Self-soothing your anxiety - psycho-babble or something more?

For many people, anxiety is a daily, debilitating challenge. Feeling on edge, hyper-alert, in danger and habitually bothered by thoughts that come up again and again can become a way of living.

When this is the case, it is easy to get triggered into peak anxiety states, where you want to fight or run away. It's also possible that sometimes you freeze up completely, as if you were a rabbit in the headlights, unable to react at all to what is happening.

These symptoms are signs of an autonomic nervous system that is not currently well-regulated. It's as if you get switched on, and can't then switch off.

Unfortunately, the effects of this are not just psychological. Anyone who has experienced serious anxiety will know that it is a physical experience affecting their whole body. Your sympathetic nervous system has been triggered, and then not turned off.

A lack of good modulation in the autonomic nervous system unfortunately not only throws us off balance, it also makes us more vulnerable to physical illness. The lack of a systemic balance in our breathing and heart-rate affects body and mind together.

This is why self-regulation matters. Call it self-soothing, calming yourself, whatever you will, it is an essential life skill and it affects your health. In essence it doesn't much matter where the lack of regulation came from or when it occurred; here and now you have the opportunity to do something different and to build it within yourself. 

Self-soothing is about helping your body to find equilibrium. It's a way of stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of our nervous system responsible for enabling us to sleep, feed, digest and rest.

Self-soothing is about the restoring power of the breath. It's about expressive movement, spontaneous things like laughing, shaking and crying, about letting them flow through us. It's about relaxing, being open to reflecting and exploring, being curious and spontaneous, allowing yourself to engage, and about finding ways to calm yourself, finding balance and flexibility.

Basically, self-regulation increases the scope of situations and the amount of your time where you feel you can tolerate what is happening and you can integrate information. This is sometimes called the window of tolerance. If you're very anxious, it's likely your window is pretty small right now, and that means you get triggered a lot. Self-regulation can help you widen your window so that you get triggered less, and feel in balance and control more.

Does all of this sound a tall order? Fortunately, regulation of your nervous system can all be improved by the consistent application of things that are not that hard.

You can help yourself by using some simple techniques that tone something called the vagal nerve, which has a key role in determining your responses to adversity. Vagal nerve stimulation appears to restore the body's natural balance.

To tone the vagal nerve, you can:

1. Breathe in through your nose, and hum as you slowly exhale
2. Chant
3. Sing
4. Talk
5. Wash your face with icy water
6. Practice loving kindness meditation, where you are wishing health and peacefulness in turn to yourself, a loved one, an acquaintance, someone you find difficult to appreciate, and all beings. 
7. Use alternate nostril breathing, where you breathe in through one nostril, and out through the other, then breathing in through the second nostril before changing sides and repeating. This is a yogic practice called Nazi Shodhan Pranayama which, fully practiced, has a lot more to it, so you may want to look it up here as a useful resource: info/amp/ayurvedic-living/living-ayurveda/yoga/nadi-shodhana-pranayama/

It is also useful to work with someone who can use their regulated nervous system to help you balance yours. This is what psychotherapy at its best is about, enabling you to build your resilience and resourcefulness by working alongside a therapist for a period of time as these capabilities develop and mature.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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