Anxiety is a huge issue in today’s world. Someone or something is constantly fighting for our attention and resources. This can cause us to be stuck in a state of constant vigilance as we ready ourselves to tame the next big thing headed our way. This heightens our nervous system toward fight-or-flight, causing our vital resources to drain given the massive energy required to maintain this state. Our body gets flooded with hormones, peptides, and neurotransmitters, especially cortisol, causing us to go into overdrive when our system is already amped.
Due to this feedback loop, normal anxiety can quickly ramp into a full-blown panic attack. When this happens, the body sensations and thoughts that run through our minds usually make it worse. Before you know it, we’ve spiraled ourselves into a light-headed, muscular-tightening, over-breathing mess!
While there are many more strategies we can (and should!) use to help lower our levels of anxiety day-to-day, I’d like to offer some tools from Somatic / Mind-Body therapy to get us back into our bodies and in a more relaxed state when panic strikes!
10 Mind-Body Practices for Anxiety and Panic:
1) Visually orient.
Let your gaze wander around your environment and take in what you see. Allow your eyes to rest on something that you find attractive and calming. Begin to soften your eyes. As we scan the environment for safety, this relaxes the natural widening of the eyes and pupils during a fear response. This gives our body the first cue that we are not under threat.
2) Describe what you see.
As you let your eyes rest upon an object, begin to describe it in detail. Use as many adjectives to describe it as you can, noting especially what feels calming to you. This helps us engage our cognitive mind so the threatened reptilian brain can begin to take a backseat.
3) Pay attention to your breath.
Place your awareness on your breath. If you are breathing through your mouth, begin breathing only through your nose. Notice the feeling of breath against your nostrils. Feel the cool air of the inhale and the warm air as you exhale through your nose. Breath awareness adds a dimension of mindfulness and naturally regulates breathing patterns. Exhale slightly longer than your inhale for additional benefit. We tend to over-breath (hyperventilate) during moments of panic. This counterbalances that tendency.
4) Ground your energy.
Grounding our energy through the feet and sit bones can help reverse the upwards flow of anxious energy, and get us back into our bodies. When we make purposeful contact with something outside our own skin, we can begin to feel our body boundary. If you notice stiffness in your knees, shoulders, or spine, begin to purposefully contract and relax those one at a time as you feel your feet and sit bones.
5) Move your body in rhythm with your breath.
If you are having a hard time getting your body to relax and ground, you may try mindful movement. Simply synchronizing hand/arm movements or leg movements at the pace of your re-calibrated breath can help to mobilize your body to release the fight-flight response naturally. This can be a simple as widening your hands and bringing them back together to touch.
6) Try gentle self-touch.
Another method to ground your energy involves self-touch. Find what works for you, perhaps placing palms together or clasping hands. You might also try the holding posture from Somatic Experiencing, placing one hand over your belly and one over your heart as you breath. You might also try pressing or tapping acupressure points. Experiment with what feels soothing.
7) Make eye contact (or verbal contact) with someone you know and trust.
If someone is nearby, making eye contact with them can be helpful to activate the social engagement system – our first line of defense when we start feeling anxious. If no one is around, you may try calling a friend or family member so you can hear their voice.
8) Find a calm space to sit or lie down, and wrap yourself up.
Once you are more regulated, you may find a place to sit or lie down and continue the practices. Try wrapping yourself in a blanket. Similar to swaddling a baby, the added pressure against our skin can send a signal of safety and calm the system, as we create a sense of containment.
9) Use a calming essential oil.
Our sense of smell routes directly to the brain and stimulates related sensory activation quickly. You may try scents you know to be pleasing and/or stimulating. Lavender is one commonly used suggestion for calming. Peppermint can bring about alertness.
10) Imagine yourself in your favorite place – engage all the senses.
Now that you have engaged your sight, touch, smell, and potentially hearing…. bring all the senses together by imaging you are in your favorite place in the world. Visualize what it feels like to be there. How does your body feel in this place? What do you notice around you – sights, sounds, smells, touch? This is your “safe place” that you can return to again and again, when you notice anxiety rising.