A simple way to reduce anxiety

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Give yourself time | Photo by Kalen Emsley on Unsplash

I would like to introduce you to Time Decompression; or Time Expansion, if you prefer.  It is a technique I developed while researching counselling psychology, and studying the way time seems to work in therapy sessions.

If you have ever watched yourself when you were anxious, or reflected on it afterwards, you may have noticed that anxiety often has at its root an impatience for things to be otherwise, and quickly.  Perhaps you are anxious because you have an exam next week, and you do not feel that you know enough.  This kind of anxiety has four components:

1. You feel that something in your life needs to change
2. You feel that it is difficult or fearful for you to effect that change
3. You (consciously or unconsciously) conceptualise a time limit for that change
4. You (consciously or unconsciously) feel that the time limit is too short

WHAT I NOTICED IN COUNSELLING SESSIONS
Therapy sessions are often set at 50 minutes.  Some therapists try to offer convoluted reasons for this, but the main reason is that an hour is western humans’ go-to time for meetings, and therapists need to wee, and make notes (10 minutes therefore deducted).  The strictness is so that therapists can appear very professional.  I mean, really, what would therapists have to denote ther professionalism if they did not control the time, and pathologise anyone else who wanted to control it?!

What I noticed was that anxious clients often felt the need to cut meetings short, and certainly were out of the door quicker than depressed clients.  It was as though anxious clients lived in accordance with an invisible rule: get home as quickly as possible.  Home, whatever it was conceived to be, was a place of safety.  Time pressure was evident pretty much all the time, even in micro-behaviours.  Such clients tended to be watchful of other people’s movements, and keen to detect when it might be time to move on.  It was as though they were alarm clocks, set with a hair-trigger mechanism, liable to panic at the least provocation.

Time felt compressed.  As a counsellor, I often rely on absorbing a sense of where a client is in the moment.  Internalising into myself what was going on for them, I became aware of a kind of impatience, and over-watchfulness, together with a sense of personal inadequacy – a feeling, in short, that, as above, (1) something was wrong, (2) it was difficult to confront, (3) it felt urgent or pressing, and (4) waiting was not an option.  Thus the body became a kind of pressure cooker, boiling up with urgent need, perhaps the skin flushing, panic symptoms arising… all in a kind of impatience with the world.

I don’t want to pathologise my clients.  I experience the same thing too.  Most of my human knowledge is gained from self-observation.  I am at least as guilty of anxiety as the next person.  But I am outlining what I think I saw.

HOW THIS APPLIES TO EVERYDAY SITUATIONS
This, to me, is to do with our experience of time.

We all, consciously or unconsciously, apply time frames to our lives.  You might feel you should be married by the time you are a certain age, or out of bed by a certain time, or have disposed of a lost loved one’s possessions by a certain month… we are often full of self-imposed requirements that our worlds change by a certain time.

In my research, I took this thought, and tried to apply an opposite.  If anxiety is often characterised by time compression (i.e. wishing things could quickly be otherwise for us), then perhaps anxiety could be reduced by time-expansion (or time decompression), by lowering the pressure to change our world in a short time.

TIME-EXPANDING TASKS
I began to ask myself: what tasks do we perform which might be time-expanding, and anxiety-reducing?

A CLUE IN BOREDOM
In my ponderings, I noticed that boredom was a kind of opposite of anxiety.  I noticed that, when bored, individuals’ adrenal systems closed down, and they started to fall asleep.  They no longer needed to be alert and hyper-sensitive.  Now, I bet you have never heard a doctor prescribe boredom as a medicine for patients!  But perhaps it is not such a silly idea.

Boring situations have certain characteristics, which are in many ways the opposite of the anxious characteristics:

1. We feel that our challenge or extreme action is not necessary
2. We feel that it is all too easy to assimilate and experience
3. There seems to be no time limit to things (such as an interminably boring lecture!)
4. There seems to be no urgency (perhaps everything is flat, routine, predictable)

DESIGNING YOUR OWN TIME-EXPANDING ACTIVITIES
I am not suggesting we live our lives permanently bored!  But I am suggesting that we apply to anxiety an opposite context, in order to balance it out and calm it.

If you are anxious, I suggest you design for yourself an activity which consists of the following:

1. A manageable, minimal level of challenge
2. A fairly easy thing to get your head around
3. A time guide which is much longer than the activity needs
4. Something that is not urgent

An example for me: if I wish to calm down easily, I pick up my boots, and polish them.  I know how to do it; it’s easy; I give myself half an hour, much longer than I need; it’s not urgent (my life won’t end if I can’t polish my boots!).

For you, it may be something else.  But try to choose something easy, and give yourself a longer time than necessary to do it.

THE BENEFITS OF TIME-EXPANDING ACTIVITIES
There are several benefits to this approach.  I have used it a lot myself (I am my biggest experimental guinea pig!); and friends and clients have seemed to find it helpful.  A few classic benefits are:

1. It reduces adrenaline levels.  We all need to use our adrenaline systems, but not all the time, and not on overdrive!
2. It makes you feel more peaceful.  Your friends will appreciate your chilled-out manner 🙂
3. It broadens your attentional bias (when anxious, your world compresses; when peaceful, you can see more)
4. It gets something useful done! (Even Formula 1 drivers need their cars cleaned… you are giving yourself a ‘pit stop’.)
5. It teaches your mind, conscious and unconscious, that everything is not urgent.  And it really isn’t.  The universe has billions of years available.

Think of your diary as an elastic band.  When your appointments are constricting and urgent, you will feel your flow constricted and strangled by urgency.  Your body will tell you that it is tired, but your adrenaline system will tell you that things are urgent.  This is the formula for adrenal fatigue.

Time-expanding activities relax the elastic band a little.  Your life is still held together by a little structure, but you have room to move, to breathe, to be yourself.

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SUMMARY
When anxiety is getting the better of you, try to find a simple activity that you enjoy, and give yourself a nice long time to complete it, much longer than you need.  You will find your adrenal system relaxes, your attentional system expands, and you become more peaceful.  What more could you want?

If you are interested in practicing this or other forms of relaxing activity in your life, do get in touch, and I’d be happy to work with you, and learn from you, in developing helpful techniques.  Everyone is different, and I welcome the opportunity to meet others who want to join together and find practical ways to be peaceful.

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