Lets start with the basics - Don’t skip this part! Understanding anxiety is crucial and it helps to normalise and validate your experience.
So, what is anxiety?
Anxiety is one of your bodies threat responses.
Inside your brain you have something called an amygdala. It's a little almond shape structure in your limbic system (the emotional centre of your brain) that is responsible for scanning for danger, alerting you to potential threats and sending signals telling your body to prepare to keep you safe.
You may have heard of flight/fright/freeze/fawn?
When under threat you’ll likely respond in one of these four ways, either instinctively wanting to fight back against the threat, run away, freeze and shutdown, become still in the hopes the threat doesn't notice you or by trying to please and appease the threat.
With anxiety, quite often you’ll notice a feeling of wanting to escape a situation, avoid it entirely or run away. This is your flight response in action.
You may also notice a whole range of physical symptoms;
maybe your breathing quickens and shallows (this is to increase the level of oxygen in your body, ready to use if you start to flee or fight)
You may notice sweating, wobbly legs or tingling in your extremities
You may notice butterflies in your tummy (this is because your brain temporarily diverts energy and blood flow away from functions like digesting your food, into your limbs readying you to run or fight)
You might feel dizzy, lightheaded, nauseous, sweaty and hot. Your muscles may become tense.
All of this is normal - it's your body getting ready to deal with a threat.
This threat response is evolutionary.
Our great great great ancestors were cavemen. They lived lives full of dangers and threats - rival tribes and sabre-tooth tigers were real and they had to be on the lookout at all times in order to survive.
And even today we do still need this evolutionary survival mechanism - It’s the thing that tells us to get out of the road when a car is heading towards us!
However, these days your amygdala functions a bit like a smoke alarm…
Sometimes it goes off when there is a real threat, like a fire. Other times it goes off when it only thinks it detects a threat; like when you burn the toast.
Our threat response goes off about 'burnt toast' situations all the time these days... Like when our boss calls us in to their office, when we get a blunt text from a friend, when we worry about our health, when an unexpected bill arrives, when we have to speak to an audience… and while these are not real-life threatening situations our brain responds like they are!
When you are anxious you are operating in a part of your autonomic nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system. This is your stress response - a place where your body gets ready for action. It’s like your bodies version of a gas pedal in a car.
What we want to be able to do in times of anxiety and stress is return our nervous system to a state of calm regulation. This is called your parasympathetic nervous system, or accessing your vagus nerve/ the ventral vagal part of your nervous system. It’s like the brake pedal in your car, slowing you down.
It’s useful to know all of this so you know that your body is responding to stress in ways that it thinks is helpful and protective. Sometimes though, our nervous systems get a bit ‘hijacked’ and we end up reflexively responding from a place of dysregulation and anxiety. And when this happens we might end up feeling burnout, fatigued, struggling with digestive issues and poor sleep and so on.
So, how do we regulate our nervous system? Lets look at a range of practical tools to manage your anxiety and worries…
I’m sure you’ve heard this one a million times. But let me try to convert you to breath work (if you haven’t been already) with a bit of the science behind why breathing techniques are so important for managing anxiety - When you are anxious you over-breath. And when you over-breathe you throw out the delicate balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen in your system. You end up with less CO2 than you need. CO2 helps dilates your blood vessels so, when you over-breathe, oxygen doesn't flow freely and you end up with a range of symptoms. Maybe you experience sleep disturbance and insomnia, or a tight chest and feelings of panic, or muscle twitches and fatigue. If you are experiencing any of these I highly suggest you try slow, deep diaphragmatic/belly breathing.
Calm your body first (most of the communication from our nervous system is from you body up to your brain - So we want to create a sense of safety in our bodies to turn off anxiety). Try:
Dunking your face in cold/icy water for 30 seconds (this activates something called the mammalian dive reflex which slows down your heart rate by 10 to 25%)
Place an ice pack on your chest, your face or the back of your neck
Try butterfly taps; cross your arms over your chest and alternately tap each shoulder
Gentle stretching or yoga
Somatic tools are often the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to overcoming anxiety. If you'd like to begin a 30 day practice challenge and introduce a range of bite-sized practices that take less than 15 minutes a day then come and join our course Soma & Soul
Manage your worry
When we are anxious its easy to get pulled into whirlpool thoughts - unhelpful thinking styles that suck you in to catastoprhising, trying to predict the future or getting caught up in mind reading (imaging you know what others are thinking).
Here are some ways to manage worry:
Focus on what is inside your circle of control, not your circle of concern. When we focus on things that are outside of our ability to influence or control we end up feeling powerless, anxious and frustrated. Focus on the things that you can do something about.
Try ‘Worry Time’ - Set aside 10 minutes after dinner to sit and think about all of the things you are worried about. Maybe jot them down or journal about them. At the end of the 10 minutes, brainstorm some solutions and do some problem solving. Then let it all go by either burning the paper, taking a relaxing shower or putting you feet up with a cuppa. For the rest of the day any time a worry pops up press pause on it. Tell the worry “I see you there and I will come to you at my next ‘worry time’.”
These strategies should provide you with a good start - The key is practice, and creating habits while calm so you can access your tools in times of anxiety. Hang in there, you got this.
For more tools and support, you can check out our membership; full of courses, monthly classes and coaching and a library full of practical resources at your finger tips.