You know the feeling when anxiety crashes over you? It’s like an intense wave: scary, overwhelming, and you feel powerless to stop it. The sad truth is when anxiety strikes, many of us don’t have the tools to manage it. However, there is a simple solution known as mental anchoring, which is scientifically-proven to reduce anxiety.
A popular technique among therapists, anchoring can be useful when it comes to easing anxiety and panic attacks. By developing a mental "anchor" you can reduce the fear and worry, bringing your emotions back into balance - just like an anchor on a boat.
You may not consciously realize it but you have been affected by anchors your entire life – formed through repetition and association. You may be familiar with Ivan Pavlov’s infamous experiment with dogs when he rang the bell (stimulus) at the same time he fed the dogs. As time passed, the dogs’ mouths would salivate simply by hearing the bell. They made the positive association between the bell ringing and mealtime.
In some cases, anchors are linked to negative feelings. For example, let’s imagine you dated a man who always wore the same cologne, and since your breakup whenever you smell that cologne on someone else, those hurtful feelings come rushing back to the surface. In this case, the cologne is a negative anchor.
The good news is you can make mental anchoring work for you rather than against you. With anchoring it’s all about associations, and making sure you create as many positive associations as possible.
How Mental Anchoring Works
Mental anchoring is a process in Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP). When you use an anchor you are “stabilizing a portion of primary experience and are then able to access that portion of primary experience at a later time.” The goal of anchoring is to shift portions of primary experience to situations when it will be useful, such as reducing anxiety.
Michael Carroll, founder and course director of the NLP Academy, explains the four-step process of setting up an anchor:
- Have the person fully access a state
- Provide a specific anchor (stimulus) as the state peaks
- Break state
- Fire anchor to test
Carroll outlines the “simple anchoring” process:
“The practitioner holds the anchor for as long as the state is peaking, often about 20-30 seconds, sometimes longer sometimes shorter depending on what the client is assessing and the practitioner’s ability to help the client build the state. After the anchor has been set, the practitioner tests the anchor by applying exactly the same touch on the same part of the client’s body. If the client naturally goes into state when the touch is applied, the anchor has been successfully set and now can be used to maneuver this portion of primary experience to a context of the client’s life where the state/resource could be successfully used.”
5 Types of Anchors
A visual anchor uses the sense of sight to anchor your desired state. Visual anchors can be internal or external. If you want to try an external anchor, it has to be visible at all times. So, if you’re a woman, you could look at a charm on your bracelet you wear every day.
Internal anchors are more common since they are essentially visualization. By having more positive visualizations, we can literally rewire our brain to generate more positive thoughts.
What is an image that relaxes you? Perhaps an image of a rowboat on a still lake? The sun setting on a beach?
With mental imagery, it’s important to be as specific as possible. You want this to feel real so your brain will experience those same powerful and positive emotions.
Sound can be used as another form of an anchor. Similar to visual anchors, sounds can be internal or external. A popular external auditory anchor is whistling. If you’re feeling anxious, whistling (when paired with the feeling of relaxation) can help you enter a more balanced state over time.
For an internal anchor, you can repeat a phrase in your mind. For instance, you could say, “I am calm and relaxed.” This is similar to positive affirmations. By continuing to repeat this phrase, you will naturally feel more at peace.
This anchor involves the sense of touch. The beauty of a kinesthetic anchor is there are many options, which explains why this is the most popular out of all five types.
Here are several examples:
- Making a first
- Pressing on the skin between your thumb and index finger (this is actually considered an acupuncture technique, proven to reduce headaches!)
“Valley of Harmony is found in the center of the web – or the ‘V’ – between your thumb and index finger on both hands,” says Dr. Mao Shing Ni. “Apply steady pressure with your opposite thumb until you feel a slight soreness, and hold for 2 minutes.
- If you’re sitting down, place both hands on your thighs. Slowly breathing in and out will help as you do this. As time passes, your body will associate this action with the positive emotional state.
As the most powerful sense, smell is an excellent mental anchoring technique. While the example with the cologne mentioned above was a negative association, there are many ways to create a positive association with smell.
Did you know Jordan Belfort, also known as the Wolf of Wall Street, uses an essential oil inhaler as his anchor? After closing a deal, he takes a whiff of his inhaler to stay in his peak confident emotional state. And before meeting with a big client or stepping into an important business meeting, he uses his anchor for a confidence boost.
“Successful people are 100% convinced that they are masters of their own destiny, they’re not creatures of circumstance, they create circumstance, if the circumstances around them suck they change them,” Belfort writes in his book, Way of the Wolf: Straight Line Selling: Master the Art of Persuasion, Influence, and Success.
This anchor uses taste to bring you into a healthy mental state. For this mental anchoring technique to work, you should use an anchor that is readily available. A mint or flavored gum is a popular choice.
Your Step-by-Step Guide to Mental Anchoring
- Decide how you want to feel. To reduce anxiety, for example, you may want to feel calm and relaxed.
- Think back to a moment when you felt extremely calm and relaxed, a moment when you were completely at peace and connected to the present moment.
- Think of an anchor that involves one of your senses. Let’s say you choose smell. In this case, your anchor device can be an essential oil inhaler.
- Now, immerse yourself in the memory. What did you see? What did you hear? What were you feeling? The goal is to relive the memory until you start to experience the same feelings of calmness and relaxation.
Now, here’s where the mental anchoring comes in. As soon as you’ve reached your peak relaxation state, take your inhaler and breathe in slowly and deeply. This anchors you into the positive feeling.
- To test the anchor’s effectiveness, use the inhaler without diving into the calm memory and see if you can still experience a relaxing state. Keep in mind this could take several times before you start to see results. Repetition is essential to the anchoring process.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat. The anchor should be fired in exactly the same way each time you link it to the calming and relaxing experience. Over time, it will become ingrained in your mind.
- Anchor at the emotional peak of your experience (when you are feeling most at peace)
- Most importantly, be patient. Any time you are tempted to react in the same way, remind yourself that mental anchoring is a process and you may not see results right away.
If you’re looking to relax , mental anchoring can help you break the negative associations holding you back and help you reach a more peaceful state of mind naturally. Remember, you have the power to change your mind, and in doing so, you will change your life.
In the wise words of Dr. Joe Dispenza, “Every time we have a thought we make a chemical. If we have good, elevated thoughts or happy thoughts we make chemicals that make us feel good or happy. And if we have negative thoughts or bad thoughts or insecure thoughts we make chemicals that make us feel exactly the way we are thinking. So, every chemical that is released in the brain is literally a message that feeds the physical body. Now the body begins to feel the way we are thinking.”