Your heart is pounding. Your breath is short and shallow. You can feel a tightness in your neck, your shoulders, your entire body. Your mind races with worry about what might happen. The more you try to think through the problem, the more worked up you become. You feel like you’re suffocating and your world is crashing in.
When we’re in the middle of anxiety, it can be very difficult to see how to get out of it. Our thoughts, in that moment, feel like the absolute truth; and the speedy, physical sensations that go with it can be excruciating. However, when we commit seriously to our self-care on an ongoing basis, we have a much greater chance of reducing the frequency and intensity of our anxious symptoms. Following, is what I have learned from both my own personal journey with anxiety, as well as from my professional experience as a counsellor and psychotherapist.
How our nervous system responds to stress
To get a clearer understanding of what helps to reduce anxiety, lets first take a brief look at the physiology behind our experience.
Flight, Fight or Freeze vs Rest and Digest
Our bodies, like those of all animals, are designed to function in balance, or homeostasis. An ideal, healthy functioning individual, will experience stress at times, for a short period, before returning to a state of rest. As trauma expert Peter Levine describes, animals in the wild experience short term, high levels of stress whilst in danger. However, once the danger is over and the animal has released its nervous energy, it will continue with its day in an easy, relaxed manner. This fluctuation between heightened arousal and calm, is the work of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). It is the job of the ANS to regulate the body’s unconscious actions.
The Autonomic Nervous System is divided into the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system (including the vagus nerve). The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) prepares our body to fight or run, whenever we perceive a threat. It does this by sending more blood to our muscles and brain, and less blood to our digestive, growth and reproductive systems. To do this, our heart rate and blood pressure increase. Our adrenal and thyroid glands are activated, giving us energy to defend ourselves. We become tense and hyper-alert. We may experience these internal changes as a pounding heart, a dry mouth and faster, shallow breathing. Essentially, in a very short space of time, our body and mind speed up, ready for action. Alternatively, we ‘freeze’ in the face of perceived danger, which is the work of the vagus nerve.
Ideally, the threat we experience is short-lived. We then release the tension from our body and return to a state of rest. This is where the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) comes in. Its job, is to repair and heal our body, when we are in a state of rest. The parasympathetic nervous system is often referred to as “rest and digest”. When the PSNS is activated, our heart rate and blood pressure stabilise, our muscles relax and our breathing becomes slower and fuller. Our thoughts and feelings also become slower and calmer; and our digestive system returns to fully functioning. It is at this point that our body is able to put energy and resources into growth, repair and healing. Whereas the SNS is designed for our short term survival in a crisis situation, our PSNS is designed for our long term survival.
Our bodies don’t know the difference between a real, physical threat and our worried thoughts about what might happen. Therefore, if we are prone to excessively worrying, or if we often find ourselves in stressful situations, the physiological response that is triggered is the same one that potentially saves us in a life-threatening event. In the same manner, when our SNS prepares us for physical action and we don’t carry that out, all of that extra energy, tension and hormones released into our system has nowhere to go. This can then be cause for further agitation and stress. If we are often stressed, busy, rushed, annoyed, resentful, worried, constantly pushing ourselves beyond our limits, eating poorly, not exercising or not sleeping well, then our bodies will operate predominantly from the SNS.
When we experience chronic stress or anxiety, our whole being struggles with being in a constant – or near constant – state of arousal. Anxiety affects our psychological, physiological and behavioural reactions. We may feel a need to be on guard and prepared all the time. Our SNS is rarely switched off. When this is the case, it can be extremely difficult to relax. Even when we try, we are often initially so wound up that we can find it difficult to let go. It may feel very unfamiliar, or unsafe to let ourselves relax and slow down. Meanwhile, the PSNS is unable to satisfactorily accomplish its job of repairing, digesting and growing. In this state, we are often more easily stressed by ‘small’ things that may not have bothered us if we had been in a state of relaxation. We can very quickly go from being fine, to being triggered. In some people, this can look like anger, impatience or intolerance; what is behind it though, is anxiety.
