Anxiety is the body’s natural response to actual or perceived threats in our environment. It shows up very differently for people, and is caused by a variety of reasons. According to the National Institute of Mental Health “an estimated 31.1% of U.S. adults experience any anxiety disorder at some time in their lives.” Learning how anxiety affects us as individuals will allow us to manage daily stressors, find intention, feel confident facing our actual and perceived environmental threats, and hopefully give us the freedom to go about our lives. There are also a few very tangible tools and activities you can practice to manage the increased anxiety you may be feeling in the midst of the global pandemic and other stressors in life today.
Understanding Everyday Anxiety & Anxiety Disorders
Before we jump into some ways to help manage anxiety, let’s begin with some biology. As humans, we have evolved to be wired to overinterpret the danger of the stressors we face today. For instance, a “fight or flight” response was necessary for survival thousands and even hundreds of years ago, when humans needed to protect themselves and their families from the threat of wild animals while hunting and gathering. This fight or flight response is a function of the sympathetic nervous system. It begins with the release of adrenaline in the bloodstream which then causes bodily responses such as muscle tension, increased heart rate, and shortness of breath. Your body is mobilizing oxygen to the muscles, preparing to—quite literally—fight back or flee from danger.
You can see why this would be necessary for survival in life-threatening situations. However, this response is out of proportion to the causes of general or social anxiety for many people (i.e. an impending test at school, deadlines at work, social interaction with peers). This is why we must take steps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system when feeling anxious. This nervous system is responsible for relaxing the muscles, regulating normal bodily functions, enabling connection with others, and responding appropriately to the cause of the anxiety.
It’s very important to recognize physiological cues that indicate you are reacting to anxiety from a sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous state.
Five Ways to Reduce the Frequency, Intensity and Duration of Anxiety
In order to reduce the frequency, intensity, and duration of anxiety, it’s important to build a practice of activating the parasympathetic nervous system. The strategies below can help you do this:
Mindfulness & Relaxation Techniques
- Extend your exhale twice as long as your inhale
- Purse your lips to put pressure on the back of the throat while breathing through the nose (ocean breathing/ujjayi, pranayama)
- Sing! Singing extends the exhale.
- Abdominal breathing – long, full, deep breaths into the abdomen
Tighten a specific muscle group for 10 seconds and then release, starting at the top of your body and moving down to your toes. The key is to bring focused awareness to the release of the muscle tension.
Meditation brings us back to the present moment, in which we can focus on a calmer breath pattern, lower the heart rate, and send messages to the body that it can relax. Meditation, therefore, increases our objectivity, resiliency, and capacity to choose how we respond.
Integrates all of the above: muscle movement, breath, and mindfulness. It incorporates focused breath and attention as different muscle groups are activated in a meditative flow.
Identify and name emotions
Dr. Dan Siegel calls this “Name it to Tame it”. By bringing awareness to emotions and verbally expressing our “inner world,” we are biologically moving into the executive part of the brain, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
Stimulants like caffeine increase the physiological response triggered by anxiety. Reducing these stimulants in our diets sets the stage for our bodies to feel relaxed.
By choosing to exercise in moments of anxiety, we are “using up” the adrenaline that was released in the fight-or-flight state and allows our bodies to become balanced and relaxed.
Decrease screen time
Constant screen use may provoke anxiety through stimulating images and headlines.
Once you’ve tapped into your parasympathetic nervous system, the goal is to stay here, and allow your body to “rest and digest.” When we activate these nerves, they communicate with the liver to absorb the adrenaline coursing through our bloodstream, telling our muscles that it’s okay to relax and rest. From this grounded state, you’ll be able to better choose a response that is values-based and proportionate to the circumstances.
Additionally, in a parasympathetic nervous state, our body and mind recognize we are safe enough to step outside of our internal world and engage with our social environment. It is in this state that we are able to connect with others and offer support or protection. Some strategies for managing anxiety through social engagement include:
Spend intentional time with others
Schedule time with loved ones to nurture connection and relationship. Right now, this might look like weekly FaceTime check-ins with your loved ones, or actually setting aside time with each member of your household. Just because you’re under the same roof doesn’t necessarily mean you’re nurturing your relationships with these people, so consider actually scheduling some intentional 1:1 time.
Emotional and behavioral compassion is proven to have positive effects on mental health by reducing depression and anxiety and increasing self-esteem.
Connection to a higher power
Practice prayer, keep a gratitude list, or recite mantras to be in connection with a higher power and foster closeness with others through those practices.
If you’re experiencing anxiety, it’s important that you acknowledge where the fear and feeling is coming from, as the causes of our anxieties are often out of proportion to our response (fight or flight). This is why we must take steps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system when feeling anxious. Activities like practicing breathing techniques, meditation, decreasing your screen time and exercise can help balance and activate the nerves that help diffuse these elevated responses in our body. Social connectedness is also extremely important as we face anxiety. Finally, it’s important to realize that you are absolutely not alone. Study after study shows that anxiety affects many of us and is extremely common, especially as we all do our best to navigate this unprecedented time in history.