In my last post, Coping with Stress and Anxiety, I discussed that the anxiety symptoms you are experiencing are largely driven by your body’s automatic responses to perceived dangers in your environment. This means that your brain is constantly scanning your world for signs of danger, and will pick up on little clues such as a facial expression, a smell, a room, that unconsciously trigger your body’s alarm systems. The alarm throws your body into “fight, flight, freeze” and your sympathetic nervous systems engages and triggers a cascade of changes in your body. These changes appear on the outside as the same symptoms we commonly associate with anxiety: shortness of breath, increased heart rate, sweaty palms, shaking limbs, feelings of panic, tunnel vision, stomachaches, headaches, and more1.
Why the body first?
I left you with just a word of hope last time, that there are things you can do to respond effectively to your anxiety, starting with your body. We must start with calming the body first when anxiety strikes, because the sympathetic nervous system activation (or your “fight, flight, freeze” response) is also accompanied by a release of hormones: cortisol and adrenaline2. Cortisol and adrenaline change the way the brain is functioning under stress, temporarily shutting down the hippocampus, for instance, that part of the brain that regulates emotions and codes memories. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is also affected dramatically. The PFC is responsible for our most advanced or “highest-order” cognitive abilities: problem-solving, delayed gratification, future-oriented thinking, and planning, integrating messages/signals from different parts of the brain and creating a cohesive plan of action. However, “it is also the brain region that is most sensitive to the detrimental effects of stress exposure. Even quite mild acute uncontrollable stress can cause a rapid and dramatic loss of prefrontal cognitive abilities, and more prolonged stress exposure causes architectural changes in prefrontal dendrites.”3 This means that when you’re anxious, panicking, and in full-blown “fight, flight, freeze” mode, you lose the parts of your brain you NEED to think through the problem(s) at hand and make any sort of cohesive or beneficial decision about it! Scary.
So, to regain those necessary brain functions and get your mind fully on board to conquer the world in front of you: start with calming your body.
Take a deep breath
It sounds cliché but bear with me. Your body and brain are a feedback loop. Your brain senses danger signals your body to ramp up. Your heart beats faster and your breathing increases, a linked system to increase the amount of oxygen in your blood. BUT, you can reverse this system! The one thing you DO have conscious control over in this automatic process is your breathing rate: how quickly and deeply you are taking in air.
Therefore, if you can consciously slow down your breathing, taking air in slowly, pausing, letting air out slowly, pausing, and repeat, you will over the course of just a few minutes slow down your heart rate.4 A slow heart rate signals your body to switch from sympathetic to parasympathetic nervous system mode (the other side of your nervous-system coin warmly called: “rest and digest”) and starts to reverse that cascade of anxiety systems, while at the same time signaling your brain: “I’m calm. I’m ok.”
My favorite, easy-to-remember breathing exercise is called “Square Breathing.” Do this with me: imagine a square shape floating in the air about a foot from your face. Take your pointer finger and touch the bottom right-hand corner. Starting at the bottom right corner, trace a straight line up while taking a slow, deep breath in. Once you reach the top right corner of your square, pause, and hold your breath while you trace the top side of the box toward the top left corner. Once you reach the top left corner, pause, and begin tracing the side of the box down towards the bottom left corner while letting out the breath slowly. Once you reach the bottom left corner of your box, pause, and hold your breath while tracing the bottom side of the box back to the right bottom corner where you started. You have just drawn one box in the air in the front of you with your finger, guiding you along the course of one breath. Repeat this 5-10 times, or until you notice your heart rate slowing down and your breathing slowing down to match your square naturally.
The beauty of square breathing is you can practice it anywhere (as long as you’ve got your finger with you), and it provides a visual for your brain to focus on, diverting your thinking for a few moments from your anxious thoughts. You can also just imagine the square while breathing, or draw the square on a paper in front of you while breathing if you’re worried about looking weird because you’re waving your arms in the air in the middle of class or an important work meeting.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Another great way to calm down your body, especially when you notice you’re more chronically anxious or stressed (for hours of the day, almost every day), is to practice progressive muscle relaxation. I have included a link to a handout with detailed instructions5 and you can also simply search online for ‘free mp3 download progressive muscle relaxation’ and click through the options to find a narrator with a pleasant voice and a download that is supported on your particular device. The general principle is that you are taking 5-25 minutes to sit or lay down and walk yourself through your whole body, from your head to your toes, gently tensing and relaxing each major muscle group. In conjunction with slow, steady breathing, this type of exercise can help release tension, shakiness and even pain from muscles, joints, and limbs caught in the hold of those cortisol and adrenaline hormones all day. It also provides your body another opportunity to send a signal back to your brain that you are calm, cool and at rest, and don’t need to be in sympathetic or “fight, flight, freeze” mode any longer, at least for right now.
Many professionals recommend doing breathing and muscle relaxation exercises at least once daily, and more often as needed, especially as you’re just beginning to develop your own practice of teaching your body how to be calm and relaxed. If it’s hard for you to just sit or lay there and breathe for any length of time, you’re not alone! We are constantly externally stimulated in our modern world and have little to no practice just ‘being.’ So have lots of grace and patience for yourself as you learn to breathe and calm your body, and set yourself small, achievable goals. Start out with setting a timer for 1 minute and see if you can sit still and breathe or relax your muscles for just that 1 minute. After a few days, increase as you feel ready. Ideally, most people see therapeutic effects practicing a total of 5 to 30 minutes a day.
Calm body, calm mind
I already mentioned that while you’re calming your body and slowing your breathing, you are already sending important signals back to your brain to stop the “fight, flight, freeze” response and accompanying anxiety symptoms. But for most of us, there are also anxious, worrying, unhelpful thoughts that flood our brains and keep us from remaining in that calm, relaxed, parasympathetic nervous system mode for very long. That is where my 3-step process for tackling anxiety in an effective manner comes in:
3-Step Process for Tackling Anxiety
Calm your body
- Use breathing and muscle relaxation exercises
Calm your mind
- Addressing the worrying, ‘what if?’ thoughts and grounding yourself to reality and truth
- Use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness techniques
- Get yourself actively engaged in another activity
- Use any number of 99-coping skills
We have fully addressed number one on this list, so stay tuned for the next blog post in this current installment on anxiety to learn how to calm your mind with practical CBT and mindfulness tools and handouts, as well as resources on coping skills.
In the meantime, practice your square breathing daily and find a progressive muscle relaxation6 you enjoy and give it a try. Download the free handouts in the references section for further reading or visual reminders of what you’ve learned today!
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV)