“Anxiety” is complicated. It shows up in many different ways. For some, it’s a twisting sensation in the belly, for others a dropping sensation, or movements running up and down the chest. Racing thoughts, racing heart, shallow breathing, and so on. Sometimes there are apparent triggers, sometimes the experience starts with no clear antecedent. No matter how your body lets you know that anxiety is present, here are five things you can do to soothe your self while honoring the message your body is sending you. Consider rehearsing these actions during a time when you’re feeling well enough to learn them so that you are primed for success.
1) Take some deep breaths
Break the cycle of physiological distress by sending yourself a signal to relax - take a deep breath in (count to 4 while you inhale) and out (count to 8, if you can, while you exhale). A good way to “rehearse” this step is to spend five minutes every day taking breaths in this way. Then when the time comes and you need to put this into action to soothe yourself, your body will already know what to do. Breathing pulls us into the present, and makes it easier to follow through with the rest of the steps below.
While you’re breathing, make note of the phenomena in your body that correspond with your experience of anxiety. Tell yourself, “in the presence of these phenomena, I know anxiety is present.” By addressing yourself this way, you can help your body learn to treat emotions as visitors, rather than letting them drive you. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches another great way to be present while doing deep breathing: as you inhale, think to yourself, "I'm breathing in. I know I'm breathing in," and as you exhale think to yourself "I'm breathing out. I know I'm breathing out."
2) Gather information
To further break the cycle of fear, ground yourself in reality. Make declarative statements to yourself based on the phenomena around you to teach your mind that you are safe. You can practice this by practicing observing phenomena rather than your interpretation of the phenomena in your daily life. Say someone cuts you off in traffic. All you know for sure is that the car that is now in front of you came into that space quite suddenly. You don’t know why, so if you find yourself thinking, “what a jerk!” label that thought as a story. Maybe consider other reasons that person may have behaved that way. When you need to soothe yourself, you will already have the tools you need to reflect on the present day and ground yourself in reality.
For example, people struggling with triggers that remind them of past unsafe conditions can learn to calmly observe their environment in order to remind themselves that the present is safe, and that the unsafe condition is behind them. A war vet triggered by a loud noise might identify the noise, “That was a car backfiring” and state what it is not “that was not a round going off,” and where they are “I am in my house, in Maryland.” and where they are not, “I am not in battle anymore.”
3) Take action
Emotions exist to call us to action. Fear comes from a need to keep us safe - it alerts us to threats. If your fear is actually grounded in something that is important to act upon, take this moment to allow the energy of the anxiety to transform into productivity. Determine what it is you can do to address the fear. Once you have gathered information about your present condition, determine what if any action may be required in the circumstance, make a plan, and follow through.
If you’re not sure what your body is asking you, that’s OK. Maintain your intention to listen to your body, and continue with the mindfulness practices from steps 1 and 2 to help yourself learn how to listen better. In your daily life you can prime this way of being by taking action rather than complaining when things aren’t working out the way you wish they would.
4) Seek partnership
There’s nothing wrong with asking for help! Phone a friend, or your therapist, or a hotline. Snuggle a pet, go on a walk with a trusted coworker. Ask a trusted somebody for a hug. We’re all in this together, and you have every right to go through this with a little help and love from another being. Develop this skill by designating certain people in your life as anxiety buddies (enroll them in this role!), or by saving hotline phone numbers into your phone - know who you can call.
5) Thank your body
Emotions are moving energy which call our attention to something that’s amiss. The messages it sends are often hormonal. Hormones flood our blood stream and impact many different tissues and organs throughout our bodies, and the effects can take quite awhile to wear off. This contributes to the discomfort and the sensation of inappropriate emotion that many people who experience anxiety struggle with.
Thank your body for bringing your attention to the situation, and go back over the information you’ve gathered to reassure yourself of your safety. Symptoms are the way the body and mind communicate with us when we’ve refused to listen, or failed to notice, that something is not quite right in our lives. Ask yourself, “what is my body trying to tell me?” If you’re not sure what your body is asking you, that’s OK. Maintain your intention to listen to your body, and continue with the mindfulness practices from steps 1 and 2 to help yourself learn how to listen better.
Another great way to learn to approach your body from a place of gratitude and love is to do things to honor and care for it as part of your daily life. Go for a walk, take a bath, receive a zero balancing session, sing, go to therapy, go to acupuncture... Whatever things you choose to do for your self, be sure to be mindful in your intention to be present to and grateful for your body's messages.
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This blog is not intended to replace professional medical or psychological care. If you are feeling depressed, anxious, or unsafe, please talk to your doctor or a licensed mental health therapist.