Returning to work after the holidays, starting school again, or diving into new year's resolutions and projects, we may initially feel regenerated, relaxed, and resourced. A few weeks in, however, and stress & anxiety can begin to mount. Below are a few simple practices and lifestyle changes that increase tolerance of external stressors, help build mental and physical resilience and can even stop anxiety in it’s tracks.
Based on our biology, we are primed to react to stressors with big physiological shifts. An upcoming presentation or exam may stimulate the body into a sympathetic response (fright, flight, fight) similar to how we’d react when in red-alert, real physical danger. The limbic brain doesn’t know the difference between these stressors, it just wants to keep us safe. Learning to speak the language of the limbic system - through our physiology and somatic awareness, we can help the body-mind get back on track in just a few minutes. Trying to think our way into “calming down" hardly, if ever, works. Am I right? If you’ve been trigged by an acute stressor and are struggling with worry, doubt and anxiety, there are many easy practices you can try for an instant calm-down.
Simple Practices that Minimize Stress & Anxiety
Whenever possible, it's best to utilize stress reduction techniques on the daily, especially when nervousness, anxiety or panic overtakes. Resourcing the nervous and limbic systems in the midst of an activation can actually rewire the brain from looping a stress state to generating a relaxed (parasympathetic) state. The more we pattern interrupt these old programs, the quicker and more easily our body-minds can calm after a trigger. Consistent practice also increases our threshold to navigate stressors in general.
Along with the stress reduction techniques outlined below, you’ll find a bunch more nervous system balancing techniques in my post geared to Alleviate Stress through Nervous System Rebalancing. You'll find more resources, exercises and a short video on my piece about how Vagal Toning improves Health and Mood. Without further ado . . .
Instant & Natural Anxiety and Stress Reduction Techniques
3-3-3 noticing technique: Take a slow, deep breath into the low belly. Notice your feet on the floor. Relax the shoulders. Look around you to identify 3 objects and 3 sounds, then move 3 body parts. This practice can help orient you to the present moment, returns you to the body, and can shift your focus away from spiraling thoughts.
*4-7-8 breathing technique: If you're sitting or standing, place both feet flat on the ground, about hip-width apart.
Take a gentle breath into the low belly, keeping your mind on your breath.
Inhaling through your nose, exhaling out of your mouth.
Relax any tension or bracing in the body.
Now begin to count your breaths in a cycle of 4-7-8: Inhale for 4 seconds, hold in the breath for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds. Continue this breathing pattern for 2-5 minutes until you notice a deep sigh, yawn or sense of relaxation.
*5-5-5 breathing technique:
Inhale slowly through the nose for a count of 5 seconds: 1-2-3-4-5.
Exhale slowly through the nose or mouth for a count of 5: 1-2-3-4-5.
Pause for 5 seconds: 1-2-3-4-5.
Repeat the process three more times (1 minute total).
See how you feel (hopefully more relaxed)
There's also a 5-5-5-5 "box" technique: Inhale for 5. Pause for 5. Exhale for 5. Pause for 5.
*Following the breath can be tricky, especially when stress levels are up and the mind is spiraling. For those times, I really appreciate guided breathing practices. This audio/visual guided breathing video is based on a 5-5 coherence technique (no pause).
You'll get even more mileage out of breathing practices if you envision inhaling through your heart and exhaling/relaxing through the whole body. By focusing on the heart center while inhaling/exhaling you increase heart/mind coherence, which improves heart rate variability, increases vagal tone, improves mood, and decreases stress. Hurray!
Walk in Nature: Innumerable studies show that light exercise increases circulation and alleviates stress. Plenty of research shows that being in nature enhances memory, restores focused-attention, eases stress & anxiety, and lowers heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels.
Yoga: Whether you need a vigorous practice to get some of the energy out or a gentle sequence to bring awareness back into the body and calm the nervous system, yoga is incredible at calming stress and reducing anxiety.
Acupressure Points for Anxiety and Stress Reduction. By gently massaging these points, the accumulation of tension in the physical body will begin to dissipate. By releasing the physical holding at these spots, we relieve the build up of tension and the body/mind has a greater chance at relaxing. A relaxed body is a calm mind.
