Saturday, 23 September 2017

Practical Anxiety Management Techniques.

Practical Anxiety Management Techniques - let's talk about some of the things that you might consider trying in order to feel more in control of your anxiety. We talk about what anxiety actually is, how it works and how you can work on reducing the impact it has on your life in order to promote positive health and wellbeing.

Anxiety is something that can easily make you feel completely out of control. It might start off small, but it has a knack of worming it's way into your life and taking up far more space than it should. It also has a habit of spiralling, catastrophising and making you feel generally awful about even the smallest of things. 

We all need anxiety. It's built into our DNA. Anxiety is a safety mechanism, it tells us not to do certain things because it knows that there might be risk involved that could potentially put us in a dangerous situation, for example, walking out in front of a car. But anxiety can also get a little bit too big for it's boots. It can get good at convincing us that there's danger ahead, when really there isn't. Well, certainly not life threatening danger anyway.

So how do you take control back from your anxiety and start feeling more like you're in the driving seat again? Well it can be really tough and don't get me wrong, it's not an overnight job. Anxiety management takes work and commitment on your part. And it may be that your anxiety continues to live with you, but more in a way that serves you, rather than limits you.


First of all, let's take a minute to look at the physiology of anxiety.


When something triggers anxiety your body kicks your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) into action which sets off the fight or flight response. The sympathetic nervous system is generally an all or nothing response, so when it kicks in it really kicks in.  It sets off  the release of adrenaline and other hormones which increase blood flow to your heart and limbs and increases your heart rate, blood pressure and respiration rate. It also increases sweating, reduces saliva production and diverts blood flow away from digestion which can cause that uneasy feeling in your gut.

Because your body is a clever little bean it, of course, has a system in place to counteract the SNS's fight or flight response - the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS aims to restore order and calm. It's always there to stop the fear response, which means the feelings you experience with anxiety will not continue forever. The two systems can't function at the same time and so activating the PNS ceases the fight or flight response from the SNS. The PNS slows down your heart and respiration rate. It also redirects blood flow away from the limbs and back to your internal organs. It basically has the total opposite effect of the SNS.

The experiences happening in the body when the fight or flight response is triggered can often cause an individual experiencing this to become even more anxious and panicked by the sensations. This can then fuel a vicious cycle of fear which keeps the SNS firing and can make you feel really out of control. And so an important aspect of anxiety management is looking at how you can switch on your PNS in order to reduce your anxiety

So what can you do in an attempt to take control back from your anxiety? Here are three practical techniques to get you going.

Practical Anxiety Management Techniques - My General Life

Breathing is an automatic response, something which requires zero conscious effort. But are you breathing in the most effective way?

Many people actually breathe more shallowly into their upper chest without even realising it. The fact that you're breathing this way can actually induce anxiety, as your body can recognise the shallow breaths and likely increased respiration rate that goes with this as mild hyperventilation, something which comes as part of the fight or flight response from the SNS.

Breathing with the proper use of the diaphragm (also known as diaphragmatic or belly breathing) allows more air into the lower part of the lungs, which means that full oxygen exchange can take place. It also induces the PNS to spring into action and take the control back from the SNS. Because remember, only one of these systems can function at any given time. And so, if you can't do anything else, trying to take control of your breath by retraining yourself to use diaphragmatic breathing is one thing you have within your power to aid you in managing anxiety.

The way to start with altering the way you breathe is to practice at times when you're not in a heightened state of anxiety. Place one hand on your tummy and one hand on your chest. As you begin to inhale through your nose, focus on expanding your stomach as if it were a balloon. You should notice that your stomach moves ever so slightly before your breath actually starts, this movement is what creates the space for your lungs to begin their expansion. You shouldn't be feeling any movement in the hand that's on your chest - this breathing technique is for normal, everyday breathing and the aim isn't to consciously breathe deeply - that's more for relaxation which we'll come onto soon.

Aim to practice belly breathing regularly throughout the day. You could set yourself a goal of trying to practice it every hour, or every other hour, just for a minute or two whilst you're going about your day to day activities. Try not to stop what you're doing in order to practice, as the aim is for breathing into your abdominals to become a natural and automatic way of breathing so that you're actively encouraging the PNS to stay in control.

Practical Anxiety Management Techniques - My General Life

This is not a case of someone telling you to "just relax" because that isn't going to fly. But relaxation, when practised regularly, can be a fantastic tool to have in your anxiety management toolbox for maintaining the function of the PNS over the SNS. But the key is in the practice. Because the more you practice, as with most skills, the more effective you will be at implementing the relaxation when you really need at - at times when you're anxious.

We've already talked in detail about the breath and it's ability to set off the PNS. But the breath is also a great tool for supporting relaxation, as it's something that you will always have with you to use as a focus point. If you want to practice some deeper diaphragmatic breathing, you should notice that after your belly has risen, as you continue to take a deeper breath your chest will then rise slightly as your lungs fill up right to the top.

