Beating Anxiety With Self-Talk: A Cheat-Sheet, Guest Blog by Caitlin Margaret

Think back to the last time you were anxious.

Do you remember the conversation you were having with yourself before the anxiety hit?

Probably not. Most likely, you can only remember how you felt. The fear. The panic. The worry.

And that’s normal. We can get so overwhelmed by the feelings that anxiety brings on that we don’t pay any attention to what we’re saying to ourselves in the moment.

In an earlier post, we talked about the importance of tackling anxiety from every angle. And how we talk to ourselves is a big factor in that equation.

In this post, I want to help you identify your negative self-talk patterns and offer a proven way to help you flip that internal script around and lower your anxiety as a result. When you’re done reading, download your self-talk cheat sheet to beat anxiety and write your own personalized script.

Dealing with Anxiety: What were you thinking?

One of the biggest challenges for a lot of my clients is identifying the negative thoughts that race through their minds when they’re anxious.

Many of them are so used to their own self-abusive chatter—“What’s wrong with you?” “How are you going to screw this one up?”—that they’re not even aware of it or how it’s fueling their anxiety, making it next to impossible to manage.

Ask yourself this: In most situations, but especially stressful ones, do you tend to turn on yourself? Do you find yourself saying things like, “Ugh, What’s my problem?” or start making a mental list of  all the ways that you could fail?

That, my friends, is negative self-talk.

It’s the damaging thoughts to ourselves about ourselves. And these anti-pep talks feed anxiety.

But there are proven practices for overcoming these thought patterns, most notably, those derived from cognitive behavioral therapy and positive psychology

The primary principle of these practices is that our thoughts lead to our feelings. And those feelings lead to our behaviors.

Try this … close your eyes and say to yourself “I am stupid and ugly.”

How do you feel physically? Do you feel tightness in your chest? Or sick to your stomach? Do you feel small? Drained?

How about emotionally?

Do you feel a little beat up? Hopeless? Depressed?

What actions would you take if you were faced with a stressful situation right now? Would how you feel make you more likely to retreat or react defensively?

Now, close your eyes, and this time tell yourself, “I am beautiful on the inside and outside.”

Now how do you feel? Does your body feel lighter and more energized? Are you happier and less anxious? How would you handle that stressful situation now?

Thoughts drive feelings and actions … and anxiety

With the exception of some basic reflexes, our thoughts precede our feelings and actions, and influence both.

The thoughts we have are based on how we’re taught perceive our world. In any given situation, what we’re thinking about what’s happening is determined by the conclusions we’ve drawn from our experiences over the years.

These conclusions have been drawn mostly in our subconscious mind, so many times we’re not even aware of them. As a matter of fact, throughout the day our brain is acting on hundreds of unconscious thoughts before our conscious mind even catches on.

For example, an abused or neglected child will have significantly different thoughts about family life from a child raised with love and respect.

And his negative thoughts about his family—that he’s not loved or valued—will likely lead to feelings of anxiety or depression when he thinks about starting a family of his own.

But the person raised in a loving home will probably feel connected and appreciated when thoughts about family come up.

Constructive Self-talk Decreases Anxiety

So how do you fight back against your own negative thoughts when they’re often so deeply ingrained? Well, here’s the good news: Negative self-talk is just a habit. All thinking patterns are, really. And all habits can be broken.

You can start training your mind to overcome these thoughts by identifying each one and transforming it into a constructive, uplifting statement. This constructive self-talk becomes your new habit, replacing that old, broken record of your damaging inner dialog.

Now, keep in mind we’re using the word “constructive” here, and not “positive.” It can be hard to truly buy into “positivity” when you’re feeling down. This should be an authentic experience that rings true to you. You can’t fool yourself, after all.

Constructive self-talk isn’t about being constantly cheerful and ignoring reality. It just means that you actively choose to quiet that inner critic and replace it with empowering thoughts that are more based in reality.

So, how does it work? It’s all about neuroplasticity.

Each time you have a repeated experience, like your daily drive to work, you deepen the neural grooves in your brain that help you remember it. Eventually, you don’t even think about the ride anymore, you just automatically know how to get there.

Let’s say one day you start taking a new route. Now you’re creating new neural pathways to embed those directions in your brain. And the more those neurons fire and communicate, the stronger that neural pathway becomes. Pretty soon, driving that route is second nature.

Breaking negative thought patterns works the same way. If, instead of telling yourself you’re going to bomb before a presentation, you remind yourself that you’re qualified to speak on the topic and providing value to your audience, you’ll soon be more inclined to approach the podium with more confidence.

This neuroplasticity allows for the reprogramming of our brains  to naturally gravitate to more compassionate self-talk over time.

And research shows constructive self-talk can boost your confidence and greatly reduce your stress levels and anxiety.

