When you try to reduce your anxiety, anger, or any other emotion, you set yourself up for a battle - a battle you usually lose. Fortunately, there’s a better way to master your emotions – no fighting required.
“Now that you’ve managed to reduce your anxiety, can you increase it?”
I was dumbfounded by the question. I was training at the time with Dr. Les Fehmi at the Princeton Biofeedback Centre. Dr. Fehmi is one of the true pioneers in the field of neurofeedback, and developed a powerful system called “Open Focus” based on his research on alpha brainwaves (which are a key component of flow and peak performance).
Dr. Fehmi discovered that our brains naturally create alpha waves in sync with one another when we simply imagine space. Through a series of exercises he developed, imagining space in various ways, many of which I continue to use with clients to this day, we can quickly reduce stress and tension, tame anxiety, and soften anger and many other powerful emotions. Dr. Fehmi’s method also can boost our general performance and productivity.
At the time, anxiety was my main issue. For years, I had felt vaguely anxious, which manifested itself in an unpleasant physical sensation smack in the middle of my chest. That unpleasant feeling could range from a subtle discomfort to a near-panic attack that affected my breathing.
Using Dr. Fehmi’s approach and other methods I’ve learned and developed along the way, that feeling in my chest is a thing of the distant past and experiencing anxiety is a rare occurrence. But at that time, I was at the beginning of my journey with mental focus, and all I wanted to do was find a way to be rid of this near-continuous anxiety that didn’t seem to have any real cause. I would have been thrilled to rid myself of that unpleasant feeling in my chest.
Dr. Fehmi first asked me to rate the intensity of my anxiety on a scale of 1 to 10. It’s a 5 or a 6, I told him. After Dr. Fehmi worked with me for about 15 minutes, having me imagine the space in and around the feeling of anxiety in my body in several different ways, I gradually felt a loosening in my chest. Ever so slowly, that unpleasant feeling began to melt away, to dissolve, leaving a feeling of calm in its stead that I had not experienced in a long time.
I was ecstatic. After a bit more of the same kind of work, Dr. Fehmi asked me what number I would give the anxiety now. My anxiety is only a 1 or 2, I told him, finding it hard to believe that almost all of that unpleasant feeling in my chest had simply evaporated.
“Ok, can you bring the feeling of anxiety back up to a 6?” he queried.
Seriously? I just managed to get rid of this anxiety that’s been bothering me for so long, and now he wants me to bring it all back? Why would I ever want to do that?
Beyond Stress Reduction to Stress Mastery
Why indeed would you want to increase your anxiety, or anger, or any other negative emotion just when you’ve managed to reduce it? That’s exactly the question I asked Dr. Fehmi when he asked me to increase my anxiety back up to a 6.
Because, he patiently explained, the goal is not simply to reduce anxiety. It’s to gain mastery over it. If all I can do is bring my anxiety down to a 2, I’m always going to be fighting it. It’s going to inevitably go back up, and then I’ll always be in a cycle of trying to bring it back down when it wants to go back up.
If instead, I can bring it down to a 2, and then bring it back up to a 6, and then move it up or down to any other level of intensity as I wish, then I am no longer fighting the anxiety. I’m not in a battle to reduce it. I now have complete control over it and can determine what I want to feel at any given time.
This is a radically different paradigm from the standard methods in which we are instructed to “reduce stress” or “tame anger.”
Next time you feel stress, take deep breaths or whatever you typically do to try and reduce it. Once you feel you’ve lowered the temperature a bit on the stress, see if you can move it back up again. Then down, then up – a few times.
Using this approach, you’re no longer fighting against the stress. You’re simply working with it, taking control of it, and ultimately achieving mastery over it. When the only direction you’re trying to move the stress is downward, you’re in a battle you’ll often lose. By seeking to move the stress any which way, you completely change your relationship to it.
Yes, it feels counterintuitive to try to increase the intensity of an emotion you’d like to get rid of. It certainly felt strange to me when I first tried it. But it works. More than that, it’s liberating. You will leave behind the battle with your emotions, instead putting yourself firmly in control.
This approach works not only with stress and anger, but with any emotion. In fact, it can work with issues beyond controlling your emotions to improve many aspects of your life – which we’ll be discussing in next week’s article.