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Counting: A Simple, Powerful Technique To Manage Anger, Anxiety, Stress and Lust

An angry, anxious, stressed, and insomniac man.
The face of a guy who needs to start counting ASAP.

The pitfalls of unresolved anger, chronic anxiety, and insatiable lust are legion. When I look back on my life, many of my worst moments took place in the heat of one of these emotions. Maybe you can relate. They say we can learn a great deal from emotions, but we don’t want to be ruled by them.

Oftentimes, the fastest way to gain control of our emotions isn’t to confront them head-on but to gently direct our attention to something else. Chalk another one up to motion creates emotion, or the power of distraction. People commonly exercise to change their emotional states, practice hobbies, call friends, meditate, or go to sleep—simply anything to get the mind off the pain. That said, counting has recently become one of my personal favorite activities in this vein. Below I unpack a simple, practical technique favored by children and Navy Seals alike that can instill calm and control in the presence of strong emotions.

Counting consists–you got it–of reciting numbers within a chosen interval. For example, you might count from 1 to 10, 20, 30, 90, or 1,000. You might count backwards. You might count in increments of 3, 6, or 7. The key with counting isn’t the direction or number of the count but simply that we engage with the discipline (in other words, “Just do it!”). I prefer to count out loud whenever possible, but counting may be done in silence.

Counting can be integrated in a variety of contexts For example, athletes make a habit of counting while stretching or lifting weights. While counting may serve the functional purpose of tracking progress in an activity, it has numerous psychological benefits.

1. Counting For Anxiety and Stress Relief

Many meditation and breathwork practices consist of counting. Counting is a feature, not the bug or necessary inconvenience that many people mistake it for.

“Box breathing,” for example, reportedly a mainstay of Navy Seal training, entails breathing in for a count of 4, pausing for a count of 4, breathing out for a count of 4, and then pausing for a count of 4. Another popular breathing technique, 4-7-8, involves breathing in for a count of 4, pausing for a count of 7, and then breathing out for a count of 8. There are numerous variations. Counting, when coupled with slow conscious breathing, works to promote inner calm and relieve stress.

Counting Sheep To Relieve Insomnia (Sleep Aid)

If you grew up in an English-speaking country, you may have been told growing up to try “counting sheep” if you had a hard time going to sleep. Per Wikipedia, “Counting sheep is a mental exercise used in some Western cultures as a means of putting oneself to sleep. . . In most depictions of the activity, the practitioner envisions an endless series of identical white sheep jumping over a fence, while counting them as they do so. The idea, presumably, is to induce boredom while occupying the mind with something simple, repetitive, and rhythmic, all of which are known to help humans sleep.”

I would replace “boredom” with “relaxation” or “calm,” but you get the idea. As a child, I never found the concept of “counting sheep” persuasive because I didn’t understand the mechanism behind its action. However, as an adult, counting does for me that which it couldn’t do for me as a child—namely, help me fall asleep and stay asleep. By all accounts, the traditional folk remedy for insomnia is here to stay.

An illustration of “counting sheep,” a technique used to calm the mind and induce drowsiness.

2. Counting For Anger Management

In high school, I had a history teacher who used to dramatically count out loud whenever he felt angry or stressed. I thought it was strange then, and probably would think the same today if I saw someone doing it in public. However, what my teacher learned in therapy is a technique widely hailed by anger management specialists.

When angry, count to 10 before you speak. If very angry, a hundred.

Thomas Jefferson

Specifically, you may have heard of the “90-second rule.” According to Dr. Jill Bolte, a Harvard-educated neuroscientist, “Although there are certain limbic (emotional) programs that can be triggered automatically, it takes less than 90 seconds for one of these programs to be triggered, surge through our body and then be completely flushed out of our bloodstream” (90-second rule anger management technique).” While my teacher never counted anywhere near that long, 90 seconds is a standard increment used by people to manage anger.

In sum, experts say that emotions cycle through our body in 90 seconds when we don’t consciously choose to entertain them. By slowing down–and counting–we give our unconscious reaction (the anger) time to cycle through. Counting works by supplying a neutral, alternative activity to set our attention on while we let time pass.

Note: I like to count at the speed of time, with each successive number corresponding to a second. I find this speed fast enough to occupy my attention and slow enough that I’m not counting neurotically or repressing my emotions. The goal isn’t to run from emotions but to reprocess them in light of the calming stimuli that counting provides.

3. Counting For Emotional Healing From Trauma And PTSD

While counting for anger management and anxiety/stress relief is most common, counting’s application in the field of psychotherapy is of great interest. The “counting method” (Ochberg’s counting method), and its offshoot, “progressive counting therapy,” involve a therapist counting out loud (from 1 to 100 in the former case, and 1 to a smaller number in the latter) while a PTSD sufferer visualizes their traumatic memories.

The counting method is a kind of “dual focus therapy.” Dual focus therapies entail focusing on a neutral activity or stimuli while conjuring up troubling memories. The two most popular, evidence-based “dual focus therapies” are EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) and tapping (emotional freedom technique), but countless others can induce a similar effect.

How do dual focus therapies work?

The editor for the Trauma Institute and Child Trauma Institute favors the “mindfulness account” as an explanation for the efficacy of dual focus therapies.

I propose what I call the mindfulness account. Even if a therapy client working through a trauma memory does not become overwhelmed, it may take a lot of effort to avoid that, and that effort can slow the work down. However, by concentrating on something else (e.g., the therapist’s moving fingers in EMDR, or the therapist’s counting aloud in PC) at the same time as the trauma memory, the client is no longer only inside the memory, but also outside it concentrating on the distractor. This enables the client to be an observer of the self and of the memory while also engaging with the memory. This mindfulness effect frees the client from getting overwhelmed or bogged down, facilitating the mind’s ability to proceed with the desensitization, emotional working through, insight-making, or whatever is needed to heal from the memory.

Source: Dual Focus Therapies and Trauma Therapy

Trauma specialist Brian Powell said, “If we keep experiencing an old thing in a new context, it gets reoriented to the new context.” In other words, dual focus therapies work by calmly anchoring individuals in the present (new context), where past memories become reoriented. While the focus of this heading is on trauma, dual focus therapies can be used for daily stress management.

4. Counting For Impulse Control (Lust)

Finally, the focus of this guide is sexual integrity. In the same vein as anger, anxiety, and trauma, sexual desire is a powerful emotion. Where a healthy, wholesome outlet is present, it can be expressed. In any other context, it must be controlled. This guide is full of insights to control sexual urges and avoid unnecessary temptations.

In the heat of the moment, it pays to direct our attention elsewhere. For immediate relief, we may begin to count. As I mentioned above, counting facilitates self-control by anchoring us in the present, hence creating distance between ourselves and powerful emotions/impulses that might otherwise monopolize our attention. Extra credit if we combine counting with a physical activity like stretching.   

In sum, counting is a time-tested, traditional, and evidence-based technique to achieve emotional control. It is a tool to be added to the toolbox of people with an interest in sexual integrity.

For more, see Managing Emotional Triggers In The Porn Reboot/Recovery Process (Stress, Loneliness, And Boredom) | Stretching: An Unsung Remedy For Blue Balls

An intellectually curious millennial passionate about seeing people make healthy, informed choices about the moral direction of their lives. When I’m not reading or writing, I enjoy hiking, web-making, learning foreign languages, and watching live sports. Alumnus of Georgetown University (B.S.) and The Ohio State University (M.A.).

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