And the benefits don’t end there. Change your negative thought patterns and you’ll also see:

  • A longer, healthier life
  • Lower rates of depression
  • Lower levels of distress
  • Less colds
  • Increased psychological and physical well-being
  • Improved cardiovascular health

It takes three to four weeks of daily practice to form a new habit to get your brain to make the switch over to more constructive thought patterns. I want to help you take the first step.

The cheat sheet I’ve shared here takes you through the exact process that has helped hundreds of my clients turn their negative thoughts on their head to create loving and constructive self-talk and overcoming their anxiety once and for all.

Once you’ve created your personalized script, habit-ize it baby! Ingrain that sucker. Keep it with you throughout the day. Put a copy in your wallet. Write it on a post-it and stick it on your mirror. Record it on your phone.

Then read it at least three times a day. Listen to it on your way to work. Let it be your support when you’re faced with a stressful situation.

The more you repeat it, the more you’ll deepen those shiny new neural grooves in your brain. Until one day your brain is teaming with constructive statements, and there’s no room left for anxiety—which will lead to a big boost in confidence.

Download your cheatsheet now!

About the author:
Caitlin Margaret is a Holistic Life Coach, empowering men and women around the world to naturally heal their anxiety, turn their professional dreams into reality, and design vibrant and meaningful lives

Rise Up

Compressing yourself in sympathy for the pain in the world does not help anyone. While ebullience might be socially inappropriate, a public show of sympathetic tension only saps your own energy. You are needed, to compassionately hold presence and act. This takes immense resources.

Yes, empathetic physical tension may be innate. We do feel others pain in our own body. We wince and flinch in response to onscreen punches. We cry when we hear about Michael Brown, Puerto Rico, Vegas, Napa and on. We practitioners feel our student’s sore knees and aching shoulders, but how much we continue to take on our own shoulders is a choice.

I’m feeling quite hopeless about the world but this does not mean that I am collapsing.

Thoughts about the Alexander technique. Thoughts about social and environmental justice. Thoughts about the meaning of compassion.

 

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Body Project Blog ~ Where thought is the active ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

Book Review – Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart by James Doty

Body Project Blog ~ Where Thought is the Active Ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

Just finished reading “Into the Magic Shop – A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart” by James Doty, founder of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research. The book is a beautiful parable about overcoming adversity and the power of ancient meditation techniques to relax the body, tame the mind, open the heart and clarify intent. As cutting edge research is showing, these meditation practices enhance psychological and physical health (I’ll skip the science here, but it’s fascinating), and may give you the energy and inspiration to work for a better world.

Jame’s Doty’s “magic” is of course based in the Buddhist Tradition of Loving Kindness (Metta). I have a few blog posts (below) about the myriad ways that Metta is helpful when learning the Alexander Technique.

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An offering

Body Project Blog, Where Thought is the Active Ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

Body Project Blog, Where Thought is the Active Ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

Everyone likes to be seen, heard, and invited. This is the basic truth of the human animal. We are communal creatures and we thrive in the warmth of our friends and loved ones.

Can you offer the same warmth to yourself? In the Alexander Technique we use inner speech, or directions to optimize our movement. We become aware of tension, we pause to stop the tension and we give our “orders” – directional thoughts that bring the body into optimal alignment. But sometimes this process can bring up fear, shame, or resistance. Rather than simply noticing that our neck is not free, we feel bad about it, and then pile on the self recriminations for not practicing enough, or not being able to learn the technique fast enough.

I suggest a different approach.

Switch from awareness to listening. Listen to you bones and muscles and joints. Let them know you are ready to hear what they have to say. They might be shy from many years of neglect, or they might be quite talkative. Be prepared to listen to your body.

Similarly, see yourself the way you might view a friend, a child or an animal. Do the flaws fade when you acknowledge the person’s worth and effort? Can you give yourself credit? You have shown up, and you do a lot of work. Give yourself your fair due.

Invite your head to move freely on the top of your spine, your bones to dance and wiggle apart from each other. Invite your ribs to move freely with the breath, and your back to support back and up. Invite yourself into presence. You belong here! But if you and your parts can’t show up to the party, that’s just life. No need for anger or recriminations. Offer, and be ok with the the offer not being accepted this time around.

Building resilience with loving kindness meditation

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Body Project Blog, Where Thought is the Active Ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

The Buddhist practice of Metta (Loving Kindness) can nourish, strengthen and energize you during difficult times.

In the Alexander technique we use directional thoughts to expand and open the body (Neck to be free, to allow my head to move forward and up, to allow my back to lengthen and widen…etc). These directions can be viewed as a physical embodiment of the energy of Metta. I’ve written more about this here:

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the-eleven-benefits-of-loving-kindness-meditation/

To practice Metta let your mind descend into your heart. Repeat the following four phrases to your self. Imagine radiating the messages from your heart through your whole body. Observe the physical manifestations of these thoughts. Allow the phrases to become personal. If an image or sense memory comes up go with that.

