Overcome Anxiety: A Self Help Toolkit for Anxiety Relief and Panic Attacks

By Dr Matt Lewis

Psychology & philosophy, Personal growth, Health & well-being

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On a warm afternoon towards the end of Spring in 2014, I was sitting in my university office when there was a knock on my door. I looked through the glass to see a student I recognised from one of my health psychology classes. I smiled, gestured for her to come in and swivelled my chair around to meet her gaze, but I couldn’t, because her eyes were firmly fixed on the floor.

Without looking up, she reached out her hand and gave me an envelope that was addressed to me. I tore it open and pulled out a four page handwritten letter. It started, ‘Dear Matt, I feel unable to speak about how I feel at the moment, so I thought it would be best to put my words into writing and explain it that way...”

The letter went on to describe, in great detail, how anxiety had crippled her life and left her feeling unable to function. She had fallen behind in her academic work, withdrawn from all social activities, wasn’t able to sleep more than a few hours each night, and could see no way out. She cried as I read her words and I barely managed to hold back my own tears.

She wasn’t the first student to open up to me about her anxiety and she wouldn’t be the last. As my academic career developed, I found more and more of my time was being taken up by students seeking me out to talk about their personal anxiety and ask for advice and guidance. I always tried to be open and warm towards students, and I think they often found it easier to talk to someone in my position – someone accessible who taught them about mental health – rather than their parents, friends, university counsellors, or medical professionals. I occupied the middle ground between the ‘too personal’ and the ‘too official’.

Having suffered from severe anxiety myself, I was able to be empathetic and understood many of their fears and struggles. I could also provide them with the powerful hope that it’s possible to change your relationship with anxiety and manage it in a way that not just helps you get by in life, but enables you to thrive, while still living by your core values and being true to yourself. I was able to explain how someone like me, who was scared of speaking on the phone and terrified of social gatherings, was now able to regularly lecture in front of more than 200 students.

I would listen to them carefully, discuss strategies that could help put their coursework back on track, and then suggest they seek help from the university support services or their General Practitioner. Like all people, students found it difficult to find help for their anxiety; often limited to ten minute appointments with their local GP and faced with waiting lists of six months or longer to see a psychologist or psychotherapist. University counsellors helped in the cases that they could, but often also had to refer cases to the local health service.

Over the years, as the trickle of students turned into a steady flow, I started working on a guide to help with everyday anxiety that students could take away with them after their appointments. The guide was designed to be preventative – to stop early symptoms developing into clinical problems – but also to go beyond that; to build confidence, and help them become unstuck and move forward with all the things they needed to do in order to pass the course and get on with their lives.

Eventually, students who didn’t suffer from anxiety, but had heard the exercises were helpful in building more confident and positive lives, started to approach me and ask to have access to the guide. The guide developed into an online course and then into this book.

Although initially developed to help the students I taught, the approach used in the book isn’t age or student specific. It includes background information on how anxiety can develop in people of all ages, alongside preventative and interventional exercises derived from a breadth of research on managing anxiety and building confidence.

The approach uses evidenced-based exercises from the areas of mindfulness, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and positive psychology. Anxiety can make us feel paralysed, and sometimes the smallest and quickest of tasks can seem insurmountable, so the information has been reduced into small chunks, using brief chapters that can be digested easily and quickly. With a workbook format, it can be used as a toolkit for anxiety relief and provides practical help for calming and reducing panic attacks.

The book starts with some background information explaining why and how anxiety develops and then highlights the evidence the book’s main principles are built on. Although it may be tempting to skip these parts, understanding your anxiety and being convinced by evidence that the exercises really do work should help to bring change to your life more quickly, while also increasing your motivation to apply the practices. The theory section is concise and won’t take long to read. However, you can start at the practical exercises if you really want to get started right away.

There are three main steps in this revolutionary approach and I’ve seen it change people’s lives time and time again. You’re going to learn how to:

1. Calm the mind

2. Deal with anxious thoughts and feelings

3. Take action

So the method goes beyond managing anxiety, it will also help you to become unstuck, build confidence and start REALLY living. Using the latest scientific and academic research, you will be able to:

  • Understand how and why anxiety develops.
  • Develop a mindset that will allow you to see anxiety in a completely different way.
  • Create the foundation for a calm and peaceful mind.
  • Learn to effectively handle anxious thoughts and feelings as they arise.
  • Tame the voice in your head and reduce anxiety without losing your edge.
  • Become unstuck and able to take action in situations that you would normally avoid, withdraw, or distract yourself from.
  • Begin to take steps to create a fulfilling and meaningful life.

The book contains:

  • Step-by-step practical exercises.
  • Access to audio exercises and online resources.
  • An end of book project to help apply all of the learned skills.

