I have spent much of my life searching for answers to why I often feel anxious, as far back as when I was a little girl. My earliest panic attacks usually centered around school milestones, getting in trouble with adults, or stressful family vacations.
Over time, I started to simply feel anxious all the time and not even realize it–just a vague sense that something was not quite right. Eventually, I came to learn that the disproportionate tension and stress I was experiencing from more or less everyday circumstances was not something I had to live with.
That realization catalyzed the deepening of my yoga and meditation practice, which was ultimately a search to learn about my body, nervous system, and psyche, and to gain the tools that would eventually bring me back into balance.
I had practiced yoga and meditation since I was fourteen, but I found that those tools alone weren’t enough. They created a very solid foundation off of which to work, however, and led me to deeper practices that eventually provided the insight and deep nervous system recovery that I needed.
Work It Out
Exercise has been probably the single most powerful tool for me to cope with anxiety. When a panic attack comes on and that surge of adrenaline overtakes me, nothing helps to ground me like a heavy, weight-based circuit.
It doesn’t have to be complex or push me to my absolute limits. In fact, the slower and steadier it is, the better for my nerves. When I’m really feeling ungrounded, I throw on some ankle weights and a weighted vest. If I’m short on time or just can’t muster a full workout, these tools plus a short round of jumps on the trampoline are a good way to get that heavy feeling and to burn off the excess stress chemicals in my body.
It’s no coincidence to me that the same techniques work for kids with sensory processing issues, my kiddo included.
Another invaluable tool for anxiety management is the practice of non-doing. In the Asian dharma traditions, this is known as wu wei, but here it simply means slowing down and smelling the roses. Non-doing can be as simple as sitting down for twenty minutes of uninterrupted time in the park. It can also be a quick lie down on the bed with eyes shut, or taking a hot bath with no additional stimulation, like a podcast or music.
The difficulty with non-doing and anxiety is that, in an anxious state, it’s almost impossible to do nothing without getting more anxious. It’s important to find a way to burn off the adrenaline first and integrate non-doing into your everyday life. It doesn’t work well as an in-the-moment anxiety fix.
Rather, over time, the practice of non-doing will allow our nervous system to remember what it feels like to stop running from the proverbial tiger. It’s also a good litmus for when things are speeding up in life; if you let your non-doing practice go, that’s a red flag that your nervous system is starting to ramp up.
Because anxiety is often triggered by our thoughts, we can sometimes bring our nervous system back into a calmer state by connecting to those around us. If we put ourselves into a social space with people with whom we feel safe, our nervous system automatically settles a bit.
There’s no need to verbalize our anxiety for this to happen, though being upfront about it can help put things in perspective, too. A caveat though — sometimes we can actually increase our anxiety and the anxiety of those around us by bringing up our anxious thoughts and putting them into words. It’s important to know the difference between being honest about how you are feeling and giving voice (and thus legitimacy) to the anxious thinking.
Because we are social animals, our nervous systems automatically respond and calibrate to the nervous systems of those around us. You probably have someone in your life who tends to trigger anxiety in you, and perhaps have someone who does the opposite. Tune in to the people and situations that have a calming effect on your nervous system and seek them out, especially in difficult times.
The Right Tool At The Right Time
These three tools are an extremely simple yet extremely effective triad for calming anxiety. Working out is a great option when anxiety is at its peak; heavy work acts almost as a tranquilizer for the body and nerves. Once exhausted from a solid workout, it’s very difficult for the body not to go into a restorative phase.
The non-doing practice is most effective as a preventive measure, as well as a way to stay aware of whether the nervous system is relaxed enough to tolerate silent time that isn’t oriented toward action or productivity. If it isn’t, that probably means there is a little bit of fight or flight happening, even subconsciously.
Connecting is something we could always use more of, and I personally think is at the core of the mental health crisis that seems to be gripping the United States, the land of individualism. The more we connect to our tribe, the more we feel supported, heard, and cared for.
Nothing could be more valuable in helping us feel safe and secure and allowing us to have an innate sense of trust in the world.