  • May I be safe and protected from inner and outer harm (neck to be free)
  • May I be peaceful and happy (head floating up)
  • May I be healthy and strong (back lengthening and widening)
  • May I navigate the world with skill. May I take care of myself with skill. (Arms and Legs release away from torso)

Note that these phrases are wishes not affirmations. Insisting that you are safe in a dangerous world might bring up disbelief. If negative feelings are triggered, that’s also normal. You can either note the emotions and return to the phrases, or apply R.A.I.N. That is (R = recognize what is going on and name it. A = allow the emotions to be without amplifying or suppressing. I = investigate the story lines around the emotions. N = nurture your self and non-identify.)

It’s very beneficial to spend a long time practicing loving kindness directed towards your self – something our culture does not encourage. Self compassion is often confused with narcissism. You may also send the loving kindness energy to a mentor, a friend, an acquaintance and a difficult person (don’t start with your biggest enemy, choose someone who is mildly annoying at first), and then expand the loving kindness to all beings everywhere.

If you enjoyed the practices, some other names to look for are Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodrun and Tara Brach among many many others. Or, find an Alexander Technique teacher in your area, and experience what it’s like to move in the world with more energy, resilience and strength.

Let there be love

The spine moves.
The head is part of the body.
Let the soft animal of the body love what it loves. (…wait, that’s Mary Oliver)
Let there be love (…wait, that’s a play I just saw by Kwei-Armah)
Be (…some dude named Buddha had something to say about that).

These were my thoughts after an epic Reiki session from my friend Jordana del Feld

For a brief amount of time, I dabbled in Reiki. Reiki seemed like the Alexander Technique, minus the technique. Reiki does not demand 3 years of daily training to certify as a teacher. Reiki is not concerned with movement. And Reiki does not teach people a reliable means for changing habits.

But it does offer energy flow without any ego manipulation. Isn’t that the essence of Alexander’s and the Tao’s principal of non-doing?

Everyone intuitively knows about flow state. We’ve all been lucky enough to have fleeting experiences of effortless action. But we forget that flow is our birthright. We forget that it is always available—if we get out of the way.

When I put my hands on my students, I don’t intend to ‘do’ anything to them. I am helping them learn how they can prevent pain, constriction and heaviness. How does this work? I think students get the hallmark Alexander Technique sensations of lightness and ease through resonance. That is, if I am sufficiently free, my flow will be catchy and they will catch the current of their own flow.

Still, I need my students to do more than to catch my flow. During the the lesson, they’re moving: sitting, walking, or reciting Hamlet. I’m an educator, not a therapist. I’m giving my students the means to find freedom without my help. So I ask them to imagine space here and to notice a habit there, to become conscious of the intersection between thoughts, emotions and body states, and to direct energy. I teach them techniques that they can practice on their own. The trick is to spark their awareness enough that the body transforms, but not so much that they are micro-managing alignment details.

Sometimes I think that technique is a ruse. All that’s needed is to let every opinion about bio-mechanics, habit, gravity and direction dissolve into the bliss of dancing molecules and love. There’s no need to reach for knowledge. Effortless (but not passive) absorption is effective and valid. Experience has taught me that our bones know what to do. It’s our personality (composed of our habit and ego), that forces them into uncomfortable configurations.

The Alexander Technique works indirectly to release energy flow in action. Students learn techniques to recognize and prevent limiting habits, and thus get out of the way of their own life force.  But the root of transformation is compassion, connection and love. Out of this, positive change is self-generating, the way a seed germinates and eventually reaches for the sun.

Poet Galway Kinnell said it best, Saint Francis and the Sow

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient.

the eleven benefits of loving kindness meditation

  1. You will sleep easily
  2. You will wake easily
  3. You will have pleasant dreams
  4. People will love you
  5. Devas (gods or angels) and animals will love you
  6. Devas will protect you
  7. External dangers, such as poisons, weapons, and fire, will not harm you
  8. Your face will be radiant
  9. Your mind will be serene
  10. You will die unconfused
  11. You will be re-born in happy realms

This is big stuff, regardless of whether you believe in angels or reincarnation.

Having good sleep, pleasant dreams, a radiant face and a serene mind, all sound pretty great to me.

Scientific research into the benefits of loving kindness (Metta) practice shore up at least a few of these claims. Researchers have found that regular loving kindness meditation can:

    • Lower stress — self perceived, behavioral and physiological.
    • Enhance immunity
    • Increase behaviors that enhance social connectedness.
    • Increase happiness

Here’s a decent popular science article with links to studies: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kripalu/loving-kindness-meditation_b_3961300.html

I’d be curious to know about the effects of loving kindness practices on sleep.

