I’ve been mildly anxious since I was a kid. As an adult, things got much worse when I was exposed to very stressful aspects of my initial training in medical school and Emergency Medicine (followed by other things that happened both in my personal and professional life). That’s all much better now, but I’m still more anxious than the average person.
A few years ago I attended a course at Harvard’s Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine, and was fascinated by the presentations from leading physicians and neuroscientists. They explained that an anxious disposition can be passed on from an anxious mother to her fetus. It’s not just a genetic tendency; if a mother is anxious during pregnancy, that can directly impact the development of the fetus’ brain). Some of us are literally born anxious as a result. For others that have a better start, life can still be full of all kinds of anxiety-provoking events and circumstances. Thankfully, there’s great hope for worrywarts.
The faculty at the Harvard Medical School course demonstrated (through brain scans and other compelling data) that deep-rooted tendencies toward anxiety could be physiologically and even anatomically reversed. Relaxation techniques, for example, when practiced regularly, can actually change the architecture of an anxious brain by shrinking the fear-mongering amygdala and strengthening the more rational, calm cortex.
Here are some of my favorite tools for maintaining calm and defusing worries:
1) Learn to induce your body’s Relaxation Response, and do it regularly
One of our greatest defenses against chronic anxiety is the body’s innate “Relaxation Response”, first characterized by legendary Harvard researcher Dr. Herbert Benson. When you induce this physiological response, muscle tension decreases, the heart rate slows, blood pressure decreases, and stress hormone levels drop. For at least 10 minutes every morning, I use a relaxation technique to calm any anxieties about the day and decrease physical tension. I put on burbling water sounds in my earphones and breathe deeply, consciously relaxing my body. For an added boost – also proven in research to be beneficial to brain and body – I focus on the words of a calming prayer and contemplate the great comfort in my belief that God is in charge, that I can trust that and be at peace.
2) Breathe throughout the day, and more intentionally when stressed
Anxious, stressed people are shallow breathers. Worried minds that are full of anxieties and tensions feel that much worse when not well oxygenated. Holding our breath and breathing shallowly also contributes to nasty muscle tension. I love using a “4-6-8” breath technique at various times throughout the day. Breathe in through your nose for 4 counts, hold it deeply in your lungs for 6, and breathe out through your mouth for 8, breathing out tension as you do so and feeling your body relax. Even just one round of this breathing makes a difference, you’ll feel better. I practice it when put on hold on the phone, or waiting at a stoplight, or any time I feel particularly tense, stressed or nervous.
3) If you’re really obsessing about a specific problem, designate a focused time for it
4) Write out your worries and fears
Expressive writing, or writing about difficult emotions that you have about your life or a specific situation, has been found to be beneficial in a wide range of studies. You set a fixed amount of time, each day, to write out how you feel about difficult things that are going on. This has been shown to help with mild to moderate depression and anxiety, and even improves symptoms of chronic pain. (It may not be helpful immediately after a significantly traumatic event though, experts recommend waiting a month or two for things to settle before using this in that circumstance). It can be very helpful to do before bed if you suffer from insomnia (the kind where anxious thoughts keep you up at night), and can even help you perform better at work-related tasks that you find anxiety-provoking.
5) Reduce caffeine
If you’re feeling keyed up all day and having trouble sleeping, look at your caffeine intake. Gradually stop all sources of caffeine, including chocolate, and see if it helps. I can’t even tolerate decaf coffee (it still has some caffeine).
If you’re sleeping less than 6 hours a night, you’re probably looking at a prime cause of your anxiety. True, anxiety can make it hard to sleep, but if there’s any way you can get eight hours of sleep a night you should notice an immediate difference in your mood. Exercise is also fantastic for healing an anxious brain and discharging physical tension from worries; try to get 20-30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise every day. Finally, eat good food. Stay away from processed foods, alcohol and sugar, and eat a rich variety of healthy whole foods. Our brains our very sensitive to the kind of fuels we give them, and good food goes a long, long way.
7) Get help
If your anxiety is significantly impacting your life or relationships, don’t try to white-knuckle it alone. See your doctor, to assess whether your anxiety might have a medical cause. If it is purely psychological, expert counselling treatments such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be extremely helpful. I’m a proponent of trying non-pharmaceutical treatments first, but medication can be a lifesaver if you’re drowning in fear and can’t function in your daily life. It’s unlikely that you would be on it for life, and for many people it takes the edge off during a season of crisis, so that you’re no longer just trying to survive and are more able to take the necessary steps to get your life back on track.