• Dr. Patty Hlava

Two Secrets to Managing Anxiety

Anxiety can be debilitating and stop you in your tracks. Learn two self-care strategies that can help you feel confident, clear, and in control. 



Anxiety. It's real, and if you're feeling more of it recently, you're not alone. Coronavirus has turned the world upside down, and your body's natural response to the unfamiliar is fear. Anxiety is what you experience when that fear doesn't just move through in a wave of response but gets trapped in a feedback loop. It happens when fear is persistent. What we have now with the COVID-19 pandemic is just that: a persistent, yet invisible threat with new disruptions to the routine and familiar happening daily. 


While anxiety can show up a bit different person to person, you're likely familiar with some of its telltale indicators: tightness in your body, shallow breathing, racing thoughts, disturbed sleep, or even feelings of dread washing over you. 


All of these are normal responses to a threat to what is familiar. Your mind loves familiarity; your body loves routine. Without these, the doors for fear and anxiety are wide open. 


THE MIND/BODY FEEDBACK LOOP

When you feel fear, worry, anxiety, anger, uncertainty, doubt, or any other of the myriad unpleasant emotions, your body responds with inner tension. This tension appears throughout your physiology: in your mind as ruminating thoughts, your musculature as tightness and contraction, and your respiration as constricted breathing. 


Your body and mind are always in communication with one another, creating a feedback loop of how you are experiencing your environment at any given time. What is moving through that feedback loop determines how you will interpret the next moment.


For example, your mind may interpret a situation as threatening and dangerous, and your body responds with tension. The tension ins your body confirms the mind's fear, which reports back to the body: "yup--something scary is happening!". 


If, however, your mind interprets something as threatening and the body responds with ease, the feedback loop is interrupted. Your mind will continue to check it out for a few moments, but will ultimately react to the body's cues that your being is okay at the moment. 


What does this look like?


Imagine that you're watching the news. You hear a report about how people are dying, medical supplies are short, and businesses are closing. Your mind interprets this news (understandably so) as threatening. Your thoughts spin to: What does this mean for me? What if my parents get sick? Will they be okay? What if I can't get groceries? Am I going to get sick? 


Your body responds to this future-based fears as though they are happening right there at the moment. Why? Because your mind is currently living in an imagined future that is full of fatality and danger. Naturally, your body will engage its stress response via the sympathetic nervous system: the fight-flight-freeze-fawn response. Your muscles will tense, your breath will become shallow, your senses will heighten, and your focus will shift to scanning everything for signs of danger. 


This tension in your body then communicates with your mind, confirming the fear: yes-- we're on high alert. Something is not right--things are not okay. The feedback loop is engaged.


CHANGING THE DIALOGUE

Once this system is engaged, it can be tricky to shift gears. Merely telling yourself that you're okay doesn't generally work. If the body and mind are in a fear-based feedback loop, the positive statement has nowhere to land, and the mind dismisses the affirmation as simply false. 


So, what are you to do? Change the feedback loop and change how you feel. 


The body and mind are in constant communication, meaning that one can influence the other. If you bring your attention to your body and release the tension, you will change the conversation your body and mind are having. 



SOFTEN THE BODY, SOFTEN THE MIND

When your body is at ease, your mind is at ease. A relaxed body will send messages up to your mind that you are okay. Ease is your natural state. So, how do you get there when the mind is taking in lots of genuinely scary information? 


Start with your breath.



SECRET #1: Focus on Your Exhale 

I often hear people say, "just breathe." 

I prefer to say, "exhale, please." 


Being prompted to breathe can backfire, inviting you to keep takin gin more breath. If your breath is shallow from an activated fear-response, you will continue to take in more and more shallow breathing, which can keep feeding the fear and tension in your body. 


When you exhale, and I mean really exhale, your next breath will naturally be slower and deeper than the previous breath. Your breathing will start to slow as your lungs effortlessly fill with the intake of fresh oxygen. Keeping your focus on exhaling and releasing the constricted air from your lungs will naturally invite more easeful breathing, which then encourages your muscles to release the tension in the tissues. 


Slow, extended exhales are the pace of breath that your body has when it is resting--when all is well. Breathing in the way activates the parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes called the "rest and digest" system, or the "tend and befriend" system of the body. It's quite the opposite of the fight-flight-freeze-fawn response! Relaxed breathing assures that mind that the body is safe. 


Practice:

Exhale with a sigh. Let it be audible.

Pause after the exhale and then slowly inhale while counting to four. 

Then pause and hold your breath for a count of two.

Exhale very slowly and evenly while counting to six. 

Pause and hold your breath for a count of two.

Repeat. 


SECRET #2: Self-massage


"Touch the body, calm the mind, heal the spirit."

~ Unknown


In Ayurveda, the practice of self-massage with oil is called Abhyanga, and this is my go-to practice during stressful times. It's powerful in the moment, and even more powerful when practiced daily as a preventative and nurturing practice.


Abhyanga, on the surface, is a simple practice, but the benefits run deep. Massaging your own body awakens the inner healer within you. You become more aware of where you are holding tension in your body, and what helps to move it through and release it. 


Self-massage is the ultimate act of self-love.  The more you practice self-massage, the more your relationship with your body will change. You'll start to know your body and know how to read the messages of tension and ease that it sends you. 


I find it both beautiful and filling that the word for oil in Sanskrit is sneha, which also means love. The image that comes to mind then is that when you massage your body with oil, you are massaging your body with love. What an incredible shift from the negativity or complete dismissal that your body experiences on most days! 


Why self-massage for managing anxiety? 


The practice of daily self-massage tones your tissues, improves your sleep, stimulates your lymph, promotes longevity, strengthens your immune system, improves your joint mobility, and even synthesizes self-esteem from the inside out, which amplifies your confidence. Wow-- that's a LOT! 


When you practice self-massage daily, you are inviting a release of tension in your musculature. Your body begins to experience (1) moments of ease from the release of tension, (2) nourishment from the oil, (3) and love from you. 


Self-massage softens the tension throughout your whole body. Softened muscles tell your mind that your body is okay, which changes the fear-based feedback loop we talked about earlier.


"Loving ourselves works miracles in our lives."

 ~ Louise Hay


How do you do it?


Start by using your hands. YOu might start by just experimenting with massaging your face around your temples and jawline, or even massaging a little oil into your hands and giving yourself a gentle hand massage. YOu can give yourself a foot massage every night before sleep. 


Notice how you respond to your touch. Be gentle with yourself. If this practice is new to you, it may feel awkward at first. Stay with it--the rewards are well worth it! 


Work your way up to massaging your whole body every day. Before you get dressed, rub your hands or a dry brush over your skin to stimulate circulation and allow your body to feel your attention and care. This practice will invite ease into your central nervous system, activate your parasympathetic nervous system, and you'll start your day out with ease over tension. 


Over time, you can add an oil such as sesame, coconut, jojoba, or even almond oil to your daily massage. Trust your hands to connect with and nurture your body. 


BE GENTLE WITH YOURSELF

These two simple strategies can go a long way in helping navigate feelings of anxiety and supporting your body in releasing stored fear and anxiety. While it may feel awkward or uncomfortable at first, and your mind may protest, I encourage you to stick with it. 


Why? 


Because you matter; you matter a lot. 


Learn more about how to deepen your self-care practices here.


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