Most people feel anxious from time to time. For some, it is occasional bouts in high stress situations, for others it becomes a persistent state that impacts on their ability to live their life as fully as they want to. Unpleasant symptoms such as feeling unable to relax, having a sense of dread, or overthinking may be all too familiar to you. These will often go hand in hand with some physical symptoms, including churning in your stomach, lightheadedness, rapid and shallow breathing, a pounding heartbeat, restlessness, and getting sweats or hot flushes.
These symptoms are manifestations of your body’s ‘fight or flight’ response which prepares you to flee from, or defeat, potential threats. Fight or flight activation is involuntary as it is governed by your sympathetic nervous system which is under conscious control, and this is why anxiety can be so difficult to manage.
However, the good news is, there are ways you can ‘bio hack’ your brain to encourage the calming part of your nervous system to regain control. Below are some of the most powerful bio hacking techniques (along with explanations or why they work) to ease anxiety.
If you are having or close to having an anxiety attack:
1. Slow your breathing. If your brain is a sports car your breath is both the accelerator AND the break. Consciously slowing your breath reduces sympathetic nervous system activity (fight or flight response) and activates the parasympathetic nervous system (calming response). Try gradually lengthening your exhales or ‘box breathing,’ where you inhale for 4 seconds, hold your inhale for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds and hold your exhale for 4 seconds.
2. Name objects around you out loud. It may seem weird, but during an anxiety attack the emotional part of your brain (the limbic system) goes into overdrive and the part responsible for reasoning and logic (the prefrontal cortex) shuts down. Saying the objects around you brings you back into the here and now, disengaging your limbic system and bringing your prefrontal cortex back online. The more present you are, the calmer and safer you will feel.
3. Impractical to say things out loud? Try these silent grounding techniques: Grab tightly onto your chair as hard as you can. Touch various objects around you. Dig your heels into the floor, literally “grounding” them! Remind yourself you are connected to the ground and present in your physical body
Day to day management strategies
1. Figure out your triggers. Spend some time reflecting on what your main anxiety triggers are and write them down. This allows you to either reduce your exposure to them; e.g., if it is constant news updates or social media. Or come up with strategies to help (write these down too) when you are confronted with them; e.g., if in crowded spaces or public speaking. Writing things down is important because it involves your prefrontal cortex. It also frees up some mental RAM allowing you more thinking space which in itself can really help anxiety. Brene Brown has some wonderful strategies and techniques in her book Daring Greatly.
2. Do activities that activate your parasympathetic nervous system. The more time you spend in an anxious state, the more ingrained the neuropathways become, and it starts to be your brain’s default response. Retraining your brain to spend more time in a relaxed state is possible, but you need to choose to do things that promote it. Yoga and meditation are often seen as the gold standards for this, but other great options include coherent or 6:6 breathing, yoga nidra, Qi gong, massage or even a nice bath.
3. Do ‘flow state’ activities. If you find it hard to settle into the practices above, then doing things that put you in ‘flow state’ can be a good alternative. Flow is the state you enter when you become completely immersed in an activity, and the rest of the world falls away. Again, this pulls you out of the anxious state and into the present moment. Different things work for different people, so have a play and see what is best for you. For example, people often enter flow state when doing creative activities such as arts and crafts, things involving music; e.g., singing or playing an instrument, more intense physical activity; e.g., running, dancing, or even kickboxing.
4. Eat well and stay hydrated. If you are constantly amped up on sugar and caffeine, then it makes things so much harder for your body and brain to heal. I love coffee and chocolate as much as the next person, and I am not saying give them up completely… Just make sure you drink water along with your coffee and eat nutrient dense foods to give your body the best possible fuel.
The above are some tried and tested methods for anxiety that have helped me and have scientific evidence to support them. However, they are not an exhaustive list or substitute for proper medical advice. If you are really struggling with your anxiety levels then please seek professional help. The roots of anxiety are often buried deep in our past, and working with a skilled professional to untangle and remove them can be hugely beneficial.
If you are interested in more details of how yoga + breathwork could help you manage your anxiety why not book in for a yoga therapy session? Or message me at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up an free chat for more details.