For the past 20 minutes, you have been sitting at your desk, a blank computer screen staring back at you. The cursor at the top of your open Word document flashes rhythmically. Thump… thump… thump.
You become aware of your heartbeat and notice it steadily increasing. You feel it becoming stronger and you feel it in your stomach, traveling upward into your chest. Your palms are sweating.
You take your hands off your desk and try to dry them by rubbing them along the top of your thighs–a temporary relief. You begin to set them back down, only this time you try to steady your shaking hands by firmly gripping the edge of your desk.
The thumping increases in speed. You are feeling the overwhelm of your racing heart in your chest now—as if it’s trying to plunge forward out of your body.
“What’s wrong with me?” you think to yourself. As you try to reason with yourself, you remember you didn’t sleep well last night. Then again, you can’t remember the last time you slept well at all. The thought of this makes you immediately feel nauseated. You’ve been feeling nauseous often.
“Why is this happening to me?” you ask yourself again. “Why can’t I get this under control?”
If you have not already figured it out—you are experiencing some, if not many, of the symptoms of anxiety.
Let’s focus on that last thought you had—“why can’t I get this under control?”
Control has both everything and yet nothing to do with anxiety.
Let me explain.
What Happens to Your Bodies When You Experience Anxiety?
Anxiety only occurs in situations perceived as uncontrollable or inevitable, but which are not actually so. Fear, on the other hand, is an appropriate emotional and physical response to a noticed threat or danger.
You must be asking yourself, does this mean that I can control my fears but I cannot control my anxieties?
The answer is—yes—and no.
When you experience anxiety, your body responds by going into what is called “fight-or-flight” mode. When you’re in this mode, you’re having a psychological reaction to a future event that you feel may be harmful to yourself. This psychological reaction is known as the threat–you feel unsafe. Once your brain identifies this threat, it processes signals—beginning in the brain, specifically, the amygdala and then the hypothalamus.
Next, a cascade of hormonal reactions occur. Your pituitary gland secretes the ACTH hormone, followed by the release of two primary stress hormones: cortisol and adrenaline. This can trigger the physical effects of anxiety, such as increased heart rate, bladder relaxation, tunnel vision, shaking, dilated pupils, flushed face, dry mouth, slowed digestion, and hearing loss.
All of these symptoms cause you to feel uncomfortable and, ultimately, affect your ability to manage your everyday lives—work, family, relationships, emotions, and ordinary, daily activities.
How Do You Manage Anxiety?
The most common remedy to the physical symptoms of anxiety is to take prescription medication. Pharmaceuticals usually have a tranquilizing effect. And while they often help (at least, to a certain degree) relieve your physical symptoms, pharmaceutical drugs do not prevent your fixed habit of mind which causes you to respond with anxiety in the first place.
And when you only treat the symptom(s), you fail to address the root cause of anxiety.
Alleviating Anxiety Naturally
This is why it is also important to practice natural forms of stress relief, alongside other treatments. Your mind-body system cannot adapt to anxiety, and so you need to practice forms of self-care into order to find relief and bring more mindfulness into the present moment.
There are self-care tools you can use to help you become more in tune with your body’s biological responses. For example, if the body becomes aware that you are feeling unsafe, there are ways of slowing it down before it goes into the mind and triggers physical symptoms.
Here are a few ways to practice self-care each day, which will help reduce and prevent symptoms of anxiety.
1. Physical Activity
The first tool you can use to alleviate anxiety is physical activity. Robust physical activity helps you flush anxiety out of your system. For example, yoga asanas, or postures, can train your brain to relax because they help you form a conscious connection between your breath and your bodies—which can quickly relieve anxious thoughts.
Getting a great deal of exercise and fresh air by going for walks in nature can also help you develop a deep appreciation for beauty and peacefulness and ground your mental energies.
2. Breathing Exercises
The second tool recommended for relief of anxiety is breathing exercises. In Sanskrit, breathing exercises are known as pranayama, which means “control of breath.” Pranayama is the life-force associated to your breath and plays an important role in connecting your mind and body and facilitating the experience of silent awareness.
Practicing 5 to 10 minutes of alternate nostril breathing before you meditate will help you detach from the primitive areas of your brain, which is where you fixate on anxious thoughts. This leads me to the next self-care tool.
Meditation is a self-care tool that you should practice, regardless of the degree you do or do not experience anxiety. When you meditate, you quiet your overanxious mind and focus on the silence that exists between every mental action.
Meditation helps you realize that you are greater than your thoughts and feelings. When you detach in this way and become more mindful, your brain forges new pathways and experiences without anxious thoughts.
4. A Healthy Diet
Diet also comes into play when looking for relief from anxiety. Your stomach contains more neurons than your brain does; meaning, whatever it is you decide to put in your stomach will have a direct impact on your conscious mind.
Natural organic foods and the removal of additives and refined sugar balances your metabolism. Removing alcohol from your diet will also greatly contribute to relieving anxious thoughts. Unfortunately, today’s society encourages us to consume alcohol in order to enjoy a happier life.
In the modern world, where pervasive social media creates constant pressure to communicate with others, you must find the time to connect your mind and body in order to find some space where pressures and anxieties do not exist.
Allow yourself time in your daily schedule to do this—give yourself permission. When your body recognizes you’re in a safe place, it may communicate more clearly and answer the question: “What do I need to resolve this anxiety?”
We’re all unique and have different requirements on our path to healing. You may want to work with trained professionals to address and integrate experiences when you first felt fear, so the waves do not continue to come toward you in the form of anxiety. You may also need to further develop your support network so your body and mind feel supported. You are not alone. Sadly, we are all familiar anxiety to some varying degree, but we also should know that we all can heal from it and deserve to do so.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
Anxiety can be debilitating and bring unwanted stress into your life. If you’re ready to seek real change in a natural, positive, and sustainable way, the Chopra Addiction Center may be a great resource for you to move into an easier, more manageable way of living. Learn More.