We all have anxious thoughts come up from time to time, it’s a normal part of the human experience. Anxious thoughts can spin into a full day of worry that feels out of our control. It might begin as a slight discomfort in the body that morphs into a daunting, aching feeling – and in turn, continues to feed and usually, amp up the story of doubt and worry. This makes our anxiety feel out of control.
Anxiety & the Body
Anxiety first shows up as a physical sensation in the body. It is brought on by a cue of danger picked up in the environment. Our brains perceive danger from past experiences and this danger varies from person to person. Once the brain notices the shift in the body, it attempts to make meaning out of the sensation using these past experiences as its guide. The brain creates a story, typically rooted in limiting self-beliefs, that generates more anxiety. As the sensation intensifies it creates a feedback loop increasing both the body sensation and the thoughts.
It is difficult to disrupt this feedback loop using logic and reason. As our anxiety grows, our fight/flight/freeze response increases. In order to signal that we are not in need of our survival response, we need to create a cue of safety. One way I teach clients to do this is to engage in breathing exercises. When we take long, deep breaths into our bellies, instead of quick, short breaths into our chest, we are signaling that we are no longer in danger. Only then can we replace anxious thoughts with a more balanced perspective.
Try the following technique called quick coherence:
- Sit upright with your feet on the floor (mind your posture! A straight back with a lifted head is another way to signal safety)
- Take a few long, deep breaths and release tensions in your body on the exhale (less tension is another cue that you can let go and relax)
- Bring your attention to your heart. Focus on the space around your heart, imagine yourself breathing into this space, picturing the air moving around your heart and back out on the exhale.
- Now think of a memory, place, or activity that gives you joy, brings you a sense of ease, or makes you happy. Let your attention move to the positive emotion.
Not only does the quick coherence technique calm down our mind and body, it creates the presence of a sensation that evokes positivity, calm, or joy. Our perspective can be influenced from a place of content rather than panic. As a disclaimer, this technique does not work for everyone. I have found that some clients get triggered further by the difficulty they have finding a positive memory/place/activity. If this is the case for you, skip the last step and simply do the heart-focused breathing portion.
I have also been enjoying these breathing animations created by artist Nathan W. Pyle as they are great visual reminders to take long, deep inhales. I would suggest setting a timer for 3-5 minutes (depending on your level of anxiety) and let yourself follow along. If you’re not sure you’re breathing correctly, here is a brief video that will help with your technique.
Sometimes we need additional support in moving through and decreasing our anxiety. Please reach out if you feel that therapy may be a good fit and you are in the Wisconsin area!
Kaitlin Cary-King, APSW