Whereas the sympathetic nervous system is activated quickly, the parasympathetic nervous system is much slower to activate. We often have to work harder to get the PSNS going. Our body, mind and soul needs rest and relaxation to switch out of SNS mode and into PSNS mode. If sitting still is difficult for you, calm, mindful activity is best – such as walking in nature, or swimming.
What to do when you feel anxious
This brings us to the point of this article. How can we slow down our thoughts, feelings and nervous system so that we can feel calmer and less anxious? There are two important parts to this – strategies for immediate self-support, as well as life style choices to support ourselves long term.
Calming strategies for when you feel anxious NOW
Following are some simple strategies for calming our nervous system and focusing in the present moment when we feel overwhelmed by our anxious thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations.
- Breathe. Slow, deep, abdominal breathing.
This means breathing in slowly through your nose, for a count of four, until you have the sensation of having filled up both your belly and your chest. Then hold your breath for a count of three. Now sloooooowly breathe out through your nose, for a count of five or six. Again hold your breath, then slowly breathe in again. Repeat for as long as you like, but for at least three to five rounds.
- Five senses grounding.
Stop for a moment and notice your surroundings. Notice five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. Breathe.
- Get outside.
If you can, get some fresh air. Change your scenery, even if it’s just for a moment. Walk around the block if that’s an option. Whilst you’re out there, you could do one or both of the above exercises.
Gentle, relaxing exercise, such as yoga, stretching, walking, cycling, tai chi or swimming can help to both get us out of our head and into our body, as well as activating our PSNS.
For many people, running, or other vigorous exercise is an important part of their anxiety management; however, such heightened activity has the effect of making others feel worse. It is important that you do what feels right for you.
Have a hot shower or bath. While you’re in there, become aware of as many sensations as possible – the temperature of the water, the way it feels on your skin, how it looks, how it sounds. Become mindful of you’re here-and-now experience.
- What would a friend do?
Ask yourself, what you would do in this situation if you weren’t anxious?
What would a friend do right now?
What do you need right now to feel okay?
What action can you take right now, that would support you?
Listen to calming music, or to a mindfulness, relaxation or meditation recording.
- Have a cup of tea.
Whilst you’re making your tea, be aware (mindful) of what you are doing as you are doing it. Which cup do you choose? What does it look like? Notice the colours that seep out of the tea bag into the hot water. Is there any steam? Can you sit somewhere relaxing to drink your tea?
- Talk to someone you trust.
Is there anyone you feel safe talking to about what you are experiencing? Or anyone you know will make you laugh, or take your mind off your concerns long enough for you to get a different perspective?
- Write or draw.
Getting our thoughts and feelings out onto the paper can often make a big difference to our perspective. Being able to read our thoughts, or see our feelings in a drawing can make it easier to understand ourselves and our concerns.
- Get out of bed.
If it’s the middle of the night and you are awake due to anxiety, get up. Do something to shift your perspective – read a book, drink some milk, listen to a mindfulness app, or do some stretches. Then go back to bed with your shifted mindset.
- Talk to yourself.
You’re talking to yourself anyway right? So rather than listen to all that negative self-talk, tell yourself you will get through this. You’ve survived before and you will survive again. Remind yourself that what you are experiencing are just sensations, just thoughts. They may seem real and ‘the truth’ but that is anxiety talking. Maybe you could tell yourself something like, “I am feeling anxious right now. My heart is beating fast. I feel hot. My muscles are tense. This is what anxiety feels like. This is a short term feeling. I will feel differently soon.” Remember to breathe.
- Body scan.
A body scan involves sitting or lying in a comfortable position and slowing taking our awareness through our body, from our toes, right up to our head – body part by body part. As we do this, we take note of how each body part feels, without judgement. If we feel anxious and tense, we notice this, then move on to the next body part. Remember to breathe long, slow, deep breaths. Feel the weight of your body on the floor/chair. Breathe. By doing this, we are not trying to make ourselves be different, but rather, acknowledging ‘what is.’ Through this acknowledgement, we are grounding ourselves in the present moment, rather than staying with our anxious thoughts about what might happen.