Life Style Changes that Reduce Stress & Increase Wellbeing
The ideas below are big ticket items. Make changes for the better now and the benefits will see you far into the future. As with all lifestyle changes, go low and slow. Integrate one new choice at a time. It's not easy shifting old habits. Go easy on your self. We are aiming for steady progress, not perfection.
Identify sources of stress, worry and upset. We all have unique triggers that activate our parasympathetic nervous systems into fright, flight, fight and fawn. It's helpful to know which stressors take us down. I personally feel anxious about public speaking. If I have an upcoming presentation, I prepare well in advance, up my self-care game, talk to friends/mentors, and practice stress-reduction techniques throughout. No matter your triggers, talk to folks you can trust - let them know what's up for you; journal to get a clearer sense of how you are doing and what supports you need; consider therapy and other healing modalities. Worth mentioning: sleep disturbances often go hand-in-hand with feelings of anxiety and/or depression. Finding help for one, will positively affect the other(s).
Prioritize Sleep - repeated studies show that sleep is an essential aspect of good physical and mental health. Most of us need 7-8 hours of sleep per night in order to restore balance of the nervous system, clear the mind, and heal the body. Insufficient sleep is linked with higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression and frustration. It can also reduce cognitive and problem-solving skills, attention span, memory, patience, and physical wellbeing. For ways to increase your zzzz’s check out this Intuitive Health & Healing post that’s all about healing insomnia and improving sleep quality.
Exercise - Regular physical activity reduces the risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and coronary artery disease. It helps improve mental health, lowers anxiety and elevates mood. Research has shown that people with physically active lifestyles have about a 60% lower risk of developing anxiety disorders. From a Western perspective, this is attributed to changes in brain chemistry and the release of feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and endorphins. In Chinese Medicine (CM), light to moderate exercise strengthens the QI (energy), tonifies the blood, and optimizes circulation. Exercise is medicine and circulation is Life.
Eat well - We have the power to dramatically improve our physical and mental health with a nutrient-dense, whole-foods diet. Processed foods, low blood sugar levels, and dehydration can all cause moods to dip and anxiety to rise. Consider the term Hangry. Folks like me get jittery and wobbly when blood sugar is too low. To avoid low blood sugar, I plan meals in advance and have healthy snacks always at the ready. Alternately, consuming foods high in sugar causes energy spikes-and-crashes, which affects mood and the body’s capacity to tolerate stress. If you feel more agitated or anxious after eating, you may have an undiagnosed food intolerance, sensitivity or allergy. Many people report digestive upset and/or headaches after eating foods containing Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). MSG is found in most fast food, frozen meals, processed chips, seasoning packets, etc. As you look more closely at food choices, also consider checking in with a doctor and/or ordering blood tests. Stress and anxiety can be linked to Vitamin B and Iron deficiencies.
Cut down or quit Caffeine - this is my number one recommendation for clients who struggle with anxiety and/or sleep issues. Dozens of studies link caffeine with nervousness and anxiety disorders. If you decide to entirely quit coffee or caffeinated tea, do so slowly - over the course of a week or two - to avoid possible headaches, migraines and other withdrawal symptoms.
Reduce alcohol - while alcohol might seem to “calm the nerves” or help people fall asleep, withdrawal from alcohol during the night can actually cause restlessness, anxiety and sleeplessness. Many people who drink alcohol frequently complain of waking between 3am-5am unable to fall back to sleep; they wake feeling groggy and are more susceptible to anxiety. Even though alcohol is considered a depressant, depression and anxiety often go hand-in-hand.
Meditate - there are a number of ways to slow the mind and enter into the present moment. Sitting in a comfortable seat and setting a timer for five minutes while focusing on your breath (and easefully returning to your breath when thoughts wander) is a great way to start. Meditation is not about getting the mind to shut off or quiet. Its about breaking the habit of distractedness of the "monkey" mind by learning to observe thoughts, the breath, sensations in the body, and so on. A recent randomized clinical trial concluded that an 8-week program of mindfulness-based meditation helped reduce anxiety as effectively as Lexapro - a medication used to treat depression and generalized anxiety.
For a more comprehensive look at stress and anxiety and how to utilize tools of nueroplasticity to alleviate nervous habits, panic attacks and more, please check out the free downloadable pdf of the book "Rewire Your Anxious Brain."
*As always, I'm not a doctor. Content from Intuitive Health & Healing is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Please do not disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read here. Gracias