Everyone has anxiety. People can experience different degrees of it, but it’s something we all have to manage. In this two-part blog post we’re talking about a few simple exercises and easy-to-learn skills that can dramatically mitigate anxious feelings.
Our bodies store stress, anxiety, and trauma even when our minds do not. Therefore, it’s important that we understand how to deal with anxiety on not just a mental level, but a physical level as well.
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines anxiety as, “An…overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physical signs.” DSM-V defines anxiety as “excessive worry and feelings of fear, dread, and uneasiness that last six months or longer.”
Other anxiety symptoms can include:
- being restless
- being tired or irritable
- muscle tension
- not being able to concentrate
- not sleeping well
- shortness of breath
- fast heartbeat
Anxiety often happens as a result of our Autonomic Nervous Systems, which are really our own personal surveillance systems. This system’s “goal is to protect us by sensing safety and risk,” warning us when we’re in danger and leading us to take action (Dana, 2015). The work that our ANS does happens unconsciously, without us thinking about it. There are two divisions of the Automatic Nervous System: the Sympathetic and the Parasympathetic. The Sympathetic Nervous System is also known as the “Fight or Flight” response. It is “responsible for ‘priming the body for action’ when threatening survival situations arise” (Ornstein, 1992). The Parasympathetic Nervous System, on the other hand, regulates unconscious bodily functions, such as digestion and rest.
When our Sympathetic or “Fight or Flight” response is activated, it shuts down all non-essential tasks. This means that rational thought is less possible at this time (Hopper, 2009). It can be triggered by cumulative events, such as every day, repetitive stressors; single, traumatic events, such as car accidents, job loss, or abuse; or by complex/layered events, which are typically traumatic, such as multiple situations of abuse over a lifespan.
The goal of the exercises that we’re going to share with you is to activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System, which, as we discussed above, is responsible for important unconscious bodily functions. When our “Fight or Flight” responses are too activated too much of the time, it can cause damage to the body. Learning to activate your body’s Parasympathetic responses can help counteract that.
– EXERCISE NO. 1 –
Are you Right or Left-handed? Cross Dominant Arm and Leg over the other for 2 Minutes. This simple action brings calm and balance to the right and left hemispheres of the brain, and it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. To increase the benefit, you can add in an Extended Exhale Breath. In order to do this, breathe in through your nose and blow out through pursed lips, extending the exhale. Imagine a safe or pleasant time in your life, and reflect on this moment while sitting in the pretzel position. Crossing left and right hemispheres of your body helps with calming and relaxing, rational thinking, and reducing body’s reaction to stress (sweating, heart racing) so one can focus on good decision making.
– EXERCISE NO. 2 –
For our second exercise, we’ll first explain how our nerves can actually calm us down. Say hello to your Vagus Nerve! The Vagus Nerve has two parts: The Ventral, which is located on the under side, and is activated in front of the body. The Ventral Vagus Nerve is activated when we feel comfortable and connected. On the other hand, the Dorsal Vagus Nerve is located on the upper side and is activated in the back of the body and down your spine. When it’s activated, it takes us “offline”, out of awareness and into protective mode. When we feel “frozen, numb, or not here,” our Dorsal is in control (Dana, 2015).
Place your right hand under your left arm at armpit and your left hand on mid to upper right arm. Add gentle downward pressure, and hold for 2 minutes. This is placing pressure on the Ventral Vagal nerve system, which stimulates the Parasympathetic Nervous System and helps us to feel safety, comfortable, and connected. You can also add in an Extended Exhale Breath, where you breathe in through your nose and blow out through pursed lips, extending the exhale.
In Part 2 of this blog post, we discuss three more exercises you can use to help with managing anxiety and self-care.