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Do you ever repetitively tap your foot or rub your car steering wheel, or fidget with whatever you can get your hands on? You may be feeling mild symptoms of anxiety without even knowing it. Anxiety is a normal experience that we all feel from time to time.
Did you know that anxiety is a natural survival mechanism that our bodies developed through evolution? It helps us to manage dangerous situations by triggering a “fight, flight or freeze” response. In early human history, this stress response would have helped us to quickly respond to life-threatening situations. Today, our bodies still use this system to respond to threats like a car swerving towards us. But we also use it to respond to potentially non-life threatening stresses like traffic jams, work presentations, social interactions and frustrations at home.
Anxiety symptoms can be mild and temporary, or they can manifest as anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder where anxieties persist and can disrupt your day-to-day life. As of 2017, anxiety disorders were the most common form of mental health disorder worldwide with approximately 284 million people experiencing them. Real-life threats like the COVID-19 pandemic, rising lack of affordability in major cities, and social injustice and unrest are likely only adding to these numbers.
For this post, we’ve exploring the effect that anxiety can have on you and simple tools for managing your stress responses to day-to-day experiences.
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Anxiety can wear down your body and mind
Your entire body gets involved when you feel anxious. Our stress response not only affects the way we think, but also the way our bodies feel and work, and the way we act.
When you feel anxious, your body’s adrenal glands release stress hormones like cortisol into your bloodstream. These hormones bring on specific physiological, psychological and emotional changes that improve the body’s ability to handle a threat.
Physical sensations can happen all over your body, including: a racing heart and rapid breathing, sweating, nausea and upset stomach, dizziness, and tightness or pain in the chest and muscles. Other symptoms are fuzzy or bright vision, heavy legs, choking sensations, and hot and cold flashes.
Over time, feeling continually stressed can affect your mental and physical health. Increased stress hormones can lead to disrupted sleep and digestive issues. Research also shows that stressful feelings can compromise your immune system by changing how your white blood cells function (the ones that protect you from illness and disease). Stress can increase your vulnerability to illness by reducing how quickly your white blood cells respond to viruses, and even wounds heal more slowly in people who are stressed.
In the long term, these physiological changes can lead to high blood pressure and clogged arteries that may cause brain changes, as well as diabetes, obesity and anxiety disorders.
Anxiety can be a self-perpetuating “circle of anxiety” where bodily sensations lead to negative and catastrophic thinking, which then makes you feel anxious and brings on more sensations. So, how do you interrupt the circle?
5 gentle ways to relax and focus wherever you are
Getting mad or frustrated with ourselves because of our natural mental and physical stress responses just reinforces the “circle of anxiety.” Instead, we can use the following five gentle strategies to relieve anxiety symptoms, relax an overactive mind and reduce negative, fear-based thinking.
1. Slow your heart rate with box breathing
Some people call this strategy box breathing, and others calls it deep breathing. Whatever you choose to call it, breathing in an intentional way is a powerful technique for slowing down your heart rate and calming nervousness.
When your heart beats fast, its chambers cannot fill completely with blood between contractions. Therefore, blood (and oxygen) flow to the rest of your body is compromised. Help your heart function to the best of its ability by including time for mindful breathing in your daily routine.
- Take one breath in slowly through your nose (for 7-10 seconds)
- Hold your breath (for 7-10 seconds)
- Breathe out slowly through your mouth until your lungs are empty
- Hold your breath (for 7-10 seconds or longer)
The pattern of breathing is the most important part. If you can only manage to hold your breath or breathe deeply for 4 seconds, that’s okay too. You can work up the seconds over time if it feels comfortable for your body.
2. Relax and increase oxygen in your muscles from head to toe
Have you ever squeezed your shoulders up to your ears and then released them? We often do mini versions of this technique when we warm up for exercise. Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) takes this warm up one step further to relieve anxiety symptoms like fast and shallow breathing, increased heart rate and tight muscles.
Relaxed muscles need less oxygen to function properly than tense ones. And so, releasing your muscles will allow blood and oxygen to flow back to other vital organs in your body such as in your digestive system.
PMR is a process of systematically constricting and relaxing your muscle groups from the feet upward or the head downward. If you want to start from your head, you can follow this list of muscle groups: upper forehead, lower forehead, eyes, lips, shoulders and lower neck, back of neck, chest, upper arm, hand and lower arm, abdomen, thighs, and lower leg and foot.
To start the practice, move to a quiet spot, put on some loose clothing and then sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
- Close your eyes.
- Contract a muscle group (for 5 seconds), and then slowly relax it (for 5 seconds). Do each exercise first on your right side, and then your left side, and then with both sides at the same time.
