Sunday, June 12, 2011

Calming our anxious minds and bodies

“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” ~Mark Twain

Anxiety is necessary.  It helps us to accomplish tasks that need to get done, it often helps to motivate us to make decisions or changes, and it can be very helpful in letting us know that our stress levels are too high or that things are out of balance in some way in our lives.  In the best of circumstances, this can help us to slow down, take time to breathe and reflect on our situation in efforts to understand how we need to proceed.  Anxiety acts as an internal warning sign for us of danger or trouble, and it can prevent us from doing things that may cause us physical or psychological harm.  We need a certain level of anxiety to stay safe, progress and move forward in our lives.  When the level of anxiety gets too high, though, it can get in the way and stop us from living the life we truly want to live.

Anxiety can manifest in many different forms.  It can occur in our thinking, through recurring negative thoughts, a.k.a. worry and/or rumination; it can occur in our bodies in symptoms of stomach upset or pain, headaches, back pain, chest pain, heart palpitations, general restlessness or fatigue.  It can affect our appetite causing us to eat more or less, it can affect our sleep patterns, making it difficult to fall or stay asleep or causing distressing dreams; it can interfere in our relationships and our sex lives and negatively impact our general ability to function at work, school or home.  When anxiety seeps into many or all of these areas in our lives, it can cause other symptoms, as well, such as phobias, panic, irritability and depression.  Anxiety can be extremely uncomfortable, which makes it difficult to let ourselves just feel it and move through it.  It can sometimes leave us not knowing what to do or where to turn for relief, which can lead to quick fixes like food, drugs, alcohol or spending.  Most of us have soothed an anxious mind or relaxed from a stressful day with a drink, some chocolate, a trip to the mall or some combination of all three.  These calming strategies can be helpful in moderation, but if we start to rely on them too heavily or too often, they can become new problems layered upon what was once just an uncomfortable feeling.  They can also rob us of the ability to learn how to handle these challenging feelings in a natural and healthy way.

Here are six proven strategies for relief of anxiety that you can start to practice right now:

1)    Deep, slow diaphragmatic (abdominal or “belly”) breathing (This is the type of breathing taught in yoga or singing, that originates in your belly rather than in your chest.  Inhale slowly through your nose for five counts, hold the breath for five slow counts, exhale through your mouth for five slow counts.)
2)    Mindfulness Meditation (This is simply the process of being present in the moment, and letting go of thoughts of the past or future.  Paying attention to your breathing, noticing your surroundings-sounds/smells/sensations-bringing your awareness back to your breath each time your mind wanders to past or future.)
3)    Regular exercise (aerobic/yoga/dance/running/sports etc)
4)    Identifying your negative, distorted, repetitive thinking habits and learning to challenge them and replace them with more accurate, positive and soothing thoughts.
5)    Learning to identify and express your feelings/needs appropriately and assertively.
6)    Analyze your diet / habits and modify intake of caffeine/alcohol/nicotine/other drugs.  Get help with this if necessary through a support group like AA, NA or MA; or with the help of a physician or therapist.

Recent Studies from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology have found that attending theatrical performances, art shows or other cultural events, volunteering or participating actively in the creative process oneself can significantly lower levels of anxiety.  What creative pursuits do you enjoy?

You probably already have quite a few ideas of your own on how you might lower your current level of anxiety.  Identifying and organizing them can help.  Try making a list of activities that help you relax and start doing them.  Here’s my top 10 (other than the one’s named above):

-Taking a hot bath or shower
-Calling a friend or family member
-Collaging in my journal
-Listening to and discovering new music
-Spending time with my dog
-Watching a movie
-Musical Theater
-Completing a task that I have been putting off, like cleaning my house


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