Re-frame and Befriend Anxiety

In our over-stimulating world, our systems responsible for anxiety are being triggered in ways that it was not designed for. For many of us this has led to an increasing frequency and intensity of our body’s anxious response. However, if anxiety can be re-framed in terms of its relationship with the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) we can appreciate its usefulness and regain some control.

The job of the ANS is to scan the environment (both the external and internal environment) for signs of threat or danger. In her book, the Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, Debb Dana describes the ANS as acting like a security system of a house. It is always on guard, scanning all incoming information at a rapid processing level (beyond our awareness) to detect any signs of danger or threat. As soon as threat is detected, the sympathetic response is triggered, and the body’s systems are put into action for fight or flight mode. Here’s where anxiety steps in. What we know to be typical anxiety symptoms (increased heart rate, tight/constricted breathing, hyperventilation, sweating, muscle tension, constricted vision, dizziness, feeling of being outside of oneself) are all normal experiences of the fight/flight response. These symptoms may feel uncomfortable, but they are normal and expected. Our system is getting ready to run, resist, or fight the threat. All of this is important when we need to protect ourselves a dangerous situation.

Unfortunately, those of us with anxiety know that it can sometimes show up without good reason and be detrimental in our functioning. This is because your nervous system can be triggered by false threats the same as it is by real threats. In fact, we humans have such powerfully imaginative minds that the simple act of thinking about a stressful event can activate the fight/flight response in the body. The speedy ANS doesn’t distinguish between a real, immediate threat versus one that you are replaying in your mind from last week or one that you are imagining in the future.

Keep in mind a surge of anxiety symptoms is not really a problem in most cases – the signal comes, we feel it briefly, and assuming there’s no actual danger, our system calms down returning to a regulated state. A problem occurs when the feelings of anxiety are particularly intense or untimely because people can start fearing the anxiety itself. This can lead to a cycle of increasingly frequent and sometimes debilitating symptoms.

Fortunately, we can use mindfulness to interrupt this spiral. If we can monitor our wandering minds when they drift to stress-provoking memories or imaginational stories, we can redirect our minds to the safe present moment, quelling the nervous system’s threat response. Therefore, when we feel that fear of an anxious response rise up, we can turn it into cue to return our thinking to the present moment. Take a couple of breaths, bring your mind back to a task, feel your feet on the ground, be present.

We can also acknowledge, that while the acute symptoms of anxiety are not comfortable, they are completely safe. Getting familiar with how your anxiety feels and welcoming the multitude of sensations is an important part of integrating it into your life. We can learn to accept the feelings of anxiety, and even befriend them.

The reality is, no amount of resisting, avoiding, or pushing away your body’s response to anxiety is helpful in the moment; it will just fire up the nervous system’s protective response even more. Alternatively, you can take a breath and say, “Thanks nervous system for alerting me, I realize you are just trying to protect me, but I’m okay right now.” We can observe and accept anxiety with a sense of curiosity and non-judgment. Rather than labeling your anxiety as “bad” or “unwanted,” observe it as a natural response to a perceived threat or stressor and use your mindfulness to determine whether that response is to something imagined or real.

 

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Reset the Body

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For those of you who regularly practice yoga, especially restorative based classes, you’ll be familiar with the calming and grounding feelings you can experience after class. I remember the first time I felt this relaxed, yet focussed, state many years ago from a candle light yoga class (an instant love affair for me as my natural disposition tends to be one of a anxious Chihuahua wound up on caffeine).  It wasn’t until years later in my yoga training that I learned some of the physiology behind this process..

Part of the calming effect had been from practicing a certain pose called Viparita Karani or legs up the wall.

This pose is known for its ability to ease anxiety and stress, and I began to wonder, what is going on in this posture that leaves me feeling so relaxed? My research led me to an article on treating adrenal exhaustion, which explained how inverted poses, done in a restorative way, can calm our overly stressed and anxious bodies. Here’s how it works:

The sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as the fight or flight system, is responsible for releasing adrenaline in our bodies. It winds us up by elevating the heart rate, increasing blood pressure, tensing the muscles, and increasing blood flow to the brain for increased alertness. This system is good for emergencies, but when activated chronically such as in times of high stress and chronic pain the hormones released by the adrenal glands will slowly break down our bodies and immune system and leave us feeling wound up and unable to sleep, which ultimately leads to a whole host of other problems.

When we invert our bodies there is an increase of blood flow from the lower half of our bodies to the upper half of the body and specifically to the baroreceptors (blood pressure sensors) in the neck and chest. When the baroreceptors are activated by an increase in blood pressure they trigger a reflex called the baroreflex which reduces nerve input into the adrenal glands, slows the heart rate, slows brain waves, relaxes blood vessels, and reduces the amount of stress hormones circulating in the bloodstream.  All of which shifts the body towards a calm and relaxed state, facilitating sleep and regeneration of the body (key ingredients when dealing with injuries, pain, and insomnia).

This process of unwinding the sympathetic nervous system takes time, so for therapeutic purposes, find an inverted position that is restful, such as a modified Viparita Karani where the legs are elevated over a surface such as a bolster or stool, or even over the end of a couch as shown in the image above. Aim for 15 minutes or longer and try elevating the pelvis slightly higher by placing a folded blanket or bolster underneath the hips for a more effective inversion. For further relaxation benefit, try lying a heavy folded blanket placed over you abdomen/chest (also shown above). Give this posture a try and notice how it leaves you feeling calm, relaxed, and ready for rest.

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