We all experience difficult times when stress and anxiety. Although it is normal to feel stress and concern, stress reduces serotonin, an important neurotransmitter for maintaining good mood. The practices listed below can all help reduce stress and anxiety and improve your overall mental health.
Your autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for the control body functions such as breathing, heart and digestion, is in part comprised of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) which control the “fight or flight” response, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is the “rest and digest” system. It is the PNS that is key to reducing stress – both physically and mentally. A recent research paper from Stanford confirmed that the best breath pattern to engage the PNS and relieve anxiety is to hold the exhale a little bit longer than the inhale. There is also a hold period at the “top” between the inhale and exhale. For example, breath in for 4 (count 1, 2, 3, 4) hold for 2 (count 1, 2) out for 6 (count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) and repeat. You can feel the inhale energize your SNS while at the same time, the exhale activates the PNS and it relaxes you. If you like, try to slowly look up to the sky on the inbreath, hold and then as you exhale, slowly look down to the ground. Here are some other breathing exercises as suggested in Health Link BC.
In times of difficulty it’s easy to lose sight of your hardiness and resilience and it’s helpful to remind yourself of how safe, secure, capable and worthy you are. Stating affirmations or simple truths about your “self” will help reinforce these strengths which can help to calm your anxiety and relieve stress. A simple google search on “affirmations” can help you choose those that resonate the best.
3) Walk in Nature
Researchers have found a positive link between walking in nature (ecotherapy) and mood. Research has cited that the prefrontal cortex (where our inner critic lives) has lower activity after a walk. When the body connects with nature it grounds us, so go for a walk along the water or hike a trail in the woods which the Japanese call “shinrin-yoku” or “forest bathing”. Our mental health benefits from our interaction with nature. As Joseph Campbell said, “the head was made for the city but the body craves the nature of the country.”
4) Visualization / Creative Imagery
Put whatever problem is causing you anxiety into a “container”, which includes any negative thoughts about yourself. Once the worries are in the box and sealed away, visualize a calm beautiful place where you are calm and at ease… a forest, mountains, nature resort or walking along a beach with your feet in the sand and feel the stress fall away with this mindful meditation. If you know it, use the “Butterfly Hug” which is a simple exercise of crossing your arms over your chest and tapping lightly on each shoulder. If you are unfamiliar, here is a Youtube video for you or just let me know and I can show you the wonderful little grounding exercise.
Meditation is a still point or a refuge and has proven psychological and physical benefits – for instance, it increases the gray matter in the insula, which manufactures oxytocin for improved mood (Holzel et al. 2008), which can potentially help reduce dementia. Meditating also reduces stress related cortisol and strengthens the immune system (Davidson, et al. 2003). A wonderful yet simple mindful meditation is Vipassana which on your breath moving in through past your nostrils and back out through your nose and you will notice that you feel the cool air enter the nose but that you can’t feel the air pass out through your nose because it’s at body temperature. Just notice this breath in and out and just accept any thoughts (positive, negative or neutral) pass and then go back to the breath in and out to centre yourself. A good overview of Vipassana meditation can be found here. In addition, there are a number of popular meditation apps such as Headspace and Calm.
Exercise releases chemicals like serotonin and endorphins which help improve your mood. Even gentle exercise can centre the mind and make you feel balanced and research has shown that depression and anxiety both decrease. So go for a workout, have a swim, a good walk or ride a bike and feel the stress melt away and your mood improve.
What beats a good night’s sleep? Make sure you practice good sleep hygiene because it helps to replenish our physical and mental resources and fortify our resilience. Here is a good YouTube video “How to Fall Asleep in Two Minutes” and an article on sleep hygiene.
The need to connect is part of our DNA and accordingly feeling isolated can exacerbate our negative and/or anxious mood. Reach out to a friend or family member for company. If that’s not possible for reasons of health or location, pick up the phone, email, text or video chat. We are bonding mammals and what connects people is not how perfect someone is but their imperfections and their authenticity. Here’s a great article on the importance of connection.
Mindfulness is “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” Joseph Campbell believed that more than meaning in life, people thirsted for the experience of life. After all he said, there is only the experience of a flower. Try this link and enjoy the beauty of mindfulness and how it can enhance your experience of life while reducing anxiety. Another exercise is the “54321”. Find 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. But do it slowly and mindfully!
Bessel Van der Kolk “The Body Keeps the Score” extolls the benefits of Tapping, which, by tapping on various acupressure points in the body, can reduce the stress in the body and as a result, have a positive psychological effect on mood (including anxiety). It is also known as Emotional Freedom Tapping (EFT) and here is a video that demonstrates the technique.