There’s no escaping the fact that we live in stress-inducing times. A global pandemic, loss of jobs, and civil and political unrest—all amid a presidential election year in the US—have set the stage for even the calmest among us to feel a little ill at ease. These challenging times aren’t a prerequisite for anxiety, however. Anxiety can happen to any of us for a variety of reasons. According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Anxiety disorders are the most common of mental disorders and affect nearly 30 percent of adults at some point in their lives.” Anxiety may be mild, manifesting as low-grade fear or worry, or it may be severe and totally debilitating. Regardless of the degree, anxiety in all its forms is a chaotic, unhealthy, and unpleasant state that we need to learn to manage.
In its most basic definition, anxiety is an intense and overreactive fear and worry about daily life and situations. Anxiety is like run-of-the-mill fear amped up on steroids. It has a cascading, snowball-like effect of one fear or worry piling on another, and another until you’re caught up in a full-blown avalanche of panic.
The Roots of Anxiety
Although anxiety’s roots may be due to multiple causative factors, one primary trigger can be due to stress buildup triggering the autonomic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response. This survival mechanism is a carryover from our primitive ancestors who always had to be on the lookout for attacks of wild animals, enemy tribes, or natural disasters. In those times, fear, worry, and paranoia helped humans survive. Our ancestors who were perpetually on-guard, twitchy, and anxious spotted trouble early enough to survive it. Those who weren’t vigilant against perpetual dangers didn’t live to tell the tale or pass their genetic traits on to future generations. We carry this genetic disposition for fear and worry deep within us. Whether we want to admit it or not, deep within, there’s a little scared and shaking prehistoric mammal cowering from danger on the forest floor.
Although we no longer live in prehistoric times, when a mental or emotional tipping point is reached in our day to day lives, the rattled nervous system still sends the fight/flight signal throughout the physiology to elevate heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, release stress hormones, redirect the circulation, and increase perspiration and muscle tension. Hence an imagined fear or worry creates a very tangible expression in mind and body. (1)
This background is important for two reasons.
- When we recognize that at a certain level anxiety is wired into our nervous system, we can be more compassionate toward ourselves rather than feeling guilty or as if that there is something wrong with us for feeling anxious. If we know the potential exists, we can be easier on ourselves when an event or situation triggers it to run out of control.
- Once we understand the mechanics of anxiety in general, we’re better equipped to learn tools to help us self-regulate our nervous system and relieve some of anxiety’s effects.
What Does Self-Regulation mean?
A somewhat new term in wellness circles is self-regulation. Essentially, this means that one has control over oneself by oneself. In other words, we actively manage our thoughts, our emotions, and behavior to lead toward greater homeostasis and balance. Opposed to feeling as if our mental, emotional, and physical health and happiness are predetermined and beyond our control, self-regulation implies that through appropriate lifestyle choices, your mind-body system has an amazing ability to correct itself.
Self-regulation practices help the mind-body let go of chronic stress, worry, and the debilitating effects of anxiety and panic. They gently coax the nervous system off the ledge and settle it back down to a more nourishing state. Many of these techniques help to stimulate the vagus nerve, the primary nerve pathway associated with the parasympathetic, or the rest-and-digest function of the nervous system.
Review each approach below to discover how they can benefit your anxiety management strategy.
1. Breathing Techniques (Pranayama Practice)
Your state of mind is deeply intertwined with your breathing. Your mental activity is directly correlated to the speed and rhythm of your breath—an agitated and anxious mind is reflected in rapid and shallow breathing, not unlike a scared forest creature. A settled and calm mind, which activates the grow, heal, and restore functions of our nervous system,(2) is mirrored in deep, slow, and steady breathing. Therefore, conscious, deep breathing can be a powerful tool to settle anxious thoughts and emotions. Pranayama, or yogic breathing practices contain several techniques that are uniquely suited to restore balance to your nervous systems.
