When you think of anxiety, what comes to mind?
Worries, tight chest, increased breathing, racing heart, painful shoulders, racing mind, concerns about the future, lack of control, “what if, what if, what if,” - these are all common physical and mental expressions one can experience when it comes to anxiety or even general stress.
Oftentimes my practice members will tell me, “It feels like an elephant is sitting on my chest and there is nothing I can do; I feel trapped.”
When it comes to navigating anxiety (no matter how subtle or severe), it is important to understand that our Central Nerve System (or CNS) is responsible for such symptomatic experiences. Our nerve system is the master control system of our entire life. It’s job is to process and respond to not only the external environment, but also coordinate and control your internal world. From your heart and lungs to your muscle cells and liver, every single cell that is YOU is connected to this intelligent nerve system feedback loop.
The more we can understand HOW our bodymind responds to the world around us, the more powerful and grounded we can feel in such anxiety or stress-provoking situations.
What causes anxiety?
This is a complex question that many practitioners are still studying in both physical and mental health fields.
From a nerve system perspective, anytime our survival is threatened (i.e. a bear bursts into your room as you’re reading this), our bodily systems shift into Sympathetic Arousal Mode (or what most people know as the “fight/flight/freeze” response). In this state, our lungs dilate and our breathing increases to get more oxygen to our musculoskeletal cells. Our heart rate also increases in order to move oxygen rich blood to our muscles so we have the energy available to either fight the threat or run like hell.
Pretty intelligent response, right?
In this state, the energy that was being used for digestion, healing, recovery, fighting off infections, wound healing, tissue damage, growing a fetus (aka pregnancy), etc. has now been diverted to the cardiovascular system as well as the musculoskeletal system. In our profession, we refer to this as “Physiological Hierarchy.” Because your nerve system is intelligent, it will prioritize and conserve energy, making sure you stay alive so that you can pass on your DNA to future offspring (AKA survival of the fittest - sound familiar from biology class?). In this Hierarchy and scenario, sending physiological resources (blood, oxygen, nutrients) to the heart and muscles trumps digestion and mental health (your brain and body care way more about running away from the bear than it does digesting that burger you had for lunch OR wondering if your husband did the dishes).
So what does all this have to do with anxiety you ask?
When we view the human body from a holistic lens, anxiety and the symptoms we associate with anxiousness are simply effects of an underlying stressor. When we feel anxiety rising within our body, generally something internal or external has triggered the sympathetic cascade (tight chest, shortness of breath, racing heart, etc).
Remember, every person responds differently to the “triggers” of life. For example, if someone has experienced physical abuse growing up and has yet to integrate such trauma, their nerve system is most likely in a state of Hypervigilance. This means that “normal” life events (like getting caught in traffic may trigger their sympathetic nerve system into a state of anxiousness (fight/flight). This can be because of the underlying stressors and traumas their body is processing on a subconscious level, even from childhood.
A note on trauma and triggering
Think of it this way. If a child experiences physical abuse from the ages of 4 to 6, this creates a neurological imprint and pattern on the developing nerve system. It’s almost like a living tattoo. This child then develops an increased sense of awareness to threats or external stimuli in order to protect itself. Remember, the nerve system learns from the past in order to adapt in the now and into the future. A brain with trauma generally lives in a state of elevated arousal due to past patterning (i.e. the tattoo).
Additionally, what one person labels as a trauma is completely different from person to person.
(**NOTE** it is important to consult with a mental health professional and/or holistic practitioner when it comes to navigating trauma on a deeper level)
Other bodily responses from increased stress include decreased recovery, poor sleep, constipation, depression, menstrual cycle dysfunction, chronic pain, weight gain, headaches, indigestion, and more. This is important to remember when it comes to understanding that symptoms are simply a sign of a deeper cause.
Now what? Simple steps to navigating anxiety
Whether you are someone who experiences anxiety or not, these strategies will ultimately help you feel calm and provide an improved sense of well-being overall.
One of the first steps to pattern interrupting the anxiety cascade is to become aware of your body. Simple, yes, AND extremely powerful. Like anything, this takes time to master. The more you practice, the better you’ll become at noticing when you’re moving into an anxious state.
STOP, listen, and pay attention. When you catch yourself in that anxious state, notice what your body is doing. How are you breathing? What is your posture doing? Are your shoulders in your ears? Notice these things and focus on shifting just one thing. Maybe you put your hand on your belly and focus your breath low and slow. This helps activate the parasympathetic nerve system (AKA rest and digest) Perhaps you roll your shoulders down and back. Shifting your posture will help your brain to feel more calm and connected. Just like training in the gym, your nerve system can LEARN new patterns with time, consistency, and repetition.
Ask yourself - “Is my life at stake right now? Am I going to die?” I know this seems a bit ridiculous, but if you’ve ever been with a person experiencing a panic attack, it can feel and look very uncomfortable. If you’re not a fan of the dying question (sometimes it brings a little humor to the situation), ask yourself, am I safe? This can help bring your mind back into reality. Oftentimes anxiety consists of our mind racing into the future and being worried about things that have yet to happen. Remember, when a person is in the fight/flight mode, the brainstem and amygdala (survival and emotional parts of the brain) essentially hijack the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain where logical reasoning comes into play).
Create a sense of safety and groundedness in the body. When the nerve system is overloaded with stress, sometimes it’s common to disassociate from the body. A very simple step to creating calm is to place your hands on your body and breathe. Like giving a hug or swaddling a crying baby, this can help bring more calm and ease within the system. Placing your hands on the front part of your body (heart, stomach, etc) helps stimulate the parasympathetic nerve system. Physical touch can be very powerful in moments of anxiety. Make sure you are being mindful where and how you are placing your hands so as to not evoke more trauma.
Once you’ve found stability within the bodymind, here are some other strategies you can implement either in the moment or long-term:
Journaling or drawing - Small motor movements like writing or playing an instrument can help with emotional processing. Grab a journal, a pen, and just start writing. Write about your emotions, how you are feeling, progress you are making, or just be in the flow. It doesn’t have to make sense.
Environmental Reset - If you are feeling really overwhelmed, give yourself grace and move to a new environment. This could look like going for a walk, getting up to make a cup of warm tea, stepping into nature, or simply shifting to a new room. Remember, healing isn’t always pretty. Sometimes we have days and things in our environment that trigger us more than others. You are in control so give yourself permission to shift and reset.
Movement and Meditation - Both these strategies are POWERFUL at shifting patterns within a stressed and anxious nerve system. Just 30 minutes of brisk walking three times a week has similar physiological effects as compared to antidepressant/antianxiety medications. When it comes to meditation, the goal is not to stop your thoughts (you’re human, remember?). The goal is to become more of the observer of your experiences, the witness to your thoughts, the master of your emotions. My favorite guided meditation apps include Insight Timer, Calm App, Headspace, and Wim Hoff.
The more you can train your brain to deal with stress better, the more your perception of stress will change.
Here are a few other bio-hacking strategies I use on a daily basis to practice adapting to stress better. (**NOTE** - please consult with your practitioner or fitness instructor before taking on such exercises).
High Intensity Interval Training
Wim Hoff Breathing Practices
Network Spinal Chiropractic Care
Yours in health,