During my 20s, I experienced crippling anxiety.
This was not the occasional nervousness about a presentation or first date. This was the kind of intense, free-floating anxiety that made my mind race, my heart beat fast and my whole body tense up. I would wake up in the morning, wait for it to set in, and then try to “white-knuckle” it through my days.
Simply put, I was miserable. This was no way to live.
After consulting many doctors who told me that nothing was “wrong with me,” I decided I had to take matters into my own hands and find a solution. In the end, I am actually grateful for my anxiety, because it caused me to dive deep into research on stress and health and lead me to become a Professor in Holistic Health Education. The concepts and tools below are some of the ones that I teach my students in my classes on stress and mind-body medicine.
Experiencing chronic anxiety can trip off the same hormones and chemicals in our bodies as though we were constantly being chased by a lion. Really—anxiety makes our minds and bodies believe we are in danger and kicks off the stress response, which prepares us to flee or fight if need be.
The problem is that most things that currently give us anxiety these days are not lions, but deadlines, arguments, traffic and other everyday occurrences. Learning how to manage anxiety can help our body turn off the stress response and make sure all our energy is used for things like proper digestion, immune support and reproduction. Plus, when our body is released from the grips of anxiety, we think more clearly, experience better moods, communicate more effectively and feel more productive.
Below are three tools to dramatically reduce anxiety in the moment—and, with practice, help us experience less anxiety overall:
Flip the What-If Script.
One of the ways we create stress for ourselves is by getting caught up in “worry-loops.” Now I’m not worry-bashing—I know that worrying actually has an evolutionary purpose. Our minds are designed to think up all the things that could possibly go wrong, so that it can prepare and keep us safe. The problem is that the mind is so good at creating these scenarios (we’re kind of anxiety-creating ninjas), we can get caught in an obsessive pattern of worrying about things that usually never occur. Worrying jump starts the stress response, because our body thinks we are in danger.
So the first step is to actually stop and listen to what the worry is saying. It is usually a bunch of questions starting with “What if…” For example, if we are facing a big deadline at work, our worry might say, “What if I don’t get everything done? Or what if the clients don’t like what I produce?” Those kinds of questions create stress.
To Flip the What-If Script, we continue asking the “What If” questions, but we change what we are focusing on to the possible positive outcomes of the situation. In other words, think about what could go right instead of what could go wrong. So keeping with the example above, we might think, “What if I get everything done on time and it looks amazing? And what if the client loves it, and I receive a lot of positive feedback?” See the difference? And even more important, feel the difference.
Flipping the What-If Script not only stops the worry loop, but it shuts off the stress response and even activates chemicals and hormones in our body which create a sense of peace, excitement and joy.
Switch to Belly Breathing.
Are you a chest breather or a belly breather? Breathing into our chest verses our belly can actually make the difference between living in a chronically stressed state versus a relaxed state. Let’s check our breathing by doing a simple exercise.
Place one hand on your chest right beneath your collarbone and the other hand on your belly beneath our navel. Allow yourself to take a few breaths as you naturally would, not trying to change anything and notice which hand naturally rises and falls with your breathing. Most of us will find that the hand on our chest is the one that moves the most. That means we tend to be chest breathers. There’s no shame in that. It’s true for most of us, but shifting to belly breathing can immediately calm our mind and body.
Here’s how we do that: place one hand on your belly beneath your navel, and as you breathe, direct your breath to that hand with your mind, so that when you breathe in, the breath fills your belly and your hand rises and falls. Try to make each breath a little deeper and a little slower than the one before. Take at least 10 breaths like this. Once you have been breathing this way for a little while, notice how you feel in your body. Do you feel more calm and relaxed? You’ve just activated the relaxation response in your body simply by breathing this way.
And we can do this any time, anywhere, to calm our mind and body. The more we practice this, the more natural and easy belly breathing will become.
Shake it Out.
Shaking is a form of expressive meditation, a way of using movement to bring our bodies to stillness. Moving our bodies vigorously allows us to work through excess energy and drop into a quiet or peaceful state of mind and body. This type of meditation can be especially effective for people who have trouble sitting still for traditional meditation.
To complete a shaking meditation, find a piece of music that you enjoy that is fairly fast-paced and preferably without words (search for “Kundalini music” online). Also find a slower moving song, one that you like but that is more mellow in nature than the first song. In a space where you know you will not be seen or disturbed, play the first song. With your feet planted firmly on the ground, start shaking at your knees, almost bouncing. Allow the shaking to move up your body all the way up to the top of your head. You can shake with your eyes open or closed (just be careful of your balance if you close your eyes). Shake to the point that you feel you are moving energy through and out of your body, but not so much that you injure yourself or re-activate any previous injuries. You know your body best, so don’t push past the point of discomfort.
When the first song ends, take about 30-60 seconds to just stand in the quiet and feel what’s going on in your body. Then play the second, more mellow song—and this time, simply allow your body to move as it wants to this song. Usually, people find themselves swaying or making slower more relaxed movements. Once that music has finished, again, give yourself a minute or two to simply stand, sit or lie down and allow your body to relax into how it is feeling. Moving energy through your body this way, can help burn up the stress hormones that may have accumulated from anxiety and leave us feeling much more at peace.
After integrating tools like these into my life, I rarely experience anxiety anymore. When I do, I know I have powerful practices that can dramatically reduce these feelings and bring me back into balance.
Author: Nina Fry-Kizler
Editor: Nicole Cameron