It might start with a simple worry. The next thing you know your mind is spinning, your heart is racing and you feel tense all over. You might even find that you begin to feel fearful and panicky. Whether your symptoms are mild, or they’ve reached a point where you find it challenging to function in your daily life, there are some strategies that can help.
First, know that you are not alone. In fact, you are in good company. Approximately 19% of the overall population is affected each year by anxiety. It does not discriminate by age either, as kids and adolescents are experiencing anxiety at alarming rates. According to a recent community-based study, the prevalence of anxiety has increased 3-fold since the Covid-19 pandemic.
What can you do about it?
Learning about how the mind and body are integrated and impact one another is the first step. When our thoughts become distressing and we begin to worry, our body receives stress signals and begins to respond. That’s why you might notice tension in your shoulders or butterflies in your stomach. You might start to feel like you can’t catch a breath or that your heart is responding as if you just ran a marathon. Those are all signals that your thoughts are pushing your body into the stress response.
In order to better manage and hopefully reduce your anxiety, you can take a mind-body approach to addressing it.
Here is the essential idea:
1. Calm the Mind
2. Soothe the Body
Anxiety often begins as a worry about something that could happen in the future. Once the thought is planted in our mind, a rumination loop often begins. We might continue to hear the same thought on repeat, over, and over, and over. The cycle will continue until we implement strategies to break the pattern and calm the mind.
Strategies for calming the mind:
See if you can shift or change the thought. Instead of focusing on what you think could happen, bring your focus to the here and now. Try to change your thought to the reality of what is happening right now, instead of what you worry might happen in the future.
Find something else to focus on. Sometimes our brains just need to replace the thought with something else for a while to slow down and regain control. You can do this by focusing on your breath, counting your breaths, listening to music, reading a book, or doing a guided meditation.
After you have paused the stress response by letting go of, or shifting your negative thoughts, you can begin to address the body. Since your body has been responding to your worry and fear, you will likely have activated your sympathetic nervous system. To counter that activation, the goal is to shift your body into the parasympathetic nervous system. To do this, it is helpful to think about different ways to soothe your body.
Strategies for soothing your body:
Do a guided progressive relaxation, body scan, visualization or gentle yoga. These practices can help to calm down the stress response and bring your body into the rest and digest state, otherwise known as the parasympathetic nervous system.
Take time in nature. Being outside and surrounded by nature can have a calming affect on our nervous system. It can be a win-win as being outside will invoke our senses as well, which might help you to calm your mind at the same time as you are soothing your body.
By paying more attention to the fluctuations of your mind and how your body is affected by your thoughts, you will be more likely to notice your anxiety before it becomes overwhelming. If you can be more aware of your red flags, you will be able to utilize the strategies to calm your mind and soothe your body before you become dysregulated.
Like anything, however, it might take time to shift the patterns that you’ve accumulated. Be gentle with yourself and just keep coming back to the practices whenever needed, and, better yet, even when they aren’t needed. Over time, you might notice softer shoulders, slower breath, kinder thoughts, and that your old friend anxiety has hit the road (or at the very least, taken a sabbatical).
Nicole Lovald, LAMFT is an integrative psychotherapist in Shorewood, Mn. Learn more about how to work with her here: www.nicolelovald.com