A relaxation technique that can aid in anxiety management is muscular relaxation. This involves tensing and releasing your muscles in order to physically encourage them to relax. You see, when the SNS is activated, your muscles become tense because they're getting prepared to either fight or run away. If your SNS is running the show for a prolonged period, this tense feeling becomes normalised so you're less likely to notice it. And so actively tensing and releasing individual muscle groups can help you physically feel more relaxed alongside reminding you what it's like not to be tense all the time. You can use this method alongside a body scan, which encourages you to pay attention to how your body is feeling and notice areas that are feeling more tense than usual and could use some physical relaxation.

You may also find that visualisation techniques can help you tap into your PNS as you can visualise being in a safe space that allows your body to recognise that that it not longer needs the SNS to be active. I have gathered up a collection of relaxation spaces over on my Pinterest which might provide some inspiration for visualising a safe haven that you can escape to as you relax.

I can't reiterate enough how important it is to practice. Why not set aside 5-10 minutes each day to dedicate to relaxation? Start at a time when you feel reasonably calm in order to make it easier to begin with and allow you to feel more confident in your technique. Try not to judge yourself if there are occasions when you find it more difficult, but be consistent and keep trying. 

You might find that having someone guide you through the process of relaxation is helpful initially. There's lots of relaxation resources available on Youtube, plus many free apps that you can download. I personally enjoy Calm and Stop, Breathe & Think, both of which have many different relaxation techniques that you can explore in order to find what works for you.

As your practice develops, you can start to try out relaxation alongside your breathing techniques at times when you're more anxious, which will allow opportunity for the relaxation to work it's magic on your PNS and provide some positive feedback and reinforcement. 
Practical Anxiety Management Techniques - My General Life

Graded exposure is a process of gradually introducing yourself to anxiety provoking situations, environments or objects in a gradual, more manageable manner that aims to reduce experiences of overwhelming anxiety.

Many people use avoidance or leaving an anxiety provoking situation as a means of managing, as when the SNS fires up it's about fight or flight, so it's natural to want to remove yourself from the perceived danger. But this doesn't help you work through the anxiety and the reasons you might be experiencing it. This means that the next time you're in that situation or environment you will experience just as much anxiety as you did the previous time.

Remember, the PNS ceases the fight or flight response. Although anxiety and the SNS in itself is a safety mechanism, the PNS is an extra safeguard to prevent the SNS from causing harm or wearing out. This means that no matter how awful you feel, your body isn't going to break as a result of the anxious response and your PNS will kick in at some point in order to protect you.

The purpose of graded exposure is to take gradual steps towards the anxiety provoking situation that allows you to experience just enough anxiety and to remain in the situation for long enough for the anxiety to subside, which it will do because your PNS will kick in. Your body cannot maintain high levels of anxiety for prolonged periods, and so in time, your anxiety level will come down on it's own.

Graded exposure is not an easy out, it requires hard work and determination because as part of the process you do have to face your anxiety head on and ride it out. But it works on breaking down the anxiety, retraining the SNS and PNS response to whatever is triggering it and making the process feel far more manageable than just chucking yourself in at the deep end.

These techniques are by no means an exhaustive list. It's important to explore what works for you and remind yourself that everyone is an individual, so what works for one person might not work for another. Most importantly, treat yourself with compassion, always.

Let's start a conversation:
If you experience anxiety, I'd be really interested to hear what your management techniques are? Why not leave a comment below, or drop me a tweet @_hellojordan?


DISCLAIMER: none of the information in this article is intended to be medical advice and is for information purposes only. It aims to encourage people to take controls of their health and wellbeing and make positive choices around this. If you are struggling, please seek the support of the appropriate professional.

Practical Anxiety Management Techniques - let's talk about some of the things that you might consider trying in order to feel more in control of your anxiety. We talk about what anxiety actually is, how it works and how you can work on reducing the impact it has on your life in order to promote positive health and wellbeing.



2 comments:

  1. Ahh it's interesting because I actually did a blog post a couple of days ago (https://whatismaria.com/2017/09/28/anxiety-tip/) where I talk about how I find it very difficult to find tricks that help my anxiety and things that help other people, such as deep breathing, can actually make it worse. Acceptance and expose have definitely helped me tremendously - as in, accepting that I might get anxious instead of trying really really hard to fight it, focusing on the sensations associated with anxiety when it does arise and placing myself in triggering situations. This was a really great post - so well written and I loved learning more about the 'scientific' side of anxiety!

    maria | whatismaria.com

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  2. This is one of the best posts I've read about dealing with anxiety, so thank you for sharing <3 I think people will learn a lot from reading about the scientific side of it, too!

    I use alternate nostril breathing as a way of calming down - having to switch from closing one nostril to the other helps me focus on what's actually going on around me, rather than what my head is trying to tell me. Graded exposure is something I've been trying out recently as well xx

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Thank you so much for taking the time to read my posts and leave a comment, it's very much appreciated!!

Jordan xx