This book will be helpful for those who struggle with:

  • Anxiety
  • Anxiety Disorder
  • Generalized Anxiety
  • Social Anxiety
  • Panic Attacks
  • Panic Disorder
  • Agoraphobia
  • Health Anxiety
  • Hypochondria

How to Use This Book

This book was written to be read easily and quickly, with the intention that you begin to understand your anxiety and start applying the practical exercises as quickly as possible. So I recommend you read the book in its entirety to begin with, practising the exercises along the way. This should give you a feel of what works best for you. It is worth keeping in mind that it may take time for some of the practices to reveal their full potential, this is why they are called practices. While you will see some immediate positive changes after many of the exercises, others will take a little more time before they reveal their true power.

Many of the exercises don’t require huge changes; they are small nudges that will subtly push you in a more peaceful and confident direction, making a positive long-term impact over your life. While you may think it would be best to make huge changes very quickly, you’ll find that change is more successful when done at a calm and steady pace. Think tortoise not hare. This book is real, practical, and very effective. Methods that promise instant and magical transformations lose their impact when we have to leave our comfort zone and the fairy dust blows away. The benefits of doing the exercises will steadily build over time. Soon you will start to find your relationship with anxiety changing for the better, along with a growing sense of peace, and the courage to tackle issues and pursue goals that fit your values, helping you to become unstuck and move forward.


In his 2015 book ‘Black Box Thinking’, the British journalist, Matthew Syed, described how Unilever solved a problem with the nozzles they used to make their many brands of washing powder.8 To produce the washing powder, they forced chemicals through the nozzles at high pressure, collecting the powder the process produced. However, they had an on-going struggle with the nozzles; they were inefficient and kept clogging up, costing them time and money, and reducing the quality of their product. To solve the problem they turned to their team of mathematicians; experts in physics, high pressure systems, and fluid dynamics. The experts spent a great deal of time studying the problem, developing theories and producing sophisticated equations. However, when their theories were put into practice they didn’t work, the nozzles were still clogging.

Unexpectedly, it was Unilever’s biologists, using an evolution-inspired, practical, hands on process, that solved the issue. They made small incremental changes to the nozzles and then tested them to see what worked and what didn’t work. When they saw improvements they changed the nozzles further and again assessed what worked and what didn’t work. They repeated this process until they produced an excellent design that worked flawlessly. They rejected many nozzles that failed on the way, but they saw each failure as a necessary part of the process to getting things right. They embraced the failures because they told them what they needed to do differently. Failing was a necessary part of the process. So they solved the problem not by developing a beautiful theoretical master plan, but by interaction with the real world – their approach mirrored how change happens in nature.

I want you to take the same approach on the journey you will take in this book – test out the exercises for yourself and see what works best for you. When something does work, consider if you can modify it so it fits in with your values and lifestyle in a way that makes it even more effective. Don’t be afraid of testing different approaches out, and don’t worry, if after giving it some time, an exercise doesn’t work well for you. Just see it as part of the process of finding out what does work.

The book is divided into six main parts:

The Road to Anxiety

In this part we will look at how and why anxiety develops, what it feels like, when it can be useful, and when it becomes a problem. We’ll also look at the two different pathways to anxiety and consider why some popular anxiety treatments are destined to fail as they only consider one of these pathways.

Step 1: Calming the Mind

This will be the start of the practical journey. It’s about considering and understanding who you are, assessing how balanced your life is, and preparing you to make changes. We’ll also introduce exercises that will create a solid foundation by calming the mind and preparing you for the mindfulness skills that will be introduced in the next section.

Step 2: Dealing with Anxious Thoughts and Feelings

Having created a foundation, we will now look at strategies that will help you to change your relationship with anxiety and allow you to manage uncomfortable thoughts and feelings as they arise. You’ll also learn how to deal with anxiety caused by unhelpful thinking and how to handle the uncomfortable feelings we experience in stressful and challenging situations. By understanding how your thoughts and feelings work, you’ll be able to create a calmer, clearer mind.

Step 3: Taking Action

Anxiety often leaves us feeling stuck and unable to take action. As a result, we often don’t do the things we would like to do, and avoid taking action on many of the things we need to do, often making difficult situations even worse. In this part you’ll learn how to take action when feeling anxious and discover how to build confidence in four straight-forward steps. This part finishes with a project that practically applies all of the principles and techniques you’ve learned so far. Life begins at the end of your comfort zone and we’re going to start leaving it here.

Emergency Exercises: Managing Fight, Flight, or Freeze

This part contains some short and simple exercises that are focused on reducing the extreme symptoms of anxiety. It includes exercises that can be practised when feeling particularly anxious, stressed, or on the edge of ‘losing it’. We will also outline what can be done to reduce the effects of panic attacks and how to eliminate future episodes.

Moving Forward

Now you know how to deal with your anxious thoughts and feelings, and have started to take action, it’s time to think about how to weave these practices into your everyday life in a way that becomes sustainable over the long-term. In this part we will also summarise the key points in the book and look at how you can create a life that’s meaningful and fulfilling.



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