There is no doubt that during these past few years, anxiety became one of the main conditions prevailing in our society. The symptoms of anxiety are very individual and intimate, they can range from mild fear or worry to panic attacks and physical pain. There are several anxiety management methods, practiced and suggested by doctors, physiologists, philosophers, and researchers of the human body. Many of these methods have been effectively applied for decades and if you are searching for ways to manage your anxiety, we will help you discover what might be best for you.
Imagine that the body is in a constant state of combat readiness: a high pulse, tense muscles - as if on the battlefield or running an endless marathon. Anxiety affects not only our emotions, thoughts but also our behaviour and our body. Anxious thoughts leave physical traces - tension, ache, or even pain in the head, jaw, neck, shoulders, back, heart area, stomach, intestines, muscles.
Boston psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk, when treating his patients, first urges to notice sensations in the body — not emotions such as anger, anxiety, or fear, but physical sensations: pressure, hot flashes, muscle tension, tingling, and so on. Consequently, specific methods can be applied to deal with stressful physical reactions.
Often the doctor and the patient rely on the effects of medication, which unfortunately only suppresses the senses, but does not solve the problem. Can physical activity replace medication in the fight against anxiety disorders? It looks like it. Regular physical activity and a sporty lifestyle control the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which primary process is to stimulate the body’s fight or flight response.
The chemical formula for anxiety
The philosopher and spiritual educator Eckhart Tolle argues that emotions are the reaction of the body to the mind and the thoughts. For example, the mere thought of impending danger awakens energy in the body called anger. A sense of real or psychological threat makes the body tense — this is the physical effect off ear. Studies have shown that strong emotions in the body cause even biochemical changes, which are a physical expression of emotions.
Dopamine, adrenaline, acetylcholine, prolactin, vasopressin, oxytocin, cortisol, endorphins — the proportions of these chemical compounds in the body determine our mental state. Anxiety arises from deficiency or excess of those. For instance, stress hormones send signals from the emotional part of the brain tot he muscles, so they find themselves in constant tension and physically affect the organs until those organs report a particular disorder or disease. Constantly increased stress hormone adrenaline disturbs a person’s rest, sleep, memory, and can lead to long-term health problems, therefore it is necessary to properly control it.
It has been proven that sports and physical activity balance the chemical elements in our brain and have a positive effect on the mental state of the body. For example, back in 1985 data from a study by Royal College Professor Jeffrey Gray showed that the sensitivity of the amygdala (the uncontrolled part of the brain that processes information related to anxiety) depends, at least in part, on the amount of neurotransmitter serotonin in that part of the brain. Animals with low serotonin levels were particularly sensitive to stress stimuli, whereas higher levels of serotonin suppressed their fear system, making them less aggressive in responding to potential danger.
Active, athletic individuals usually have normal hormone cortisol levels. Cortisol is an important component of the body that regulates insulin secretion, glucose digestion, blood pressure, etc. An uncontrolled increase of cortisol can be harmful. Sport also increases the amount of dopamine in the blood. Dopamine works similarly to some specific medications used to treat anxiety disorders. It also stimulates the part of the brain that is responsible for decision-making. Besides, sports activities help to release the happiness hormones endorphins, which have a relaxing effect. Thus, based on the results of various studies, it can be concluded that anxiety disorders are diagnosed in people who exercise regularly 25 percent less frequently than in those who do not exercise at all.
Focusing your attention
It has also been proven that sport stimulates the release of hormones responsible for mood regulation and a sense of pleasure, and therefore sport acts as a natural antidepressant. Hence physical activity is one of the truly effective solutions in dealing with anxiety disorders. However, if the topic of chemical reactions in the brain is too difficult to grasp, discourse can be turned in a pragmatic direction. Generally speaking, sports engage you in bodily activity, and that way it prevents you from immersing in your anxious thoughts. Also, sport promotes self-efficacy and motivation, it builds self-confidence — these are effective tools in the fight against anxiety. Of course, the sport requires willpower and hard work, and the positive effects on your physical and mental condition are felt gradually, therefore often taking a pill may appear to be an easier way to deal with the problem. But is the problem being solved, or is it just being suppressed?
Even psychiatrists recommend trying other methods first instead of medication. Professor of Psychology J. Gray offers to focus on the physical and mental self-perception of the body, its’ senses, and interaction with the surrounding world. E. Tolle uses the philosophical approach to define the harmonious human relationship with oneself. According to him, there is a force that determines and maintains various functions of the body: oxygen uptake, food conversion into energy, immune system activity, the transmission of sensory information to the brain.
