Heart racing, palms sweating, feeling lightheaded, stomach-churning, what is happening to me? The human body has adapted to survive. It reacts to the environment with split-second safety measures that include activation of the fight or flight response or by shutting down. When we are exposed to a threat, our bodies will take over in order to keep us safe. We are on autopilot. How amazing is that? Survival through safety is the ultimate goal.
Threats in 2020 are quite different than when being chased by predators, but our brains perceive all threats as danger. Danger requires a response by the body to either activate or hide. It is this response that creates an uncomfortable feeling of anxiety. Although we are (hopefully) not being chased by large animals, our bodies are always ready for that threat.
Treatment for anxiety centers on controlling the immediate response of the body. A combination of retraining thought patterns and calming the body will ease anxiety. The body needs to feel safe and the mind needs to change its story.
One form of anxiety treatment we can initiate ourselves is the stimulation of the Vagus nerve. We have a nerve that runs from our brain to our gut, this nerve is called the Vagus nerve. When we stimulate this nerve we can create a parasympathetic response that will calm the body. This in turn will alleviate the feeling of anxiety. Some ways to stimulate this nerve are:
- Deep Breathing Breathing from the diaphragm through the nose and exhaling for a longer time than inhaling is one way to create a sense of calm. A hand on the stomach in order to feel it expand with the breath will help open the diaphragm.
- Engaging the vocal cords Singing, chanting, humming all activate the Vagus nerve. So easy and so fun!
- Meditation Meditation that involves thinking about goodwill towards others will create a deep feeling of connection. Doing this for a short time daily will change Vagal tone.
- Cold When your body adjusts to cold it stimulates the Vagus nerve. Splashing cold water on your face, taking a cold shower or taking a swim in cold water will decrease the fight or flight response and activate the rest and digest response.
- Yoga Holding certain positions with the body activates the Vagus nerve. Yoga leads to increased relaxation and improved mood.
These activities can be practiced daily to enhance Vagal tone.
Negative thoughts are the next part of the anxiety feedback loop. As humans, we are hard-wired towards negativity since remembering bad outcomes was an important part of keeping us safe. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help us regain control of our thoughts. The constant questioning of anxious thoughts is necessary to put them into perspective. Am I in danger? What is the danger? What is the reality of the situation?
Being able to calm the body and calm the mind when faced with anxiety is a skill that can be learned. Anyone who is trained in emergency response needs to be able to react to the situation with a “cool head”. The fact that “cool” is used to describe the reaction points to a Vagus nerve response. Emergency workers practice this response over and over until they are able to react without getting caught up in fear. It is the practice that is important. Meditation, questioning thought patterns, and stimulating the Vagus nerve all require practice so when the anxiety is present the mind and body can immediately know what to do to feel safe.
Body Positive Works uses all of these practices to aid people in finding their calm, safe place. Reach out to us to discuss if you need treatment for anxiety.