If you suffer from even occasional anxiety, you’ll know how scary and debilitating it can be. For those who have trait anxiety, where it can seem like a default tendency, it can make moving through life challenging, tiring and often even need careful management. When we live in fear that everyday situations and actions might trigger a period of extreme agitation or panic, we can feel our choices limited and our decisions hemmed in by attempts to contain a sense of calm and control.
What’s most important to understand about this ‘unsafe’ mode that creates anxiety is that it is part of the stress response. This is our most basic survival mechanism – where we go when we feel that the world is threatening and we need to protect ourselves. This keeps us in a heightened state of anxiety and worry with all senses acute, all filters open; ready to respond immediately to anything that might come along.
Stress is a fear based response. It needs to be as we need to have a natural sense of vigilance and anticipation to protect our lives in situations that might be truly dangerous and our brains are wired to track the world around in this way; a vestige from our days in the wild. However in modern life this response can express in incredibly inappropriate ways, where our minds and bodies keep us in a state above and beyond that which suits the situation.
So we might be feeling anxiety and extreme worry, born from fears about our job, our relationship, or our children and find ourselves reacting as if we were preparing for war. This full body response includes heart racing, blood pumping, vision and hearing all highly acute and brain firing on overdrive, but can then not get played out with the physical response for which this crescendo is designed. We are literally left stewing in our own anxious juices.
In the long term, reducing demands and stresses, finding ways to calm, reassure and learn that life is safe can help reduce anxiety. But when where in the grips of fear and it feels like there’s no way out, there are some effective ways that we can find the soothing and space to bring ourselves down and out of this reactive and scary place. The good news is, the more you practice these, the more your brain and body accept the new strategies and are able to view situations in a more positive light.
1. Notice the reality of the situation
The defining characteristic of anxiety is that it seems inappropriate so what’s actually going on right now. If you really were in a situation where you would have to fight for your life, all of the excess internal energy, tense muscle and racing mind would be highly useful to get you out of there or stand and fight your ground (‘fight-or-flight’). So the first thing to help balance you back to the reality of your surroundings is to help your body and mind take stock of how things really are.
It is our minds that create the illusion that cause our bodies to respond in such a heightened way. It is only through convincing our bodies that there isn’t really an enemy to fight, that our body systems have a chance to come back down to rest.
Where they might be parts of our lives that make us feel unsafe, the likelihood is that when you are in the grips of anxiety, the reality is that right there and then you are actually safe. Even if the situation has challenging aspects, if you look around then you’re likely to see that no one’s actually coming to attack you, and although your internal world may be feeling in absolute turmoil, the environment around you actually presents no life-threatening danger. So it could be incredibly useful to redirect your attention from the storm going on inside to purposefully taking in what is calm around you. It could be noticing that others are calm or that a person talking harshly to you is more bark than bite or that nothing is flying around the room. Even looking in a mirror can help to show that there you are and nothing is coming to get you. That gives you a starting point to begin to reconcile do internal landscape with your external situation right now.
2. Use your breath
You may notice that one of the first and most obvious signs of anxiety hitting is fast, shallow breath – almost like you’re gasping and you can’t quite catch up with it. Observing our breath is always a good guide to how our nervous system is feeling. Stress speeds breathing up so that we can take on more oxygen, more quickly. Stressed breath moves to the upper body, where chest and shoulders dominate the process and we can feel tight and constricted there and also in the diaphragm, which tightens to hold breathing upwards.
Breathing happens automatically, but is one of the few autonomic body functions that we can actually consciously manipulate. So when we notice our breath quickening, it is within our control to slow it down and therefore help move ourselves out of a heightened stress response.
The out breath is the calming, releasing tone of a breath cycle, whereas the inhalation is energizing and can predominate when a body is preparing for danger. Taking a few deeper inhalations and sighing out to allow space and length in the exhalation can start to inform the nervous system that we’re not in a perpetual state where we might need to run or fight, but that we can start to calm.
Sit down and take at least 10 full breaths where you sigh out right to the natural end of the exhalation. Allowing sound to come out also unlocks tension in the jaw and the face, also part of the stress response to increase blood flow to the brain. Release your jaw and make space between the back teeth as you exhale.
