Contributed by Tammy Fletcher MA, IMF, CFT
We see a number of people in our practice who struggle with feelings of anxiety. Working with mental and emotional responses to stress is helpful for these people. We also take time to learn about where the person feels his or her anxiety in the body.
Some common physical manifestations of anxiety include:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Tense muscles
- Stomach “in knots”
- Shallow breathing
- Clenched jaw
When under stress, our bodies may enter what we call “fight or flight” response. In other words, our nerve cells begin firing, stress hormones are triggered, and our primitive response patterns prepare us to either run away from perceived danger or steel ourselves for battle.
But what if the perceived “danger” is nothing more than an old memory, a traffic jam, or even a wave of panic from out of the blue? Anxiety and its physical signs can come upon us even in seemingly benign situations. How can you manage these disruptive feelings quickly and discreetly?
First, it’s important to mention that chronic feelings of overwhelm and anxiety can be greatly helped in therapy. Talking through concerns that bother you can address issues for a long-term fix. But in the meantime, if you find yourself feeling stressed out and want to turn down the volume on your anxiety for the moment, here are some exercises to try that should take no more than a minute:
- Breathe – If I could give you just one tip, it would be to stop for a moment and notice how you are breathing. When stress strikes, breathing can become shallow and rapid, or we may almost forget to breathe. Either way, it makes us feel worse and even more anxious. First, pay attention to your breathing. Second, adjust your inhalation and exhalation to more regular, slower, and deeper levels. There is no need to take extra-deep breaths, and doing so can even make you a little dizzy. Strive for easy, regular breaths that fill your lungs and release effortlessly.
- Tighten your muscles – No, that’s not a typo. Tighten your muscles, one area of your body at a time, and then release. Ball your hands into tight fists, then let the tension go as your fingers, hands, wrists, and arms relax. Clench your jaw, then let the muscles relax and your jaw drop. Shrug your shoulders all the way up to your ears, then feel the tightness melt away as you let them drop down. You can do this even if you are in your car, at a meeting, at work, or anywhere else. Tightening the muscles and then letting go into relaxation releases tension and feels good. Add some stretching if you can for even better results.
- Count – Count to 3, or 5, or 10—whatever works for you. As you mentally count, breathe regularly, allow your thoughts to come and go, and keep your body relaxed. Repeat as needed. This is a trick you can use as many times a day as you need to keep yourself grounded and focused on relaxation.
There are your three steps to a 60 Second Relaxation Response. The more you repeat the sequence, the easier it will become, and the more readily your body will respond.
© Copyright 2011 by Tammy Fletcher, M.A.
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