I’ve become very adept at recognizing when my anxiety has reached beyond a healthy level, a critical awareness to manage stress. What are the symptoms? I can feel the blood rushing, and my heart feels like it is beating out of my chest. Thoughts seem to swim through my head, and my breathing becomes shallow—I feel as though I am on fire. It can happen very suddenly, and there I am, awash in emotion.
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What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety comes from the fight or flight response, which is a survival mechanism. When faced with life-threatening situations, we get a surge of hormones that prepares us to fight or flee. As a result, our hearts pound, muscles tense, internal alarms go off, and we are on high alert. Unfortunately, in today’s world, this response may be triggered by more annoying things than harmful. Therefore, unknowingly, we can be triggering this response numerous times throughout the day, which can put your system into a state of low-grade chronic stress.
A healthy dose of stress teaches us how to cope; some apprehension keeps us safe. For example, looking both ways before crossing the street to ensure we are safe from ongoing cars is a good habit, but continuous or high-level anxiety can be debilitating.
Related Reading: Know the Difference between Healthy vs. Chronic Stress
Fortunately, there are natural remedies for anxiety, some within ourselves.
The human body has a natural relaxation response designed to counter the fight or flight response. This response triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that helps the body rest and relax. It can put you into a physical state of deep relaxation, which changes your physical and emotional responses to stress. In turn, it decreases your heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing, and muscle tension. In other words, your body and mind feel the physical effects of stress relief.
There’s no one way to trigger the relaxation response; it is different for each person. Some people engage in a combination of destressing activities such as yoga and meditation. The best way to get the most out of whatever stress relief activities you choose is to make them a regular practice. In general, 20-30 minutes a day is considered reasonable and can be broken into two smaller sessions.
Healthy Ways to Deal with Anxiety and Stress
1 Shift stress with deep breathing. There are many ways to combat anxiety and invoke the natural relaxation response, and most of them include deep breathing or Diaphragmatic Breathing. Unfortunately, many people have become accustomed to shallow chest breathing, which increases tension and anxiety. Deep breathing fills your diaphragm and encourages the full oxygen exchange, incoming oxygen, outgoing carbon dioxide.
Harvard Business Review writes, “Research shows that different emotions are associated with different forms of breathing, and so changing how we breathe can change how we feel.” When we inhale, our heart rate speeds up, but when we exhale, it slows down. Therefore, if you are agitated, it’s helpful to lengthen your exhale. Try breathing in for a count of four, then breathing out for the count of eight. Pay attention to how you feel.
Another easy breathing exercise is called Box Breathing. Imagine drawing a box, inhale to the count of four, hold your breath there for a count of four, exhale to a count of four, then hold your breath there for a count of four. Let your belly expand and contract as you breathe. Repeat this sequence several times until you feel yourself relax.
2 Try guided imagery. Guided Imagery (GI) or visualization is another technique to change how you feel quickly. GI is one of my favorite tools because it’s simple, doesn’t take long, and can be done almost anytime, anywhere. In essence, GI means mentally visualizing peaceful scenes to promote a state of relaxation. These images distract you from your anxious state and allow the mind and body to focus on positing thoughts and sensations. It is focused relaxation that quickly creates harmony between the mind and body. The place can be anywhere, a favorite memory, somewhere you wish to visit, or simply a quiet scene that fills you with comfort. It’s best to add as much detail as you can relating to each of the senses. What do you see? How does it smell? Do you feel a gentle breeze on your face?
As a child, I loved spending the night at my grandparent’s house. My grandfather was the cook of the family and was always in the kitchen making something delicious. The smell of bacon in the morning will always remind me of him. My grandmother and I would curl up on the couch and watch TV while she rubbed my back. And when it was time for bed, she laid next to me until I was just about asleep, then, leaving the hall light on, would slip to her room at the other end. Those memories calm me every time.
Related Reading: Struggling with Anxiety? Learn How to Calm Yourself
3 Use essential oils for anxiety. Utilizing essential oils is another effective method for eliciting the natural relaxation response. The use of essential oils, or aromatherapy as it is now called, has been around for thousands of years. Extracting the oil from plants and then inhaling the scent is thought to help activate specific receptors in the brain. The oils can be smelled through diffusers, spraying onto fabrics or furnishings, massaging it into our skin, or as an ingredient in bath salts and lotions. (If using essential oils on your skin, always use a carrier oil such as olive or almond oil.)
Essential oils easily penetrate the skin for localized benefits. Knowing where to apply essential oils is simple. The neck, forehead, and temples are all great because they are easy to smell, but the chest, abdomen, arms, legs, and bottoms of your feet are good as well.
The best essential oils for anxiety include roman chamomile, lavender, ylang ylang, bergamot orange, clary sage, neroli (orange blossom), and rose.
It doesn’t matter which method or combination of methods you use to trigger the body’s natural relaxation response; the benefits are all the same. You’ll feel more relaxed, have less muscle tension, better digestion, improved mood, better control over your emotions, better sleep, and clearer thinking. But the most exciting benefit is the improvement in long-term resiliency (how well people adapt to challenging situations over time.)
For me, a regular yoga practice makes a huge difference in managing my anxiety. But then, if I find myself feeling anxious throughout the day, deep breathing, guided imagery, and essential oils are easy methods that I apply to return to balance.
Related reading: "Building Healthy Brain Habits: Dream Big, Start Small."
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