Three less well-known steps to take when you're anxious
One way to step away from the worries of your mind is to change the focus of your thoughts to feel the sensations in the body. Many body-based techniques utilise this principle, but they take time to learn, and some demand a level of physical suppleness and stamina that we just may not have. I do admire those who make practices such as yoga part of their lifestyle to help with anxiety, but sometimes we just need something that we can do right now with no skills or experience.
When you feel yourself beginning to feel anxious, it is generally not a good time to begin thinking about particular techniques, unless you are very competent or experienced at them, as this can have the opposite effect, as we worry about getting it wrong, and perhaps berate ourselves for being “not good enough”.
Firstly, focus on your breathing
When you recognise that you are having an anxious thought, acknowledge it. Don’t try and push it away, consider it with curiosity. This acceptance rather than pushing away in itself can lessen the impact of the anxious feelings. Then direct your attention specifically to the sensation of breathing. Just notice the breath. We don’t usually give the breath much thought. It just happens. We don’t pay attention to it. Notice your breathing in detail. No one will be aware or need to know what you are doing. You can do this in public or private.
If you tend to be anxious, it is likely you pay great attention to details. You can put that tendency to good use by focusing. There is nothing much to remember in this exercise about technique or what is right or wrong. You are simply noticing your experience of breathing.
Here are some of the things that you may notice: each breath has its own unique quality. The air that enters will have a temperature. That temperature will be different as we breathe out. It differs between each nostril. Always. There may be a scent, which you may find pleasant or not so pleasant, and the speed of your breathing will vary. Where do you feel the air in your body? Does the breath move your chest or your belly? Does it feel shallow or deep? Is it fast or slow?
In this way, you take conscious control of your attention, and you move the destructive energy of anxious thinking into the constructive energy of present moment sensation.
Secondly, breathe gently through the nose
As you focus on the physical sensations of breathing, sit upright and begin to inhale softly through the nose for about six seconds, and if you can, take the breath to your belly, before exhaling gently through the nose for about six seconds, and continue to repeat this for a couple of minutes, or as long as you feel comfortable. Focus on the slow inhale and slow exhale.
This method, called resonant or coherent breathing, is basic, but powerful. It is calming and brings the body into a state of coherence with the heart, lungs and circulation working at peak efficiency. There is no need to overcomplicate or elaborate technique or description. Simple is good.
Thirdly, ask yourself “am I safe?”
When you have done this simple breathing exercise, you have created a safe place in the sensations of your body. This is a simple method of grounding yourself into your body away from your anxious thoughts. Now, ask yourself this question: “am I safe in this moment?” Close your eyes and sit with the experience of being safe.
You may jump back to anxious thoughts, sometimes within seconds but ask yourself the question again “am I safe?”. Sit with the feeling of safety again, even as your mind may pull you back to worries of the future or the past. Almost always, in the very moment, we are safe. And all we really ever have is this moment.
When you feel anxious, do try this. It would be wrong to say it is an easy or an instant solution for anxiety, as we naturally default to our overthinking mind. But it is straightforward and easy to remember. It begins the process of being free of anxiety. Making the conscious decision to recognise the anxious thought, but then focus on our breathing takes practice, but the payoff can be relief from the exhausting need to think.
How does this help?
It has been argued that by calming the body through conscious breathing techniques such as this one, we activate the parasympathetic branch of our nervous system (the rest and digest), and de-activate the sympathetic response (fight, flight or freeze).
Both states are essential, but if you have anxiety, you may be stuck in a sympathetic response to the world. You may recognise this as a feeling of being tense, nervous and unable to relax, even when there is nothing obvious in your life or environment to suggest that you should not be at ease. I find an easy way to remember these states is: parasympathetic = peace, sympathetic = stress. But the important thing to remember is that you can use the breath consciously to feel less anxious.
Is it the body not the mind that makes me anxious?
Opinions of experts vary, though there is a growing consensus that it is a mix of the two. Through a neurobiological process called interoception, the mind relentlessly reads our bodies, and anxiety often stems from stored memories of unresolved trauma that is held in our bodies away from our conscious mind, to keep us safe.
The mind will then make up anxious and fearful stories to make it consistent and congruent with the body. The mind brings us back to the familiar, as we value the sense of safety in what we have known and that anxiety may bring us feelings of safety in the familiarity. This mechanism of noticing the breath, slow breathing and asking yourself if you are safe, breaks that vicious loop between the mind and body building up in tandem an anxious state.
There is no quick fix or easy solution to anxiety, but the methods outlined here can make a difference, and so too can talking about your anxiety with a qualified therapist. Do get in touch to explore if I can help.