- Move on to the next muscle group moving down or up your body.
- Pay attention to sensations of tension and the differences between tension and relaxation.
If you have any injuries, modify how tight you constrict a muscle group to make sure you don’t aggravate it. Try to do this practice at least 1-2 times a week to keep your muscles healthy and your mind clear.
3. Re-focus on your senses with the 3-3-3 practice
Sometimes constant reminders and thoughts about fears and worries pop up in our minds, and it’s hard to stay focused. You can use the 3-3-3 practice to bring your mind back to the present moment by re-focusing on your senses of sight, smell, taste, feeling or hearing.
Try this exercise out loud or in your head, and move through the steps slowly.
- Look around you and name three things that you see.
- Then, close your eyes (if it’s safe to do so) and name three sounds that you hear.
- Finally, move three parts of your body independently (for instance, just your toes, fingers or forehead).
This exercise is great for interrupting your thinking whenever you feel anxiety sensations, whether it’s at work or on public transit.
4. Observe your thoughts instead of acting on them
Although we can’t always stop anxious, fear- and worry-driven thoughts from entering our minds, we can try to create some mental distance from them. We can do this by practicing mindfulness; a technique that involves being aware and present in the moment, with acceptance and without judgement for what’s going on.
Benefits of mindfulness can include increased focus and attention, stress and anxiety reduction and a greater sense of calm. There are lots of ways to engage with mindfulness, like through meditation or by taking some time out to sit with your thoughts.
- Set aside some time and find a quiet space where no one will interrupt you for as long as you decide to practice.
- Observe the present moment as it is. Just pay attention to where you are, how you feel, and what’s happening around you without comment or judgement.
- Let your thoughts and judgements float by and out of your mind. Rather than thinking more deeply about them, just notice them and let them roll by. Sometimes it can help to mentally label your thoughts like “fear,” “old habit” “the past” as you let them slip away.
- Return to observing the present moment as it is.
- Be kind when your mind wanders. Don’t judge yourself if your mind gets off track and starts running through those to do lists. Just recognize that you have wandered off, and return to observing.
Repeat these steps until you have reached the time you set aside to practice or feel calmer, it’s up to you. When it comes to mindfulness, the key word is practice. The point is to return time and time again to observing your thoughts, rather than acting on them, to give yourself mental space and time away from your reactions.
5. Identify alternative ways of thinking with the Triple Column Technique
If you’re struggling with persistent negative or worry-filled thoughts, it may help to challenge your own thinking. When we have anxious thoughts, we often perpetuate them through unhealthy thinking habits. These habits are called cognitive distortions. They can include: mind reading, negative predictions, unrelenting standards, all or nothing thinking, shoulds and musts, minimizing or discounting the positive, overgeneralizing and blaming others. You can find definitions for these terms and more in Psychology today’s list of 50 common cognitive distortions.
Remember, anxiety is a natural response to a perceived threat. And so, if we change our thinking about whether or not something is threatening or negative, we may be able to reduce anxious thoughts and sensations.
Triple Column Technique
- Fold a piece of blank paper in thirds.
- Label the first column “Automatic Thought,” the second column “Cognitive Distortion” and the third column “Rational Response.”
- In the first column, write down an automatic thought you have (e.g. I’m never going to get my life together because I’m way behind my friends).
- Read the statement you wrote in the first column, and use the second column to write down the cognitive distortions you identify within it. (e.g. negative predictions, unrelenting standards, shoulds and musts, etc.)
- Finally, in the third column write down what your “rational” response could be to the statement you wrote in the first column. Think logically about what you’re feeling, and try to replace your automatic thought with an alternative one (e.g. There are challenges that I’m working on resolving in my life and goals I want to achieve. Every day that I put in effort makes my life better and better.)
Some days it will be easier than others to analyze and re-think an automatic thought. But with practice, this technique may help you to think twice before believing the cognitive distortions you unknowingly apply to your day-to-day life.
Conclusion: Pause, and take time to re-center yourself
Sometimes it can be super challenging to identify and calm your feelings of anxiety. It’s a lifelong journey; you can pick up strategies for how to relax and re-focus your mind along the way.
Learning to reduce anxiety sensations like a racing heart or tight muscles will support your immune system and keep your body healthy. Try using techniques like deep breathing, muscle relaxation and focusing, observing and challenging your own thinking. There are plenty of online resources, tools and apps to help you dive deeper into a huge variety of strategies. Check out Anxiety Canada’s free MindShift CBT app to learn stress management skills, and the free Insight Timer app to improve your sleep, anxiety and stress through guided meditations, music and talks.
Are there any other stress and anxiety relief techniques that work wonders for you? Reach out and let us know!