Your mind is a connection making device. We learn via association and context. That’s how things stick.
In particular, we are very good at creating connections between emotional states and sensory information. Things we see, hear, smell, touch and taste can stimulate a quite profound unravelling of remembered information.
For me, sparklers evoke an instant childish excitement (and a bit of hedgehog concern). Song 2 by Blur transports me back to a school trip to Germany where I first heard the song and fell hopelessly, hopelessly in love with Damon Albarn.
And certain food smells evoke the stress of a particularly demanding waiting job I had in my 20's. To this day, if I smell white truffles I’m struck by a subtle wave of paranoia: “Shit! Did I remember the bread for table 14?”
Anything that lives is capable of learning an automatic response to a specific stimulus. This is what Pavlov discovered with his dogs. Serve them their dinner to the sound of a ringing bell and before long they’ll salivate at the slightest tinkle.
Many “non-smokers” find they always want a cigarette when they have a drink. That’s a conditioned response rather than a physical addiction to nicotine.
This all means that we can be conditioned to respond to anything automatically if the association is repeated enough times.
Consider adverts traditionally aimed at men, like this fabulous specimen.
These days, advertisers aren’t quite as blatant as they used to be, but if their target audience is male, there’ll usually be a beautiful women featured in some way.
Why? Because hot chicks make most men feel good. If repeated enough, this association causes them to feel that same good feeling the next time they see the car. The conscious mind doesn’t know why it’s getting a hit of pleasure hormones so it goes looking for the most plausible reason… must be the car, right? I need that car.
In an even more sinister way, pretty women can also be used to sell feminine beauty products. This kind of advertising is designed to trigger a sense of inadequacy which gets attached to the product. Once triggered, we start looking around for ways to improve ourselves… Thank God for that Clinique stand that just happens to be right there! Goodbye money.
Creating your own anchors
But rather than just getting duped by it, we could all decide to use this function of the mind to create triggers for the intentional recall of positive emotional states. It’s called “anchoring” (or “classical conditioning”) and it involves linking sensory stimuli to something like confidence, strength or calm (or anything else you might want more of).
Both positive and negative emotions can get connected to things we sense. A fear of public speaking is nothing more than a negative anchor. It could be that the feeling of anxiety has been anchored to the sight of an expectant audience, or perhaps the ominous murmur of a crowd. For everyone it’ll be different. For someone suffering with this problem, successfully installing a positive connection within the same context could be a simple solution (or at least the beginning of one).
Designing your anchor
It couldn’t be simpler really. You need three things to create an anchor:
1) A sensory trigger
2) A desired emotional state (felt strongly)
1. Choosing your trigger
You might choose to create a visual trigger, which would be something you can see (or imagine seeing). Or, you might prefer an auditory trigger, which you could hear (or imagine hearing). A kinaesthetic trigger would be something you could feel. Olfactory; something you could smell. Gustatory; something you could taste.
Different situations would call for different triggers.
[N.B. We’re all individual in the way that we think, so you may have a particular propensity for one or more of the senses. To discover your preferred sense, and to understand more about the different personality types associated with this, see: Are You A Looker, A Listener, A Talker Or A Toucher?]
Colour is a useful visual trigger, but anything else you can see will do. The trigger can be either imagined, like a particular visualisation. Or it could be real/external like a mascot or something you know will be in the environment you plan to use the anchor within.
For an auditory trigger consider an affirmation or piece of music (either remembered or external).
For a kinaesthetic trigger try pinching your thumb and forefinger together or tugging your earlobe (it’s best that it’s not a sensation you will encounter too often outside of firing your anchor). Alternatively, use a particular posture or any movement with a part of your body.
Think: scented oils or particular perfumes.
This is the least used for obvious reasons, but you could choose to anchor an emotion to the taste of something like chewing gum of you felt this would be useful.
With any type of trigger, it must be the same every time you use it.
2. Accessing the desired emotion
What times or places cause you to feel the way you’d like to be able to feel when you fire the anchor? Be it calm, confidence, excitement (or whatever), there will be some time in your life when you have felt that way.
It doesn’t need to be related to the environment you’re targeting for the anchor. Someone’s confidence in playing football could be used within the context of public speaking. Just closing your eyes and remembering that time will cause you to (re)enter that emotional state.
To maximise it, do whatever feels best. Imagine stepping into your body in that moment and see the things that contributed to that positive state. Hear the sounds, and feel the feeling in your body… Remember all the best bits and relive it to the greatest possible degree.
Then, as you feel the emotion reaching it’s strongest state, fire your trigger.
The more you repeat this combination of trigger and affect, the stronger the association will become. It’s good practice to set an alarm on your phone to repeat and consolidate the association at least once a day for a couple of weeks in the beginning.
How to use your anchor
Example: if someone feels uncomfortable presenting to an audience, then anchoring a state of confidence to the sound of applause, or the feeling of a microphone in their hand could work well to counter the old fear. Then, when they go to perform, there’ll be a positive association waiting there on the stage.
The point would be to help them interrupt the old pattern of anxiety, which would usually go something like this: see something associated with anxiety, feel anxious, act anxious, feel even more anxious, act even more anxious… and so on. With the new anchor installed, the mind gets derailed at some stage in the process and a different outcome can be achieved. For example: see something normally associated with anxiety, expect to feel anxious, notice a sense of confidence instead, enter a state of curiosity for a moment, forget the old process and carry on with what they were doing.
Common examples of positive anchors
Studying for exams: People often find that their mind goes blank in an exam, even when they know the information well. This is partly to do with the anxiety response: the rational thinking part of the brain shuts down when we go into a state of fear. But it’s also because they are in different emotional states in the exam room and in their study.
Anchoring your revision state can help to bridge the gap. It can make the information more readily available when you need it.
Scent anchors can be great in this situation (they work well regardless of your sense preferences). To create one of these try keeping a bowl of scented oil on your desk while you revise. Then, for the exam put some on a hankie and have a whiff when you sit down (or whenever you start to feel anxious).
Sports: As a sportsperson, you could choose to wear a sweatband with a scented oil dropped onto it for all your training sessions and competitions. Then, if you smell it during the moments when you are feeling your best or when you’ve just won a race/contest/game, you’ll be anchoring your own feelings of success.
You could do a similar thing by visualising of the colour of strength or speed (or whatever you need). It doesn’t matter what you pick, just that it’s the same each time.
Or, you could anchor a state of confidence to a particular song and then listen to it during your warm up at a competition.
Collective anchors: Anchors needn’t be limited to individual use. If you have a team for sport or work, then a group high five or fist bump type thing could work as an anchor for your team’s successful state. The same goes for a chant (or a dance like the Haka used by the All Blacks rugby team. Powerful stuff). An anchor like this can be used as an excellent way to strengthen camaraderie and regroup (literally) after a poor bit of play.
Use it or lose it
Anchors can wear off over time unless you make a point of practicing them. So rather than being a quick fix, this technique is about lifestyle and habit.
More importantly, if you do choose to integrate an anchor or two into your life, the most magical outcome could be an understanding that you actually have some control over the way you feel. I’m not saying we can anchor away all our sadness and anxiety, but a little sense of agency can go a long way towards proving that we’re not simply at the mercy of our emotions.
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For an exploration of the psychology of self-sabotage (and how to take control), take a look at my book, Fight: Lessons From Battles Won & Lost (Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton). Available on Amazon now.