How To Reduce Physical Anxiety Symptoms
Anxiety is intensely physical, and stopping the physical symptoms of anxiety once they've started can be a pretty daunting task. Luckily, the same physical mechanisms that cause anxiety can be used to relieve it.
Experiencing certain levels of stress is common, but Dr. Joshua Klapow, Clinical Psychologist and Host of The Web Radio Show tells Bustle that it's easy to move past that point and into a place where anxiety really gets in the way. Luckily, rewiring your body back into a more calm state is possible.
"Anxiety is driven by our autonomic nervous system — it manifests in so many ways that often people are not aware or are unable to make a connection between their experiences and anxiety," Dr. Klapow says. Anxiety can show itself in a variety of different ways, Dr. Klapow says, including everything from headaches to stomaches, dry mouth, back and chest pain, nausea, and fainting.
This is because anxiety exists in the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest, repair, and digestion. "When the body is coming down from an anxious state, it means that the processes of the parasympathetic nervous system are coming online ... heart rate decreases, breathing slows, muscular tension decreases, and digestive processes increase," Dr. Erika Martinez, licensed psychologist tells Bustle.
If you are having difficulty alleviating the physical symptoms of anxiety, here are seven ways experts recommend to help you wind down.
1. Meet Your Own Basic Needs
Meeting your own basic physical needs is essential for taking care of your mental health. According psychologist Abraham Maslow, each person has a "hierarchy of needs," meaning that mental health cannot be addressed without first addressing one's safety, security, and physiological needs.
This is relevant even if you have the privilege of food security and access to clean drinking water. If you're the kind of person who tends to skip meals or miss sleep when you're feeling anxious, square one is going back to those basics.
"Taking seriously good care of yourself is crucial to your happiness," Dr. Fran Walfish, family and relationship psychotherapist and author, tells Bustle. "This includes what you eat, drink, think, how much you move your body, and how much you rest." So consider putting down that 11 p.m. coffee, putting your head on a pillow, and starting fresh with a well-rounded breakfast in the morning.
2. Rethink The Situation
Thousands of unhelpful thoughts flying through your head? Next time you're anxious, try capturing those thoughts as they occur and reframing them.
"Instead of thinking – 'there’s no way out,' 'I’m so overwhelmed,' 'I have no control,' etc.- we can talk ourselves through more adaptive responses," says Dr. Klapow. "[Try things like], 'I got this,' 'I just need to pace things out,' [and] 'I am going to delegate some tasks so I feel less anxiety'."
Negative thinking patterns like jumping to conclusions and and over-generalizing are really common in anxiety, but luckily they can be identified and adjusted once you notice they're happening. And if you're having difficulty doing this on your own, speaking with a therapist can help you to learn how to stop these thoughts in their tracks.
3. Lay Off The Substances
Experts agree that using drugs or abusing alcohol is something everyone should stay away from, but it can also make dealing with anxiety a lot harder. The main reason is that you're not addressing your anxious thoughts and feelings head-on, and instead are choosing unhealthy outlets to cope. No matter what, distracting yourself with a substance is probably not going to help you get to the root of the problem.
"Using drugs, alcohol ... are a way of not dealing directly with uncomfortable feelings," Dr. Walfish says. "The person’s anxiety level shoots sky-high when the powerfully unpleasant emotion is felt. Rather than dealing directly with the excruciating discomfort, the person temporarily soothes the pain." If you are having difficulty alleviating the symptoms of your anxiety, a loved one or a therapist can help you find healthier ways to deal with the problem.
4. Focus On Your Breathing
Readjusting your breathing when you're anxious changes your physiological response. It's a huge key to tricking that parasympathetic nervous system back into a balanced state. Dr. Klapow recommends learning breathing techniques to help change your body's response to anxiety. "Over time the more we practice the better we get at this," Klapow says.
Deep breathing can be a very quick, and effective way to stop an anxious response before it accelerates. "During moments of anxiety, your brain's fight-or-flight mechanism is activated," Kevin Hyde, licensed psychologist tells Bustle. "It literally worries you are in a life or death situation and is preparing your body to react quickly. Filling your lungs completely sends the signal that you're safe and there is no need for a quick reaction." Breathing mindfully and exhaling more slowly than you inhale can readjust your body in a great way. "The easiest way to unwind quickly is taking five of the slowest deep breaths you can imagine. Most people do this too rapidly and don't see the benefits. It should take you at least a full minute to complete if you're going slow enough," Hyde says. And if you're doing it right, you'll feel the effects right away.
Don't knock it till you've tried it. Experts agree that meditation is a direct way to address your inner experience and start to feel more calm. "I consider it part of my 'inner work out.' I go to the gym to strengthen my muscles; and I meditate to strengthen my ability access inner calm," Jasmin Terrany, licensed mental health counselor (LMHC), tells Bustle.
It can seem difficult to sit still and focus when you're wound up from anxiety, but if you can find the motivation, it's incredibly helpful. "I personally find five to 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation helps control my breathing, calm intrusive thoughts, and [makes me] feel more calm," Hyde says. Meditation has a host of benefits beyond helping anxiety, including helping you sleep better, and with apps, it's more accessible than ever.
6. Doing Acts Of Kindness
It's scientifically proven a huge key to happiness is giving back to others. In fact, a 2016 study by Oxford University found that acts of kindness can increase your sense of wellbeing. These great feelings can also help calm your anxiety.
"When you feel overwhelmed, reach out and do something nice for someone else," Dr. Walfish says. "Being generous in words and actions creates positive feelings for the doer and gets your endorphins flowing."
Plus, being a do-gooder can be great for your physical health, too. A recent study found that volunteering literally makes you healthier.
7. Change The Situation Itself
This is less obvious than it seems, but if a situation is constantly giving you anxiety, you can change it.
A lot of these tricks are about directly addressing what's going on inside your head, but this one is about taking that same concept and applying it to the outside world. "Basically we can rework our environment to reduce the demands and thus reduce the stress," Dr. Klapow says.
This can look like finding ways to reduce conflict in your workplace, addressing issues in your relationship, or even reworking the demands you place on yourself. If you have one friend who you always feel stressed around, you can stop hanging out with them.
So next time you're feeling anxious, know that you have an arsenal of tools there to help. You can actively adjust your thoughts and physiology to feel better and find relief. Nothing is worth feeling anxious all the time.