Maybe someday I’ll get back into the lab and study the effects of Metta practice on neck tension, breath, and posture.

 

Metta Meditation & Alexander Technique

Invariably, at some point during the semester, one of my MFA acting students shows up in an Alexander Technique tutorial and says, “I need to learn to meditate.”

I can’t argue with them.

It wasn’t until I learned Metta (Loving kindness)Meditation  that I developed sufficient self-compassion to look at my habits without falling into an unproductive state of shame.

It wasn’t until I began watching my thoughts in Vipassana (Insight) meditation that I gained an inkling into what it might mean to, “not do, not try, not care.”

Meditation gives me the skill to work with my thoughts. Alexander Technique takes these processes to the next step, and looks at the embodiment of thought – but that’s another essay.

For now, I want to talk about how Metta meditation can help you free your neck and expand your body.

Here’s the Metta practice:

May I be safe and protected from inner and outer harm
May I be peaceful and happy
May I be healthy and strong
May I be at ease with the conditions of my life

Traditionally you direct these thoughts to yourself, then a mentor or benefactor, then a dear friend, then a neutral person, then a difficult person, and then the circle can be expanded out to all beings everywhere.

Metta creates the inner climate that allows the neck muscles to release – although please note this is my idea, and has nothing to do with traditional Alexander Technique teachings.

The Metta phrases and the Alexander Technique directions can reinforce each other when thought one after the other. For example:

Metta (M): May I be safe and protected from inner and outer harm
Alexander Technique (AT): Allow my neck to be free

Isn’t neck tension the first thing that happens when we feel threatened? A free neck is almost synonymous with safety.

(M): May I be peaceful and happy
(AT): Allow my head to balance forward and up

Isn’t a poised head the physical expression of peace? I’m imagining a Buddha statue.

(M): May I be healthy and strong
(AT): Allow my back to lengthen and widen

Isn’t an open back that allows the free movement of breath and the decompression of organ systems the expression of “health?”

(M): May I be at ease with the conditions in my life
(AT): Allow my legs to release away from my hip joints, and my shoulders to expand to the sides

Isn’t physical expansion the gesture of ease?

You don’t need to say all the words in the Metta phrases. You can generate the feeling of Metta and project the Alexander Technique directions simultaneously. I encourage you to experiment.

There’s a bi-directional loop between body positions and emotions. We can create the feeling tone of safety, peace, health and ease, from the mind down and from the body up.

 

 

Who is the self that is meeting myself right now?*

Elyse Shafarman

As I go about my life, I catch myself in habitual thoughts and postures, I take out an imaginary mirror and look at myself.

Who am I right now?

Is the reflection in the mirror kind or harsh?

What if I trust that my own attention can create the same space and fluidity that flows from an Alexander Teacher’s hands? What happens if I extend a hand towards myself?

Can I be a better friend to myself?

*Inspired by working with Tommy Thompson. Alexander Technique Workshop for Teachers, Oakland, CA April 14, 2013

Alexander Technique Workshop for Teachers

 

Elyse Shafarman

Tommy Thompson taught a 2-day workshop for Alexander Technique Teachers.  Here are a few highlights – paraphrased  – I did my best to capture Tommy’s poetic flavor, but these are not exact quotes.

  • If we look for what’s right, if we assume the primary control is always working, then teaching becomes a much more peaceful process.
  • Put your hands on the potential of the person not the habit. Then Alexander Technique becomes a non-critical, non-judgmental, compassionate way of letting go of patterns of behavior that are not essential.
  • You have to be very careful walking through your life thinking you are wrong. Faulty sensory appreciation is useful, but you have to use it to help you.
  • When students ask what to do without your teacher’s hands to help them: “You can’t do it for yourself (yet), but you can learn how to notice what you are doing.”
  • Frank Pierce Jones maxim – Once you become aware of what you don’t want to do, you are already on your way to doing less of it.

A colleague commented, “I know that writing is only the tip of the experience, but what you write about the workshop makes me think of the Buddhist idea that our Buddha nature is always there, like the clear blue sky, but we don’t see it for the clouds (habits). Universal truths are just that, universal…”


  • Primary Control – The dynamic relationship between the head, neck and torso that organizes our movement and our alertness.
  • “Being Wrong” is common language in the Alexander Technique lexicon. It refers to the ways that our body sensations, which feels so true, can be inaccurate due to habit. For example if we have the habit of leaning backwards, being upright can feel like we are pitched forward.
  • Frank Pierce Jones pioneered scientific research in the Alexander Technique at Tufts University between 1949 and 1975.