Of all the mind-body techniques, meditation stands out as the most foundational of all practices to down-regulate the hyperactivity of our turbulent nervous system. When the thought stream begins to settle, even a little, both mind and body relax, all the biological markers of stress are reversed (3), and your awareness expands into the non-local realm beyond conditioned thinking. Meditation doesn’t have to be complicated to have a profound effect on the mind and body. Sometimes the simplest techniques can have a big return on investment.
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3. Yoga Asana Practice
The poses or asanas of classical Hatha Yoga can have a powerful effect on modifying your mind-body state.
- Yoga poses liberate blocked or jittery subtle energy that may have accumulated in different parts of your body.
- By its nature, anxiety has a paralyzing, deer-in-headlights quality to it in which we may freeze out of overwhelming mental input. Yoga poses encourage movement to crack the shell of extreme muscle tension and enable more productive physical action.
- If feelings of anxiety and worry had a physical manifestation in your body, they would most likely take the shape of hunched shoulders, a rounded or flexed back, and a collapsed chest in what could be called fear pose. However, by practicing yoga asanas, especially those that lengthen the spine, roll the shoulders back and down, and open the chest, our bodies begin to embody calm, strength, and confidence—traits that carry over equally to our mental state.
4. The Law of Least Effort
In Deepak Chopra’s book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, we learn of seven principles for living life in alignment with the laws of nature. The fourth law, the Law of Least Effort, contains two powerful concepts that can help us reframe our perceptions of challenges in our lives and help us to shift out of our more primitive anxiety-based responses.
- Practice acceptance. Acceptance arises when we recognize that this moment is the result of all the moments in the past and to struggle against what is to struggle against the entire universe. Acceptance doesn’t mean passivity. It doesn’t mean we have like the way things are right now; however, it means we are willing to allow things to be as they are because it both conserves our energy and eliminates the frustration of pointless struggle. Until we accept a situation, we won’t have the power to do anything about it.
- Take responsibility. Taking responsibility means that we are each responsible for our mental state. This is the heart of self-regulation—consciously thinking, speaking, and acting to harmonize and balance our system for optimum well-being. We are ultimately responsible for how we perceive the world and are therefore able to respond as we see fit. As former first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt reminds us, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” When we let go of blame, we’re more able to take self-determined action for our highest good.
5. The Law of Detachment
Similarly, the sixth Spiritual Law of Success, the Law of Detachment also contains two principles that can help us recontextualize our life circumstances to weaken anxiety’s grip over our lives.
- Live with detachment. The world’s wisdom traditions remind us that one of the primary causes of suffering is attachment, or clinging to objects of desire (things, relationships, conditions). Attachment is essentially insecurity in disguise—the need to hold on to the way things are and the way you want them to be. This search for security can be endless because it’s ultimately an illusion, an attachment to a past that no longer exists. Thus, the more we embrace detachment, the more freedom we will experience in our lives.
- Step into uncertainty. Despite our often compulsive desire to control the outer conditions of life, certainty is never guaranteed. Instead, what is certain is the exact opposite: Change, unpredictability, impermanence, and uncertainty are at the heart of the world we live in. However, when we’re attached, we’re stuck in the known, imprisoned by our past conditioning. Only by embracing uncertainty can we consciously step into the unknown and discover that despite what our fears and anxieties have made us believe, this mystery contains the fertile field of opportunity and true safety that lives at the core of our being.
Remember, if you’re experiencing anxiety during these challenging times, you’re not alone. As you navigate your wellness journey, consider exploring some of these strategies to enhance your ability to regulate your nervous system, restore balance, and rediscover the deep sea of calm within.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only 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 programs.
1: The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson, M.D. Harper Collins, 1975, 2001 pg. 8-10
2: The Wisdom of Healing by David Simon, M.D. Three Rivers Press, 1997 pg. 111
3: Grow Younger, Live Longer by Deepak Chopra, MD and David Simon, MD. Three Rivers Press, 2001. pg 47