Breaking cycles of anxiety and stress
In order to create a better sense of well-being, studies have shown that the optimum state of mind is somewhere between a relaxed and attentive mind-set – with the ability to remain focussed on the present moment. Of course in a busy and demanding world, we can’t always afford to be focussed on the present moment. We need to make plans, meet deadlines, solve problems and make difficult decisions about the future which cannot be ignored; but to remain at an optimum level of awareness and generate clarity of mind we also need to press the reset button. We can do this by creating frequent restore points throughout our day, so our mind and body can level out the spikes and troughs of emotional upheaval and stress. If we don’t, we are much more likely to develop the symptoms of a fear-based mind in a constant state of crisis management. This is because our brains have evolved through genetic encoding, to switch into survival mode once intolerable levels of environmental stress have been reached. Everyone’s level of tolerance for anxiety is different.
Many people are quick to accept their lives can be stressful and overwhelming without ever realising how much they actually contribute to it. When we ignore the symptoms of stress and anxiety it’s easy to become emotionally dysregulated. A greater awareness of our mood states, sensations and stress responses would resolve this problem – so we can spot the early warning signs of emotional overload before they happen.
This requires developing daily routines, which allow us to slow down and pay attention to our physical sensations, thoughts and emotions. Daily practice rewires the anxious brain, as we learn to deactivate stress, relax and focus on the present moment. Using mindfulness practice can help us self-regulate our emotions with breathing, stretching, exercising and grounding techniques that discharge the neurochemicals which cause anxiety.
A degree of conscious effort is required, as we become more self-aware and make better choices – slowing down and developing healthy routines which promote well-being and continuity in our lives. As opposed to getting caught up in everyday dramas, ignoring the warnings or failing to make the boundaries that protect us from life’s excesses. There are times when a proportionate level of stress is a normal response to work, illness, injury, bereavement and loss – but on the whole most anxiety is accumulated from disproportionate and chronic levels of stress which have been built-up over time and need to be discharged.
You can do this in five phases throughout your day or week:
Phase one: Slowing down: Try to find a few spare moments in your day and resist the compulsion to browse the internet, social media or watch TV. Take this time to actively focus on slowing down your physical sensations: Heart-rate, breathing, movements and thoughts.
Then close your eyes, sit upright and remain still for a while, simply breathing at your own pace and rhythm. Paying attention to the flow and movement of your breath as you inhale and exhale, breathing from your diaphragm. On each in-breath and out-breath you need to try and follow the sensation and movement of your breath while incrementally slowing it down. You may also notice your heartbeat slowing down, the body becoming less agitated, less nervous tics, muscles tremors or tension. It may be difficult to believe, but when you can remain focussed on your physical sensations, it sends messages to your brain to relax and naturally discharge the neurochemicals that cause stress (cortisol, adrenalin, noradrenalin). And is also more likely to prevent you from getting caught up in excessive worrying, racing thoughts or screen-playing anxious scenes through your head.
Phase two: Stillness of being: Once you have managed to slow down your internal state of being, try to focus on creating a sense of stillness, while sitting or standing motionless in a quiet place with your eyes closed. You can do this on a park bench, in a church, by the river or even on a busy street in rush hour.
As you notice the rest of the world hurries on around you – bursting with sound, movement and sensation – you close your eyes and remain as still as possible without fidgeting or restlessness. Try to focus on feelings of stillness in your limbs, head, neck and shoulders, but not feeling rigid or frozen. Focus on a sense of heaviness, keeping you anchored to the spot. Then gently, but firmly, encourage yourself to remain still in one place, until you are no longer fighting the impulse to move or busy yourself with productive activity. Imagine yourself as a heavy object, perfectly balanced on a fulcrum without tipping this way or that. Feel yourself taking root or being anchored to the ground like a statue.
Phase three: Being grounded: Can be very useful when you feel intensely distressed or overwhelmed by emotions. This may trigger an absence of sensation, detachment or a feeling of drifting off into another world, becoming numb or gazing off into the middle distance.
This kind of dissociation is an avoidance behaviour, sometimes used as a way of disconnecting or oneself from the intense physical sensations and highly charged emotions of anxiety. This is can leave you vulnerable to becoming passive, avoidant and unable to assert your boundaries or stand up for yourself.
You can counteract dissociation by anchoring yourself to the ground, so that you remain fully present and in contact with yourself. Stand upright with your feet spread wide apart and pressed firmly into the floor. Find your centre of gravity and drop your weight onto your hips. Stamp your feet, grip your hips and try pushing against a wall. Keep your eyes open; look around the room; notice objects and name things out aloud. The point is to create a feeling of stability, firmness and solidity by being grounded.
Phase four: Movement: This is where you pay attention to yourself by synchronising your breath in rhythm with your movements as you walk or run. You can change your pace up or down as you breathe and walk; breathe and run; breathe and stand still. Notice the lightness of your limbs, notice your strength, your sense of stability, your ability to remain flexible and fleet of foot. Notice how your breath propels and mobilises your movements.
Phase five: Attention on the five senses:
(a) Focus on your sense of sound first, listening to every sensation as you sit in a room alone or a park. Listen to sounds like voices, the swish of traffic, the ripple of a river, song birds or the sound of leaves in the wind. Pay attention to the tone, pitch, volume and rhythm of sounds.
(b) Focus on your visual sensation – the colours, shades, light, shapes and outline of things. Practice changing your perspective or angle of view. Modulate your focus from the horizon to the middle distance to your immediate proximity.
(c) Focus on your sensation of touch – the textures, surfaces, shape, size, weight and feel of things. Check-in with the internal physical sensations of your body – heart-rate, breath, temperature, tension, relief etc.
(d) Focus on your sense of smell – picking out the intensity, depth and power of odours.
(e) Focus on your sense of taste – sucking on a boiled sweet, chewing on a jelly bean, crunching on a peanut. Pick out savoury, salt, sweet, sour and bitter flavours.