According to E. Tolle, although the body is very understanding, it does not distinguish between a real situation and a thought, so it responds to every thought in the same way as to a real situation. Anxious thoughts to the body mean the same danger as a real threat. Those restless thoughts can induce physical reactions such as fast heartbeat, rapid breathing, muscle tension. During such moments, there is an excess of energy in the body, even though the danger is not real and the energy is not utilized. Part of that energy drains the mind and causes even more anxious thoughts. And the rest of the energy disrupts the harmony oft he body’s functions.
Physical activity is an alternative to the pill
As we have already discussed many scientists have repeatedly proved that regular physical activity, exercising, and sports help to achieve antidepressant effects. 30 to 60 minutes of intense activity three to five times a week is enough to feel good both physically and psychologically. What physical activities are most effective? First of all, those that are pleasant to you, and those that fit the most for the physical condition of your body. For those who do not have a favourite sport, it is suggested to start with regular walks. This was believed and practiced until old age by enlighteners of the era such as Charles Darwin or Friedrich Nietzsche. According to the latter, only those thoughts that arise while walking are valuable.
For the treatment of chronic anxiety, meditative exercises, such as yoga, are recommended to help to focus attention and to calm the nervous system. Those suffering from severe anxiety are offered physical activities that require deep breathing — to get oxygen-enriched blood into the brain. To overcome acute and strong anxiety, high-intensity interval training, strength or aerobic exercise, running, swimming, weight training are recommended. Activities that engage the most massive muscles of the body are useful for strengthening the heart. It is said that endurance-building exercises are the most effective antidepressants, giving similar results as psychotherapy. However, according to Jonas Girskis, a neurologist, physical medicine, and rehabilitation doctor, before starting high-intensity training, it is important to find out if while you are trying to relax your mind, you are not damaging your body meaning to find out whether your musculoskeletal system is balanced and ready for sport.
When you feel anxious, the muscles of your body tense up, so it is necessary to relax them. Psychotherapists say that anxiety can be eliminated by moving the toes, rolling the ankles, tightening and releasing the calves. Concentrating on those body parts that are the tensest. It is suggested to “meditate” on stretching exercises: take a deep breath while imagining how oxygen enters all corners of the body. The advanced muscle relaxation technique offers a great way to release the tension: contracting a particular muscle, maintaining the tension for several seconds, and then relaxing, then repeating the same with as many muscles as possible.
Massage therapy is probably one of the most enjoyable, most commonly practiced ways to relax. Sarah Wilson, the author of the book Anxiety, highlighted a study in the International Journal of Neuroscience that massage reduces cortisol levels in some cases by as much as 31 percent and increases serotonin and dopamine levels by the same amount. The findings of the study emphasize the benefits of scalp massages — they activate blood circulation in the brain and relax the occiput and neck. Individuals with anxiety disorders should take an interest in the vagus nerve (also known as pneumogastric nerve) massage. This nerve extends from the brain to the abdominal cavity and internal organs. By stimulating it with various breathing and yoga exercises, we stimulate the production of various stress-relieving enzymes and hormones such as acetylcholine, prolactin, vasopressin, oxytocin.
Calming your breathing
Philosophers argue that physical and emotional illness is a rare “guest” in a well-functioning body, so it is important to cultivate a conscious relationship with one’s body. E. Tolle is convinced that a conscious connection with the body strengthens the immune system and the body’s self-healing powers. There is a simple but effective body scanning practice that you can apply in the morning as soon as you wake up or in the evening before going to bed. With your eyes closed while lying on your back, focus on the individual parts of your body: palms, feet, hands, legs, pelvis and abdomen, chest, head, and so on. Feel the most intense vital energy and meditate on each part of your body for 15seconds.
Specialists emphasize the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing (also known as “abdominal breathing” or “belly breathing”), which helps to activate the calming system. Richard Brow, a clinical psychiatrist at Columbia University, says deep controlled breathing sends a message to the body that all is well and thus suppresses anxious, stressful reactions. Anxious thoughts can be regulated by deeper breaths: inhaling through the nose, withholding it for a few seconds, and exhaling through the mouth. The anxiety subsides, once you mindfully control and balance your breathing.
Spiritual educator E. Tolle is convinced that the human body loves attention: by giving our body as much awareness as possible, we strengthen the immune system. According to this modern philosopher, many diseases develop when we do not mindfully feel and pay attention to our own body: an “abandoned” body is the ideal hotbed for ailments. This author in his work has explained the origin of anxiety. Anxious thoughts arise when we focus more on the past or the future and not on the present moment. To avoid excessive anxiety, it is important to focus on the present and on the things that we can control at this very moment. When you feel growing anxiety and fear, just try to focus on the things you can control and do here and now such as meditation, playing sports, going for a walk.