3. Tell yourself you are safe
Once you feel that your focus is moving towards your breath rather than following the voices in your head, you have the space to entertain the idea that you may actually be safe. At this point you can place your hands somewhere on your body that feels natural, like your belly or arms and say to yourself – either inwardly or to your reflection in a mirror- “I am safe”. Say this over and over again as many times as you need, coming back to the breath as you need, paying attention to full exhalations as you speak to yourself with kindness.
4. Practice embodiment
When our minds are ruling the show, it is the enteric nervous system, the ‘second brain’ within our guts that gauges how safe we feel about the world around us. Gut feelings are true and these messages are much more reliable than the ruminations, projections and stories that our minds can conjure up. Yogis have long known that it is a connection to the body that allows our minds to become still and quiet. We now know that interoception or connection and awareness about our body states does actually switch off the left-brain chatter that is such a massive part of anxiety.
When we are lost in the narrative of a racing mind, simply imagining and visualising a body may not be enough. Actually placing our hands on to our bodies, so that the touch, warmth and pressure creates a soothing effect on the nervous system, can create the biofeedback that allows interception of the stress response on loop.
As the belly is where we truly feel if we are safe or not, placing hands there can help soothe us away from the ‘chattering monkey mind’ and drop down into a deeper, calm place. That can also help direct the breath down into the belly, where it can drop to when we start to relax and the shoulder tension of the stress response can start to melt away.
Placing your hands anywhere that feels right for you can help and even stroking parts of you to feel like you’re stroking kindness, calm and relaxation through muscles and body helps settle your mind.
5. Try a half smile
A mindfulness technique recommended by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn is to practice a half-smile during times of struggle. If we are able to smile even just a little it tells our minds and bodies that we must be safe. If you were running for your life you would not be smiling! Simply softening your lips and allowing a little uplift at the sides of your mouth goes a long way to helping your whole body let go of anxiety.
6. Lay down
The stress response that leads to anxiety is a fully active state. If you can inform your whole being that it doesn’t need to keep that level of energy going is a strong communication that calm is possible. If you’re in a position to do so, laying down on the ground either on your back or on your side in the foetal position gives a strong sense of release and protection. If you can, raise your legs above your body on a chair or on a sofa, to lift them above your heart. This means the gravity can allow blood from the lower body back up to the top with ease and your heart has to pump less than usual for this action. Lowered heart rate allows calming through the whole system.
7. Walk away
Anxiety can stem from a lack of feeling in control or inability to escape. With all of those stress hormones racing around your body it may feel right for you to physically move them through. Getting out of your immediate environment and going for a walk, especially outdoors, can have the effect of feeling that you move physically and mentally to another state and literally shift your perspective.
8. Wash your hands and face
There’s a reason that we may feel compelled to wash our hands when we feel anxious and why many turn to this action as an obsessive, compulsive behaviour in the face of emotional or psychological trouble. Submerging any part of our body in warm water helps to engage the calming parasympathetic nervous system and self-soothe. Washing hands in particular can have an immediate calming effect. Also, splashing water on your face helps a sense of embodiment, reminding us that we are physically here and now, even if our minds have taken us off somewhere else.
9. Take L-Theanine
This extract of green tea is an amino acid or (protein building block) that has a calming effect on the nervous system and the brain. There is good research to show that it is a safe supplement to take to increase levels of the calming and soothing neurotransmitter gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) and can bring down agitation within 15 to 30 minutes. If you are prone to anxiety you can take 200 milligrams daily, but you can also take that amount extra safely when you feel agitation looming.
10. Eat a salad
The stress response can send us craving and reaching for the sweet stuff as a numbing, self-medicating solution. However this is a quick fix that ultimately keeps us in the whims of the blood sugar highs-and-lows that feed into anxious tendencies. Healthy eating choices help us cope with stress and in particular lettuce and celery have highly calming effects on the nervous system, containing a substance called apigenin which actively engages the calming parasympathetic nervous system response.