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05 · 09 · 19

Is the Nervous System the Secret to Calming Anxiety?

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We live in an age of anxiety.  Forty million American adults struggle with a diagnosable anxiety disorder and there are many more who suffer in silence.  Fortunately, anxiety disorders are highly treatable and there are a variety of therapeutic approaches that can help.  Some of the most recent innovations in treating anxiety come from burgeoning research on the brain and nervous system.

While it is best to consult with a licensed mental health professional if you are struggling with anxiety, there are some things you can do on your own to find more peace.

Anxiety Isn’t Just in Your Head

Anxiety isn’t just in our heads and that’s why trying to control our thoughts and emotions doesn’t work.  In fact, research shows that trying to control and suppress our thoughts and emotions has a rebound effect that only makes things worse.  What does work instead, is having the skills needed to regulate anxiety when it shows up in our bodies.

Anxiety is a nervous system response to a trigger—often one we may be unaware of.  Like all emotions, the accompanying physical sensations happen quicker than any thoughts we might have.  In order to manage anxiety successfully, it’s important to develop a compassionate understanding of how our nervous systems are actually trying to help us.

Our bodies are designed to keep us safe and this usually works in our favor.  Our bodies help us fight, flee, freeze, or fawn when there is a serious threat to our safety.  Sometimes, however, we get into a cycle of false alarms based on previous experiences and we need to teach our bodies that we are actually safe.

Here are some tips for not only reducing the symptoms of anxiety, but transforming our relationship with it.

10 Tips for Regulating Anxiety

1. Stop Fighting Anxiety

Anxiety can trigger a fight stress response that makes us want to attack or push against the anxiety and its accompanying physical sensations.  This can be problematic because the more we try to get rid of anxiety, the more it takes a hold of us.  When we aim to make peace with anxiety, the struggle lessens and we are free to start regulating and releasing it.

2. Try Not to Flee

Try to resist your nervous system’s urge to flee a situation that isn’t actually harmful.  To weaken the fear circuitry, see if you can stay in the situation until your anxiety has decreased by at least half.  Try deep breathing, a healthy self-soothing activity, mindfulness, self-compassion, or a healthy distraction so your body can learn that the situation is safe.  Listing things you see, hear, smell, touch, and taste can also help ground you in your body and the present moment.  Try to remember that feelings are just temporary waves of physical sensations.  Learning how to tolerate and even embrace the sensations can be very empowering, but needs to be done at your own pace and sometimes with support.

3. Thaw Your Freeze Response

Many people with anxiety have a freeze response when it comes to stress.  They feel withdrawn, immobilized, and helpless.  According to research, we can prevent activating the pathways for a freeze response by using an active coping strategy.  If you feel the urge to shut down, resist by engaging in a healthy active behavior.  The behavior can be something challenging like deliberately choosing to approach a task you’ve been avoiding or something as simple as calling a friend or going for a walk.  The important thing is to acknowledge the fear, tell yourself you’re safe, and keep moving forward so that your brain gets rewired and stops choosing a passive response.

4. Play More

When we are playing—dancing, singing, or some other fun and interactive experience—we are giving our bodies signals of safety.  Our bodies get the message that we must be safe since play occurs when we feel secure.  If you have a history of trauma, however, you might avoid play because it is a blend of two different nervous system states (vagal social engagement and sympathetic mobilization) that can quickly turn fun into feelings of fear and the need to protect oneself.  If play brings up feelings of fear for you, Deb Dana, author of The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation, suggests giving yourself time to experiment with safe and interactive moments of play.  Through repeated experiences of safe play, the capacity to feel good while playing is strengthened.  Pick a supportive friend and experiment with a little light banter, playing catch, or a short board game.  When you feel up to it, consider joining a group that plays well together.

5. Create a Self-Soothing Bag for Anxiety

Create a self-soothing bag that you can take with you anywhere.  In a previous post, I recommended a variety of objects that you can use to fill the bag.  Self-soothing is especially helpful when we feel anxious and need a healthy distraction to help us tolerate distress rather than do anything reactive.

6. Strengthen the Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve.  It extends from our brain to our abdomen and travels to various organs.  The vagus nerve serves an important function because it has a direct impact on our parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us feel calm.  The following can all strengthen the vagus nerve and help us feel more relaxed: humming; singing loudly; deep breathing with longer exhales; probiotics; hugging; exercise; positive social interactions; laughing; cold water (check with your doctor about using cold showers for anxiety since it can cause a drastic drop in blood pressure); and yoga and meditation.

7. Observe the Anxiety

See if you can just observe what you’re experiencing without identifying with it or wanting it to be any different.  Rather than saying that you are afraid, try saying, “I’m noticing the feeling of fear passing through me.”  Rather than getting lost in your thoughts, say, “I’m noticing that I’m having some anxious thoughts.”  By observing and allowing the anxiety to be present, you are teaching your nervous system that you can tolerate and manage discomfort.

8. Know Your Triggers

Making a list of your top 5 anxiety triggers can help you prepare for them and distinguish between real concerns and anxiety.  For example, if you know that traveling triggers you, you can plan ahead by packing a self-soothing bag and doing some activities that stimulate the vagus nerve every day for a week before the trip.  If you are already triggered, you can say, “Oh, that’s just my trigger.  I am safe.”  Once you recognize the feeling as a response to a trigger, see if you can use mindfulness to be present with the anxiety.  If that feels like too much, you can choose to do something nurturing from your self-soothing bag.

9. Get Curious

When it’s functioning properly, anxiety is a healthy alarm letting us know that something requires our attention.  Maybe you’re putting off an important task or ignoring an issue for too long.  Maybe you need to be nudged a little.  Maybe you need to set boundaries or ask for help.  When you feel anxiety in your body, ask it if it has a message for you.  If the message seems reasonable and healthy, take it into consideration.  If the response you get is just worry or one of your usual triggers, it’s probably a false alarm.  Just note that it’s one of your triggers and move on to a different strategy.

10. Cultivate Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is associated with lower levels of anxiety.  Try this mindful self-compassion practice by self-compassion researcher Dr. Kristen Neff. Whenever you’re suffering, say to yourself: “This is a moment of suffering.  Suffering is a part of life. May I be kind to myself right now.”  Once you feel a little better, ask yourself if there is anything you need.  Can you give yourself the nurturing you need?

While this list is not exhaustive by any means, it can help us stop running from anxiety and start regulating it.  Uncomfortable emotions are a part of life for all of us and feeling them in a healthy way is about learning how to be present, accepting, and soothing.

As we welcome our emotional experiences with compassion, we show our brains that we can tolerate and regulate difficult feelings.  Perhaps one of the most important things we discover on the journey to regulating anxiety, however, is that there is a lot to be learned about being kind to ourselves.

Your turn: I’d love to hear from you.  Is there a strategy on the list that you’ve never heard of and would like to try?

*While these strategies can help with worry, it warrants its own guide.  In a future post, I’ll cover what happens in our brains when we worry and how we can manage it.

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Hi Missy! I love that these tips are something new for you to explore! I hope you find them to be helpful!

Very interesting and practical article. I really enjoyed the biological perspective. I’ve been reading about the vagus nerve lately and trying to implement whatever I find. The explanations you provide here are very clear. The tip about thawing the freeze response is especially intriguing. Thank you for making it all easy to apply.

So glad to hear that the information resonated with you Kavitha! It’s wonderful that you’re reading about the vagus nerve and trying to improve vagal tone. Biological perspectives can be so helpful!

These tips are really helpful. I have a lot of social anxiety and I think the second strategy is the one I really have to work on the most. Thanks.