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The Dissolving Anxiety Exercise - an Innovative Approach to Anxiety

by Dr Tomasz Kopec(more info)

listed in stress, originally published in issue 206 - May 2013

 

Most of our behaviours, decisions, opinions are triggered by gentle physical feelings in the body which we feel and recognize in a flash. It happens so quickly that we do not usually notice it. Once we learn how to recognize and dissolve these feelings we can use it as a shortcut to influence our behaviors and thinking.

The Easy Explanation

I ask my patients to become anxious about something. It is usually very easy for them. Then I ask them to grade this anxiety on a scale from 1 to 10. It is sometimes a bit more complicated but eventually everyone does it. Then the unexpected happens. I ask them to become more anxious and jump one point higher on the scale. They are surprised but after a short while they can do it.

When they finish, I ask how they know the anxiety has become worse. They are confused and usually say 'I just feel it'. 'But what exactly do you feel', I ask. They look at me even more confused not knowing what I want and considering me crazy for this short moment.

Then I explain. The moment they try to become more anxious they think about something or someone who triggers the anxiety. At the same time they sense the physical tension growing somewhere in their body. It is a spasm of the muscle group reacting directly to the anxious thinking. Once the spasm gets stronger they know that anxiety has worsened.

This short exercise gives my patients profound insight to the mechanism of anxiety. There is only one thing left - to not feel it. This is what the dissolving anxiety exercise is for.

The More Complicated Explanation

I believe anxiety is a constant interplay between thinking, body sensations and behaving.

Thinking is talking inside the head or projecting internal pictures or short movies.

Body sensations are caused by muscle spasm felt as a knot in the stomach, tight chest, lump in the throat, band around the head etc.

Behaving is performing various activities with the body.

anxiety dissolving

These three elements are intimately entwined, they reinforce, embrace and modulate one another. Thoughts can trigger body sensations and behaviours, behaviours can trigger thoughts and body sensations, and body sensations can trigger thoughts and behaviours.

I believe the most important component of anxiety is a body sensation. This is what really makes us aware of anxiety. It is not a coincidence that we use the same word 'feeling' to describe a physical pain and to describe anxiety or anger. Before I say - 'I feel anxious'  - I unconsciously search for a body sensation related to anxiety. It can be very subtle warmness on my neck or tingling on my shoulders but it always happens.

It means that anxiety can be downgraded to just another body sensation like having a full bladder or empty stomach and similarly triggers various behaviours in order to release it. A full bladder makes you look for the toilet, an empty stomach makes you search for food and anxiety makes you overeat or eat too little, drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes. All these behaviours are performed in order to release a tension inside the body (a body sensation). Once it disappears, the behaviour stops as there is no need to continue it.

The usual problem is that people fail to find the long term reliever of their anxiety. Most  working remedies have a short term life span and anxiety keeps coming back. To be more precise, what really comes back is tension somewhere in the body followed by the growing need to address it by performing various behaviours.

The anxiety dissolving exercise is one of the healthiest ways of releasing this tension. After the exercise a user is able to think about something which used to make him worried, without feeling worried. When the exercise is finished I ask them 'So now make yourself anxious about this thing again'. I witness them thinking the anxious thought and  intentionally searching their body for a sensation but as they usually cannot find it, they say - 'You know what, I am not bothered any more'.

How Does It Work

The dissolving anxiety exercise is based on the Open Focus theory formulated by neuroscientist Dr Lester Fehmi.  Dr Fehmi runs the neurofeedback clinic in Princeton, New Jersey (to find out more about Open Focus see www.openfocustraining.co.uk  and www.openfocus.com ). 

The Open Focus theory describes four attention styles. The one most commonly used is the 'narrow' style of attention. We use it to focus on problems, on tasks when we look for the best solutions. Most people believe that the more focused we are (the more narrow attention we give to something) we can expect a better result as an outcome. For this reason we tend to overuse it in everyday simple situations which makes us chronically stressed, bringing hidden tension to our lives.

On the other hand widening (opening) focus of the attention takes only a few moments but immediately makes a noticeable change. Just become aware of the space between you and the computer screen while you are reading this words. Become aware of the spaces between words and keep reading. After short while you should notice the tension around your eyes releasing and your shoulders relaxing. You can carry on with most of your everyday activities, being aware of space around you and staying a lot more relaxed.

Similarly when you become aware of space surrounding a problem, you start noticing solutions you have not seen before. Another example is physical pain which subsides when you become aware of space around it.

During the anxiety dissolving exercise the user is asked to become aware of space around the body sensation which is linked to anxious thought. Once space and the body sensation are attended at the same time, the anxious thought is disconnected from the body sensation and anxiety dissolves.

What Else Can It Do?

The technique of dissolving body sensations can be used for various feelings that are making life more difficult. For example, I dissolved a body sensation related to the desire of having a good looking car and I am now very happy with my 10 year old Toyota. It is a very reliable car but it doesn't look good any more. I felt a growing need to buy a new one only for that reason. Then I realized that this feeling is just another feeling I can dissolve. I detected a  sensation in my body related to wanting a new car, and I successfully dissolved it. Now I am very happy with my Toyota and I do not need to work longer and harder to buy a new one.

I successfully dissolved so called 'Sunday evening blues' and the frustration of having to return to work after holidays. I also dissolved the Guilt of not coming to work when I felt really ill. It was stopping me from waiting for full recovery before returning to work and making my life more difficult.

The same technique can be used to stop worry about future or past events. When the present life is affected by a traumatic event from the past, like a car accident, and someone still feels upset about it, one can dissolve this feeling by using the exercise. The traumatic event will still be remembered but it will not trigger upsetting  feelings any more. If someone feels anxious about something which is going to happen, like a coming exam or important presentation, one can dissolve this feeling using the exercise. This enhances confidence and readiness to perform.

As the exercise targets body sensations (not thoughts), it works regardless of what an anxiety is about. In other words, the same 15 minute exercise can be used in all life situations. The exercise can be tried each time someone is troubled by a cramping feeling which makes life miserable. It works for anxiety, panic, PTSD, stress, low mood, anger, guilt, remorse, frustration, etc.

The End

To summarize, I think the body sensation component of anxiety is not well recognized in contemporary psychotherapy. It often tries to change the way people think or behave but rarely, or never, deals with body sensations related to unwanted feelings. This gap is filled by the dissolving anxiety exercise.

See this clip to understand the mechanism of the exercise better www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mysXnvotgc

The exercise can be downloaded free from http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/no-anxiety/id524355500?ls=1&mt=8

Visit Open Focus Training Shop for a long version of the exercise http://openfocustrainingshop.com/shop

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About Dr Tomasz Kopec

Dr Tomasz Kopec is a General Practitioner with ten years experience.  From the very beginning of his medical career he has had an interest in dealing with a wide range of psychological problems including stress, phobias, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, PTSD, OCD. He believes that many physical disorders (e.g. a fast heart rate, palpitations, feeling sick, shaking (tremour), sweating, dry mouth, chest pain, headaches) originate in peoples minds and that the most appropriate treatment for these disorders is healing the mind.

A part of Dr Kopec’s medical development was devoted to looking for new ways of giving people relief from their psychological problems during ten minute appointments. This search led him to enrol in Open Focus training at Dr Les Fehmi’s clinic in Princeton, USA. He found Open Focus techniques very effective and Open Focus theory truly based on scientific research of brain activity.

As a Certified Open Focus Trainer Dr Tomasz Kopec has already created many exercises based on Open Focus theory. Dr Tomasz Kopec already has a large group of trainees successfully applying Open Focus skills to their lives. You can see his website here www.openfocustraining.co.uk/main.html

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