Five Strategies to help with anxiety.
1) Abdominal breathing
Did you know that you can actually be breathing incorrectly? Take a moment right now to notice how you are breathing. Are you breathing from high up in your chest or low down in your stomach? It may surprise you to learn that breathing from up in our chests can actually both be a response AND a cause of stress and anxiety. When we (our brains and our bodies) sense threat, they automatically go into a fight, flight, freeze mode. Consequently, we can start breathing at a rapid pace to get as much oxygen into our bodies so we can either fight or avoid the danger.
Of course, in our modern-day society, it’s unlikely that we are going to be faced with real-life predators. We are however likely to be faced with work stress, personal confrontations, pandemics, traffic jams, and financial worries, all of which will activate our fight, flight, faint (FFF), response.
However, our FFF response is meant to only be triggered briefly at times of great danger, but in 21st century living we are continuously surrounded by external stressors. This means that our FFF response rarely gets switched off and we become habituated to it. It becomes so common place that we stop noticing that we are doing it. This combined with our society pressures which may hinder us from breathing correctly such as spending a lot of time sitting, poor chair/desk design, and not wanting to stick our stomachs out as it can appear “unattractive”.
What we want to be doing is breathing from our stomachs, like a sleeping child. This “belly breathing” stimulates the vagus nerve, which runs from the top of our heads, down our necks, through the chest, and down to the colon. The stimulation of the vagus nerve activates our relaxation response, reducing your heart rate, blood pressure, and decreasing our levels of stress.
How do I learn how to do abdominal breathing?
Sit or lie comfortably.
Place one hand on your upper chest and the other hand below your ribcage. This will help you to become aware of where you are breathing from. Ideally, the top hand will barely move, whilst the hand on your stomach will move a great deal.
Breathing in slowly through your nose
Breath out through your mouth by letting your stomach gently relax.
Repeat for three breaths.
Like most skills, it can feel awkward when you first start doing this. However, the more you practise, the easier it becomes, until it simply becomes an automatic habit that occurs whenever your notice yourself feeling overwhelmed or anxious.
2) Safe place imagery
We all know what happens when we start playing out arguments that have never happened in our minds. We may feel hot, tense, shaky, sweaty, and angry, even though the argument is entirely fictious. This is because our FFF response has been triggered and we are responding as if the imagined event was happening in real life.
A safe place, mind sanctuary, or happy place could be considered as an antithesis to this. By creating an image which helps us to feel safe, secure, and happy, we sooth that FFF response, lowering our physiological arousal and promoting wellbeing.
Creating a safe place is highly personalised. It can be entirely imaginary (e.g a castle floating on a cloud, protected by dragons) or somewhere you have been. You might be alone or have loved ones, friends, animals with you. Below are some examples that previous clients have created to help give you an idea…
Waking up in a cabin on the edge of a forest with their family. Leaving the family sleeping and going outside where a cup of coffee is waiting on a table. They stand on the cabin’s decking looking out towards a field with the horses they are going to ride later. In the distances are mountains and a lake. They can hear stags calling in the morning air.
Lying on a tropical beach listening to the birds. The sun is high up in the sky and there are no clouds. The sea is a beautiful turquoise colour and they can hear the waves gently lapping against the sand. The sand feels soft and warm underneath them. Someone is going to be bringing them a cocktail shortly, and they can hear music playing from a bar nearby.
Sitting at the top of a mountain, looking down at a huge lake with a small house next to it. It’s windy at the top of the mountain but everything looks calm below. They can see that someone is inside the house as there are lights on and smoke is rising from the chimney. As they look around, they can see an eagle flying through the sky which comes and sits next to them.
When you start to create your safe place, take your time to get comfortable and close your eyes (if you feel safe to do so). When the image comes to you, start to ask yourself, what can you see, hear, taste, touch, and small. Go into as much detail as possible. This place is completely for you so it can change and adapt to whatever you need when you visit it.
This is a simple and effective method for helping to put the brakes on our anxiety by forcing us to focus on what is going on in front of us.
Five things you can see – name out loud five objects you can see. The idea is that you need to actually look at five different objects.
Four things you can touch – again saying them out loud and picking them up. Holding the objects and interacting with them.
Three things you can hear – saying out loud what you can hear.
Two things you can smell - often a more challenging one but again it forces us to actively engage with our surroundings.
One big breath – engaging that abdominal breathing!
Why not give this one a go now? What did you notice? Were those anxiety thoughts about to break through that exercise? Or did your mind temporarily slow down and your levels of anxiety decrease?
An alternative to this is picking a colour and looking around for as many objects of that colour as possible. This is a great one for when you are driving and you notice your anxiety/physiological arousal increasing.
4) Going out for a walk
Engaging in any form of light exercise is more effective for treating anxiety and depression than any medication. Walking around your garden, walking to the shops and back, doing 15 minutes of yoga, or anything which gets you physically moving is going to help to decrease your anxiety. The tricky bit can be starting the exercise in the first place. Remember, you can always start small (going to the end of your driveway) and build up from there. Also, being kind to yourself.
5) Talk to someone.
It sounds cliché to say but talking to someone often helps us to see that the things we are worried about often aren’t as worrisome as the originally seemed. Friends and family may help to provide us with reassurance, a different perspective, or may just be a good shoulder to cry on. Even the act of saying our worries out loud, or writing them down, can help us to distance from them and think about whether they are as anxiety provoking as they seemed in our heads.
Unfortunately, for some of us, we may need more specialist support and help to address our anxious thoughts. Initially this might be speaking with your GP and getting access to either pharmaceutical interventions to help moderate your mood or getting access to psychological interventions either through the NHS or privately. Psychological interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) have strong evidence in terms of their effectiveness with working with anxiety. Treatment can often be delivered either in person, online, or over the telephone, at a time that is convenient for you.