Miguel Figueiredo | Do you have anxiety attacks? This trick will help you regain control
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Do you have anxiety attacks? This trick will help you regain control

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Stomach pain, cold sweats, tremors, the voice failing, the body paralyzing, memory loss and legs eager to escape. Anyone who has ever had an anxiety attack knows what I’m talking about. I often find professionals who, even with years of experience, can not help but to succumb to the pressure created by situations that generated an anxiety attack. Situations that are usually associated with public speaking, difficult negotiations, or conflicts perceived as extremely aggressive. But it turns out that there is a quick and effective way to overcome these moments. But before I explain how, let’s talk about the science behind it.

First, it is important to understand that contrary to what many people might think, having problems coping with conflicts, speaking in public or negotiating, does not come from a personality trait. Rather, it comes from a habit that was initially triggered by a traumatic situation and then reinforced by other experiences perceived as similar situations. Habits are therefore encoded in our brain, more concretely, in our basal ganglia, which guards and triggers all the thoughtless actions we take throughout the day, and which is very close to the centers responsible for what and how we feel. So, what this means is that if it is possible to encode a habit in our brain, than it is also possible to decode it. Or overwrite it with a new one.

Secondly, it is also important to be aware that the brain does not distinguishes the physical reaction of being in a panic, from being aroused. Both cause rapid heart rate, shivering, sweating, tremors, loss of strength, changes in temperature and even sometimes uncontrolled laughter. Since the physical reactions to these states are equal, then what determines how we interpret them is our head. It is the brain who dictates whether we should associate these sensations with fear or with joy.

Having full awareness of these two phenomena, 1) that our behavior to stressful situations comes from habits and 2) that it is our brain that determines how to interpret the physical reaction triggered by a given situation, is absolutely critical, because by controlling our head at the right moment, it puts us one step closer to being able to unleash the feeling that best suits us to deal with the situation that initially causes us panic. With the fact that we can control our brain comes the realization that giving in to panic or fighting against it, is a decision. And that gives us the power to act and change our own behaviour.

So, how can we change?

To change you must stop the process that occurs in the basal ganglia when a habit is triggered. It is necessary to divert activity to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain where conscious and rational activity occurs, and then to turn our attention to the kind of action we want to consciously take.

This is where such trick, or to put it best, such technique comes in. It is such a simple technique that it will seem impossible to you. But it’s actually highly effective. Experienced by myself and several of the coachees whom I taught. This technique is called the 5 second rule, which is simply to count down from 5 to 0. Why? Because in doing so, it is precisely forcing your brain to move its activity from the basal ganglia to the prefrontal cortex. And by doing so at the right time, it breaks the subconscious process of habit and opens space to replace it with new behavior. This happens because this part of the brain is also responsible for the learning process. On the other hand, the fact that it is a countdown, predisposes you to action, because we all have unconsciously internalized that after a countdown, action follows.

In order for the 5 second technique to really work, there are 2 key aspects that need to fall into place:

  1. Stop the habit at the right moment. Our brain is designed to protect us. So, every time we try to do something new, which is uncomfortable for us, the brain feels this discomfort and activates the signs of danger that lead us to withdraw, and to flee. Stress is precisely that. It is the response of our body to a situation perceived as threatening, for which the best solution is to escape, so there is an adrenaline shot, cardiac acceleration, blood redraws from the head and into the legs, anything that allows us to start running as fast as possible. Now, in order to deal with our anxiety, we have to stop this process early in its genesis, otherwise it may become too difficult. That’s why I say there is a certain timing. Once we detect the first sign (which may be different for each person) that the stress will trigger, we have to start counting down. We are talking about a window of about 5 seconds, so it is critical to be perfectly aware of how this process begins in each of us.
  2. Replace the old habit with a new one.  After we count down, we have to ensure that the brain perceives our signs as enthusiasm rather than fear, and for this we need to tell ourselves that this moment is going to be fantastic (it helps if we reinforce ourselves by thinking of a past situation that generated enormous happiness). Then we have to make our behavior in this situation such that we can achieve success. And for that, we need to gain proficiency in the task that previously created anxiety. For example, if what creates anxiety is public speaking, then before we try the countdown technique, it is important to learn more about how to speak in public, such as how to create an engaging speech, how to use non-verbal language, the tone of voice, etc. We must therefore be able to replace our old habit with a new, more competent behavior. Only this way can we hope to effectively achieve a successful change. For this, starting a coaching process can be a very useful process.

This 5 second technique has several studies that support it, being Mel Robbins the leading advocate of the technique. If you want to know more, I invite you to attend this interview with the author, or to read her book.

So now you know. You are literally 5 seconds away from solving your anxiety attacks. Try it and then tell me how it went.

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