Lifestyle choices for your long term well being
Incorporating activities into our daily lives that promote relaxation and wellbeing will give us a much greater chance of activating our PSNS. These activities have the ability to both give us pleasure in the moment, as well as having a positive accumulative effect on our stress levels and our ability to more readily calm ourselves down from any stress or anxiety we may experience in life.
- Water therapy.
Water has long been known to have calming, therapeutic benefits, and there are many ways to experience this form of relaxation. You could have a hot bath; visit a steam, sauna and spa lounge (many Australian public pools have this facility); swim laps at the pool; swim in the ocean or river; or float in a floatation tank.
Massage is a great way to relax and release tension from our muscles, promoting the activation of our PSNS.
- Classes and workshops.
Not for everyone, I know. But if you don’t mind being with groups of people, there are so many great PSNS-promoting activities out there. From yoga and tai chi classes, to various meditation courses and groups. I have been to some fantastic relaxation and hypnotherapy classes. There are also countless creative courses and workshops around, such as ceramics, wood work, weaving, screen printing and painting. Maybe you could take a friend?
I always think of retreats as being a little bit magic. Not always, but often they seem to have a spiritual aspect – a coming home to the self. I think one of the great things about retreats, is that they are a break from everyday life. It is time out to slow down, to stop, to regroup, to reconnect with ourselves, to get perspective, to recover, recuperate, rejuvenate and heal. Retreats are often the ultimate in terms of promoting the optimum conditions for our parasympathetic nervous system to do what it does best.
- Get into nature.
Walk in the bush, go to the beach or river, take a day trip out of town, go camping, or sit at the park or in your garden. Being exposed to greenery has been shown to reduce our heart rate. It also creates some time out from the busyness of life. It’s good for our soul.
Practice observing your thoughts, emotions, feelings and sensations with compassion and without judgement. Download some mindfulness apps. Read a mindfulness book. Check out some mindfulness websites for ideas.
What we put into our bodies can affect our anxiety levels – particularly if we’re prone to anxiety. Caffeine, sugary food and drinks, highly processed foods, excess alcohol and certain drugs can severely exacerbate anxiety levels. Lots of fresh and wholefoods are good for keeping us in balance.
- See a health professional.
Counselling or psychotherapy can be very helpful in giving us both insight into the origins of our distress, as well as strategies for coping when we do feel stressed or anxious. It can also be therapeutic to have a safe, non-judgemental space in which to get some stuff off our chests. In addition, some people find relief from the medical assistance of their GP.
- Daily breathing exercises and meditation.
Practicing breathing exercises and/or meditation on a daily basis, can have a profound effect on our state of mind and our wellbeing. This means that over time we become less prone to anxiety, and when we do become anxious, we have a familiar calming strategy to fall back on.
For some of us, creating daily, weekly or monthly rituals contribute to our level of peace and wellbeing. These could be as simple as: reading a novel in bed every night; having a candle-lit bath once per week; burning incense and listening to music; doing card readings; or practicing yoga and drinking herbal tea. It can be anything we want it to be.
- Get creative.
Being creative, in whatever way inspires us, can be healing. It brings us into the present moment. Expressing ourselves through music, dance, drawing, writing, sculpting, sewing, knitting or whatever it may be, often has the effect of getting us out of our head and into our heart.
If you feel inspired by any of the suggestions above, what do you need to do to support yourself to make them happen? How will you incorporate them into your life on a regular basis? The more we care for ourselves in these ways, the easier it becomes to continue doing so. The more we practice calm breathing techniques, and slowing our thoughts through mindfulness, relaxation or meditation on a daily basis, the easier it becomes to use these strategies in moments of anxiety. The more time we are able to spend in a state of calm, the less hold anxiety will have on us. I don’t pretend it is easy to minimise anxiety, particularly if it is severe, or long term. However, I do know that committing to our self-care in ways that deactivate our sympathetic nervous system and activate our parasympathetic nervous system can only contribute to our long term health, wellbeing and happiness.
For more support or information, or if you are concerned about your anxiety, please see a psychotherapist, psychologist, GP or other health professional. This article provides general information and cannot respond to the needs of specific individuals.
To make an appointment with Toni Jackson, please phone: 0439 995 302, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo credit: RuSt via Foter.com / CC BY-NC