion, 16, 195-216.

Spada, M. M., Nikcevic, A. V., Moneta, G. B., & Wells, A. (2008). Metacognition, perceived stress, and negative emotion. Personality and Individual Differences, 44, 1172-1181.

Tomaka, J., Blascovich, J., Kibler, J., & Ernst, J. (1997). Cognitive and physiological antecedents of threat and challenge appraisal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 63-72.

Watkins, E., Moberly, N. J., & Moulds, M. L. (2008). Processing mode causally influences emotional reactivity: Distinct effects of abstract versus concrete construal on emotional response. Emotion, 8, 364-378.

Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2006). Nostalgia: Content, triggers, functions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 975-993.

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Last Update: 4/28/2016