The uncertainty of the last year has turned our lives upside-down, and many of us are experiencing chronic anxiety symptoms such as constant worrying, insomnia, and inability to relax. While our nervous systems are wired to deal with immediate stressors effectively with the fight-or-flight response, we are not meant to be stuck in this heightened state of anxiety for extended periods of time. Yet here we are!
Fortunately, we can use our knowledge of our nervous systems to tap into ways to alleviate anxiety symptoms naturally and effectively, like focusing on your breath, cooling your body, or evoking a sense of grounding.
When you feel anxious, your breath becomes rapid and shallow, and it might feel hard to take a deep breath. Of all the autonomic nervous system processes (like breathing, heartbeat, and digestion), our breath is the only one we can consciously control. If we can control our breath, we can exert control over anxiety symptoms – pretty empowering, right?
To practice controlling your breath, try this 3-Part Breathwork Practice. This is one of my favourite breath exercises, as it incorporates mindfulness into the process, encouraging us to be fully present within our bodies. When you are completely focused on the sensations you are experiencing in your body in this moment, it is harder for those worries to creep into your mind.
3-Part Breathwork Practice
- Sit comfortably in an upright position. Close your eyes (if that feels comfortable for you). Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest to help focus your attention.
- With each breath, you will bring your attention to 3 parts of your body, and the same 3 parts in reverse as you exhale.
- As you inhale, allow your belly to fill deeply with air. Next, bring your attention to your ribs as they expand, and finally to your chest as it rises. 3 parts on the inhale.
- As you exhale, notice as your chest falls, your ribs contract, and your belly empties of air.
- With each inhale, say to yourself “belly, ribs, chest” as you notice each part filling with air. With each exhale, think “chest, ribs, belly” as the air leaves your body. Repeat this cycle several times.
Another practice to work with the physiology of anxiety is using cold to alleviate anxiety symptoms. Have you ever noticed heat rising in your body as you encounter stress? Like a warmth creeping into your face or getting a little sweaty? Once again, your nervous system is engaging this fight-or-flight response, getting you ready to battle. These symptoms can be uncomfortable, and they might even add to your distress. To counter the heat of anxiety, try these simple techniques to literally cool your anxiety symptoms and allow your body to chill out:
- Place an ice cube on your wrist
- Wrap a cold pack around the back of your neck
- Splash some cold water on your face
- Step outside for a few cool deep breaths
Cold helps to decrease heartrate that leads to heat and sweating, engage the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system, and provides a welcome distraction from whatever is causing anxiety.