We’ve all experienced that familiar feeling of anxiety rising up, although what tends to trigger it will differ for each of us. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness give us valuable tools to overcome anxiety, by overriding the accompanying stress-related “fight or flight” response.
Here are my favourite strategies to cope with anxiety. What they all have in common is that they activate the calming parasympathetic nervous system, subtly reminding your body and mind that you are safe, and alleviating the physical and mental symptoms of anxiety to help you move forward.
1. Notice your breath
When we feel anxious, the breath gets faster and more shallow. By simply bringing your attention to your breath you’ll notice that it starts to slow down. It’s almost impossible to be aware of your breath without it slowing down (unless your anxiety has progressed to a panic attack, in which case go straight to point two below).
2. Lengthen the exhale
Once you have become aware of your breath, gradually start to lengthen the exhale. Don’t worry about what the inhale is doing, it will take care of itself. Lengthening the exhale has a direct effect on the calming part of your nervous system, and the more you breathe in this way the calmer you will feel.
3. Notice your feet
When we’re anxious, our attention is on our thoughts and we become disconnected from our bodies. Bring your attention to your feet. Notice how it feels for your feet to be in contact with the ground, whether you’re standing, sitting or moving. This simple practice helps us move away from our anxious thoughts and towards a sense of groundedness that makes us feel calmer and more in control.
4. Label your thoughts
Labelling your thoughts can be a useful mindful technique to help you detach from your anxiety. Rather than fixating on what you’re anxious about, see what labels you can use to describe your thoughts instead. For example, are you worrying, judging, remembering, doubting, analysing, or imagining? Place a label on your thought then let it drift away.
5. Relax your shoulders, jaw…and thumbs!
Tension can cause us to clench our jaw and tighten our shoulders without even realising it. Surprisingly, our thumbs often get tense when we’re stressed too! Bring your attention to these places and consciously start to release and relax them. This releasing of tension in your body can help your mind to relax too, and help your nervous system to find a place of balance rather than agitation.
6. Soften your gaze
Our “fight or flight” response causes our gaze to become tense and narrow, focusing hard on one thing at a time or flicking all over the place as if looking out for danger. Try softening your gaze, and imagine that your eyesight begins at the back of your head. Look into the middle distance and notice how much you can see in your peripheral vision. This will help to override the stress response that keeps you in a state of anxiety.
7. Stamp your feet
If you’re feeling very on edge, stamping your feet can be a great way to dissipate that anxious energy while helping you to detach from your thoughts and become more grounded. Once you’ve stamped out all that agitation, follow up with some slow breathing and long exhales to bring you into a place of balance.
8. Move with your breath
Moving rhythmically with your breath helps to regulate your nervous system. This could be very simple movements like raising your arms out to the sides and up overhead on the inhale then bringing your palms together as your hands come to your chest on the exhale. Or if you’re a seasoned yoga practitioner, take yourself to your mat and start to move slowly but rhythmically to your breath. If you find your breath is still fast and is causing you to move quickly, start to slow your movement down and allow your breath to gradually adjust to the same pattern.
9. Practice gratitude
Focusing on your body and breath will usually be the most helpful way of soothing anxiety (because most of the nerves of the calming parasympathetic nervous system send messages from your body to your brain rather than the other way round) but you could also try this: Think of three things you are thankful for in your life. Focus on how those things look/feel/taste/smell/sound and how they make you feel. When we practice gratitude we usually think of things that are happening in our lives right now. This will bring you into the present as well as reminding you of the good things, helping to shift your thought patterns and perspective.
I hope you find these ideas helpful. We all experience stress and anxiety, so it can be useful to have a few tools like these up your sleeve to help you feel more calm and in control. The mind can trick us into believing our thoughts are who we are, but these simple practices that bring us back into our bodies can be a wonderful reminder that we are more than our thoughts and that we can find calm and peace even in stressful situations.
Let me know if they work for you or if you have any other favourite practices to add to the list.
If you are experiencing chronic anxiety or depression that interferes with your daily life, please consult a medical professional.