How To Deal With Anxiety
“What can I do about my anxiety?” I get this question a lot from clients. It’s natural that we humans feel anxious about the unknown and what we cannot control. However, the reality is that we are in fact not in control of anything besides our own actions and responses. For some, this can understandably cause even more anxiety. For others, realizing we only have control over ourselves can relieve the constant pressure anxiety can create.
WHAT IS ANXIETY?
Anxiety can be about an isolated event, like feeling worried about a presentation or having a difficult conversation. This is a natural and universal experience that we can all relate to. Usually after the event is over the anxiety goes away.
Anxiety can also be more generalized. You are excessively worried about some or many things for a long period of time. Perhaps even for your whole life. You may also have racing thoughts, feel restless, have trouble sleeping and concentrating, and feel fatigued and irritable.
Sometimes, getting rid of anxiety is as easy as removing a trigger causing the anxiety. But that’s rarely the case for most situations. It can be hard or even impossible to change your external circumstances. And though I won’t be going into trauma in this post, avoidance of certain situations can be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In those situations, helping you learn to tolerate the stressors eventually reducing the need to avoid situations that limit how you live your life is beneficial. You can learn more about PTSD here: https://www.therapy4u.org/single-post/2019/06/02/Could-This-Be-PTSD
When you can’t easily change an external situation causing anxiety (a stressful job, a difficult relationship, financial trouble, health issues, family issues, political and world issues, etc.), it’s essential to find ways to calm and soothe yourself. How you deal with anxiety internally is key.
ANXIETY MANIFESTS IN THE BODY
Anxiety is felt in the body. It can trick us into thinking what we’re worried about is actually happening in the present moment. You stop breathing, clench your belly and throat, and your heart races. Your body braces for impending doom.
As a somatic psychotherapist, I work with my clients to become aware of where in their bodies they feel sensations of anxiety. Not surprisingly, the answer is most often in the throat, chest, and belly. This is where the vagus nerve is located, from the neck to the belly. The vagus nerve is involved in regulating our autonomic nervous system, our “flight/fight” or “rest/digest” responses.
Breathing slowly stimulates the vagus nerve in our bodies, therefore helping us feel calmer. We go from “flight/fight” to “rest/digest.” The other day in a yoga class, my teacher said, “If someone could put that into a pill, they’d be rich.” Great news, there’s no need to pay anyone or take a pill in order for you to breathe.
When you’re feeling anxious, it can feel counterintuitive to slow down and breathe. Anxiety makes us feel like we have to keep moving and doing. It can even feel impossible to slow down. Remember that the nervous system gets over taxed when we are constantly anxious. It’s essential to slow down your breathing and soothe your nervous system. Then you can actually tackle some of the core issues that may be causing or worsening your anxiety.
Below are two simple breathing techniques you can practice to calm your anxiety.
Sit, stand or lie down. Make sure your spine is straight and you have enough room in your torso to take deep breaths.
With your mouth closed, inhale for a count of 4.
Hold for a count of 4.
Exhale, through your nose or mouth, for a count of 4.
Hold for a count of 4.
Repeat as many times as needed.
Visualizing a square as you move through each step can help with this. It is also helpful to count in your head. This gives your mind something else to focus on and can calm racing thoughts.
Eventually, you can experiment with longer breaths on the exhale. A longer exhale soothes your nervous system even more, adding additional benefit to the breath practice. You can start with a slightly longer exhale than your inhale, building up to a 1:2 ratio.
The Long Exhale
Sit, stand or lie down with your spine straight.
With your mouth closed, inhale for a count of 3.
Hold for a count of 3.
Exhale for a count of 5.
Hold for a count of 3.
Repeat and build up to a longer exhale.
These simple breathing practices are great when you are feeling anxious, worried, or are having trouble sleeping. I encourage you to try these breathing practices and notice how it can shift your feelings of anxiety. Working with a somatic psychotherapist can help you practice these and other breathing techniques for anxiety and will help you deal with stressors in your life.
Julia Forberg is a licensed somatic psychotherapist in private practice in San Francisco. She works with individual women facing anxiety, depression, trauma, relationship issues, body image issues, and work/life balance. Using talk therapy and somatic (body-based) interventions, she loves helping women connect with their hearts and find relief from their suffering.