Three Quick Ways to Reduce AnxietyMarch 26, 2020
Brooke Feinerman, PhD
Brooke’s training is in clinical psychology from Pepperdine University, and a PhD in somatic psychology from Pacifica. She has additional training and certificates from Harvard’s Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine.
Anxiety has a profound impact on the mind and body. The experience of anxiety can create physical tension and pain, disrupt our sleep, create stomach discomfort, and diminish our ability to connect with others. Anxiety can be something we feel at any time, but given the conditions of our current world, new levels of anxiety are likely being shared by most people at this time. One important aspect of trying to manage anxiety, especially in the context of a pandemic, is the direct link between the immune system function and levels of stress. Studies have shown that acute stress and chronic stress can negatively impact our immune system and well-being. When we are stressed or feeling anxiety, which is a symptom of stress, it can impair our immune system’s ability to fight off illness. When the world feels out of our control, or specific situations in your life are beyond your control, finding ways to care for your body and stress levels is a very powerful way of taking control back and doing something to assist your mind and body achieve well-being. Studies have shown stress impacts one’s ability to achieve homeostasis or balance, which is why it is vital to cultivate practices to help you regain the balance within yourself.
The experience of anxiety can leave us feeling frozen in place, overwhelmed, and unsure of what steps to take to even begin to feel better. Often times anxiety can make us too exhausted to even imagine a future beyond our current experience. In writing this article, my hope is to share a few quick ways to navigate the wilderness of anxiety, and find a path through the woods, into a clearing where you can find rest.
1. Look for triggers and set a specific time for worry. One powerful way to deal with anxiety is to become aware of the specific situations, thoughts, or behaviors that are contributing to your anxiety. Take stock of the places, times, and situations that create your anxious feelings, write them down if needed, and look for patterns. Work on ways to minimize how much exposure you have to those anxiety producing items, and actively find ways to engage in healthy coping with what you discover as your triggers. Studies have shown that practicing this type of mindful awareness of your thoughts and actions can help ease anxiety and stress. Avoidance is not healthy, but constant exposure without awareness and attunement to your needs can create chronic stress and a shutdown response in the mind and body. Do not try to escape your feelings or deny them. Instead, allow yourself to be present with them, but try and select a specific amount of time each day during which you will allow yourself to fully feel and explore your feelings, and once that time is up, try to move onto an actual activity that shifts your mind to something else.
Take Action: Keep track of the times you notice your anxiety feels heightened. Is it after watching the news for too long? Or after talking with someone in your life who has a hard time doing anything but being negative? Are your own fearful self-talk and ruminating thoughts about the what-ifs increasing your anxiety? Try not to judge what you discover, instead just keep track of it. This type of practice is a kind of mindfulness practice in itself. Just the awareness of what is contributing to your anxiety can help bring you the freedom of choice in how you want to engage with those thoughts or behaviors. Allow yourself to challenge your own thoughts and self-talk that appear negative and try to reframe negative self-talk with realistic and optimistic interpretations.
2. Practice presence. Practicing presence, or being present in the now, can take on many different forms. Research has shown that practices of mindfulness, prayer, contemplation, and different forms of exercise—including taking a walk where you are intentional about noticing what you see and feel while walking—can all help to calm the nervous system, increase immune function, and ease feelings of anxiety. Studies have provided support for the positive impact of mindfulness practices even for younger individuals.
Take Action: Select an activity that allows you to practice being present in the moment. You might do this activity alone, or if you live with someone else you can engage in the activity together. For some this might look like a walk-in nature and being mindful to point out to one another the things you are seeing, the sights, sounds and smells you observe, and the way your body and mind feel before and after the walk. You can practice presence in your most comfortable chair by doing a breathing meditation or noticing the sensation of breath. One breathing technique that can help is called the 3-2-4 breath. For this exercise, sit comfortably and allow yourself to breathe at a natural pace that feels comfortable for you. Close your mouth and breathe in through your nose for a count of three. Pause gently and hold the breath for a count of two. Lastly, exhale completely through your mouth for a count of four. Repeat these steps three to five times. Creating art or music can also be forms of engaging in presence, as are practices of prayer or contemplation.
3. Reach out to support or help someone else, and ask for support. Staying connected to our support system during this time of coronavirus looks different. Our usual coffee dates, happy hours or hangouts, even workout classes or favorite hobbies have had to be sidelined for the time. However, most of us have access to a phone or computer. Use the technology you have available to you and set-up a happy hour with friends, stream a workout class, many museums are providing free tours, and many famous musicians are offering free home concerts during this time. Additionally, if you had an instructor for a specific hobby or workout class, the likelihood is that the individual is also needing some work right now, and perhaps you could reach-out to them and set up a Zoom workout class with friends, led by your favorite workout teacher. Even if you are unable to leave your home or go out into the community, finding ways to connect with others will positively impact your immune system. Additionally, brainstorming some ways you can help, encourage, or support others dramatically affects our own sense of well-being. Do you know some in the healthcare field that could use encouragement or support even through a text or offering to order their dinner or groceries? Getting out of our own heads, thinking about others, and doing good things for our communities can help decrease anxiety. We are intrinsically connected with others; neuroscience and research in this area has confirmed how positive behaviors of support toward others can help reduce loneliness, anxiety, and depression, and increase feelings of well-being. Studies have shown that by helping others, we can help to enhance our own state of well-being.
Take Action: Helping others can take on many different forms. Within your own family, this might look like asking a family member how you can help them that day, perhaps taking on one of their chores around the house. It can look like donating your time, resources, or talents to a cause you care about and is close to your heart. Helping others can look like texting someone you know is alone or going through a hard time. It can also be calling or writing a letter to a friend to tell them how grateful you are for their presence in your life.
As you move through this time, be gentle with yourself and your body. There is a heightened level of stress within the world, and your experience is valid. If you find yourself suffering from anxiety, it is helpful to additionally become aware of your daily intake of caffeine, which can also be a trigger. Believe me, I love caffeine as much as the next person and struggle with this one myself, but if you are finding your nervous system is already sensitive, cutting back on your intake of caffeine found in all forms (including chocolate, teas, coffee, sodas, energy drinks, etc.) can help to calm your nervous system. Wishing you peace in this time, and always. Be well.
This article is intended for information purposes only, regardless of if the information is presented by a medical practitioner, physician or other professional. This article is provided to educate and inspire you on your personal journey, and is not a substitute for specialized medical advice, diagnosis or treatment, and should not be relied upon for specific medical care or in the place of specific medical guidance provided to you, by your care provider.
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