When you’re anxious your body reacts in ways that make you feel unsafe and vulnerable. The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) says that over 40 million people in the US, over the age of 18 suffer from some anxiety-related disorder, and those are just the people who have been diagnosed, or whose symptoms fit into a pre-described condition. Millions more go undiagnosed.
Are you feeling a little anxious today? Is your breath shallow and rapid? Is your heart is beating rapidly, has your vision has become blurred, and maybe your stomach feels achy and you’re a little nauseous? When you are anxious, your brain responds in some predictable ways. These are all normal responses to the stress you feel or perceive.
Here is your brain when you are anxious. Several parts of the brain are key actors in the production of fear and anxiety. Using brain imaging technology and neurochemical techniques, scientists have discovered that the amygdala and the hippocampus play significant roles in most anxiety disorders.
The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain that is believed to be a communications hub between the parts of the brain that process incoming sensory signals and the parts that interpret these signals. It can alert the rest of the brain that a threat is present and trigger a fear or anxiety response. The emotional memories stored in the central part of the amygdala may play a role in anxiety disorders involving very distinct fears, such as fears of dogs, spiders, or flying.
The hippocampus is the part of the brain that encodes threatening events into memories. Studies have shown that the hippocampus appears to be smaller in some people who were victims of child abuse or who served in military combat. Research will determine what causes this reduction in size and what role it plays in the flashbacks, deficits in explicit memory, and fragmented memories of the traumatic event that are common in PTSD.
The feeling of anxiety is part of your body’s stress response. Your fight or flight response is triggered, and your system is flooded with norephinephrine and cortisol. Both are designed to give you a boost to perception, reflexes, and speed in dangerous situations. They increase your heart rate, get more blood to your muscles, get more air into your lungs, and in general get you ready to deal with whatever threat is present. Your body turns its full attention to survival. Ideally, it all shuts down when the threat passes and your body goes back to normal.
What You Can Do When You Are Anxious
The good news is you have some choices to make to manage anxiety. Here are some simple, effective strategies you can use to reduce your anxiety and return to your day.
Hands on Your Heart and Belly
Sit in a comfortable position with both feet flat on the floor. Let your shoulders drop and roll them back so that you are sitting up as straight as possible and your chest is open. Now let the chair hold you up and relax your thigh muscles. Relax your buttocks muscles too. Place one hand on your chest over your heart. Place the other hand on your abdomen just under your belly button. Allow your hands to relax and gently feel the warmth of them on your body. Become still enough to feel your heart beat under the hand that is on your chest.
Close your eyes and allow your breathing to become slower and deeper. Breathe into your hands and feel them rise and fall with each breath. As your breath becomes slower, imagine that you can inhale all the way down to the tops of your hip bones. Practice this for 5 or more breaths.
If your mind starts to wander, you can simply focus on the inhalation and exhalation of each breath. You can even say to yourself “inhale” and “exhale” with each breath. Alternatively, you can pick two words to repeat to yourself that are appealing. I sometimes use “peace” and “love”, saying one to myself on the inhalation and one on the exhalation. Be creative and use what is appealing and calming to you. Finally, set the timer for 5 or more minutes on your phone so you can give yourself the space to become calm and focused again. During the 5 minutes continue the deep breathing and using the relaxing words that you have chosen.
When the timer goes off, slowly open your eyes. With your hands still on your belly and chest, notice how you are breathing now. Has your breathing become more relaxed and deeper? Move your feet flat on the floor back and forth a few times. Do you have a sense of feeling more grounded? How does your whole body feel? Have you become more relaxed? Do you sense a level of calm inside or more peacefulness inside you?
This is a great little exercise to use during the day whenever you notice that you have become anxious, unfocused. It is especially useful when your heart seems to be racing or your breath has become rapid and shallow. It is also useful to do in bed just before going to sleep. Exercises like this can help you manage your anxiety. They might not “cure” your anxiety. And they won’t address the cause of anxious symptoms. Sometimes those need to be addressed with body psychotherapy such as Bioenergetic Analysis.
Need a few more tools in your anxiety management bag?
- Take a walk outside. Five minutes of walking outside can calm your nerves.
- Bend over and touch your toes. Try the Bend Over Exercise I review in another blog.
- Get out your pen and write about it. Sometimes writing can help us manage our anxiety by “downloading” onto paper what is bothering us. Write whatever comes for 3 to 5 minutes and then throw it away.
- Musical interlude – listen to some of your favorite mellow tunes to calm you down.
- Phone a friend option – call a close friend and check in with them. Just telling someone else that you are anxious can help you feel better.
Let me know how this breathing exercise and the other suggestions worked for you. It is one of my go to tools for the frenzied, fast pace life we often live. I love hearing from you about your experiences and answering the questions you send me.