How do you deal with everyday anxiety? That feeling of overwhelm that keeps you distracted and off balance? I spent what feels like a lifetime trying to answer that question.
And nothing on the long list of self-help strategies I tried had the answer. It took me many years and multiple credentials to learn that managing your stress response is the key to moving forward with whatever your goals are – from changing careers to losing weight to writing your memoirs.
Until you’re able to change your thinking habits, you’ll feel trapped by your life circumstances. And it’s not easy to do! You can’t reason your way out of an emotional state. The part of the brain responsible for keeping you ready to fight, fly or freeze is making sure of it. The normal subconscious response is to play it safe, but the dangers it’s attempting to protect us from are often off base.
The brain’s mode of learning keeps every negative past experience filed in the subconscious, at the ready, to help you avoid any similar threat in the future. The problem is it’s not always accurate.
Yes, remembering the sunburn you suffered will help you to remember to wear sunscreen. However asking your boss for a raise you deserve is not the same as asking your 5th grade teacher for the A you didn’t. You have no idea how your boss will respond, but probably not with the snappy retort Mr. Codger did.
Yet the part of your brain that stores these emotional memories will serve up a dose of stress hormones to warn you of this past experience – even if you don’t remember it! And that feeling of anxiety that comes when you think about doing that new thing can easily keep you from attempting it.
Anxiety makes it hard to leave your comfort zone. Then there’s the everyday anxiety that builds as we wake up and get swept away by our devices, families, responsibilities. The everyday demands and challenges that can keep the stress hormones building in our systems so that even the little things feel overwhelming.
Naturally, it’s hard not to snap at the teenager who interrupts you when you’re already at the end of your rope. Much as we justify, these negative reactions usually make us feel worse, resulting in even more anxiety.
Anxiety make you more reactive to everyday stressors.
Finally there are the habits or thought patterns we’ve turned to so many times, they come up automatically during times of stress. You know you need to stop thinking about how frustrated you are with your teenager, your spouse or your ex. But they’re making your life hell and it’s impossible not to feel angry or depressed. And when it gets too bad, it’s hard not to check out on social media or head to the couch with a bag of chips.
You tell yourself you need to make better choices, to learn how to deal with it, but before you know it, you’re back in that old thought pattern or habit, maybe even beating yourself up over it.
Anxiety keeps you stuck in negative stress-relief habits.
The point here is, you’re not able to control the inner workings of the brain using your mind. Fortunately though, we have a back door pass to managing our emotional states, and it’s as simple as the breath we breathe every day.
The relationship between the breath and the body is nothing new. We know that short, shallow breathing increases our heartrate, blood pressure and adrenaline. It causes a rise in cortisol levels and produces the feeling of stress.
The opposite is also true, deep, exhale extended breathing taps into the part of our autonomic nervous system responsible for rest and digest.
Recent Stanford studies explore the reciprocal relationship between brain and body and how to use the autonomic nervous system to de-escalate the stress response which leads to chronic anxiety.
According to researcher Dr. Andrew Huberman, “The most common way that we’ve learned to turn off the stress response is to ingest food, carbohydrates in particular. … When our belly is distended, it sends a signal to the brain that counters the stress response, and this is the essence of the parasympathetic response,” he said.
But pounding carbs isn’t a healthy or practical way to counter stress, Huberman noted. Other stress management techniques like, “exercise, baths, massages and vacations are wonderful… but we wanted to develop tools that people could use in the moment.”
In my work is a coach, I’ve learned how important it is to incorporate these tools during times of transition. Otherwise your subconscious protective mechanisms will keep you too anxious, distracted and stuck in old patterns to move forward on your path to growth and freedom.
In the words of the esteemed icon of resilience, Viktor E. Frankl;
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
If your stress response patterns are holding you back, you need mind-body strategies that are proven to reduce stress in the moment and overall, no yoga pants required.
And I hope you’re interested in learning more, because right now I’m launching a free mini-workshop to introduce you to some easy, approachable strategies for stress reduction.
Join me for 10 days, 10 minutes a day to Breath-based Stress Reduction for midlife habit change. Click here to learn more!