Written by Katie McLaughlin, LPC, CCATP
When it comes to managing anxiety, we have a few options to consider. There are some practices that fall into a prevention category and others which fall into an intervention category. Prevention includes regular practices, techniques or activities which set yourself up for an overall decrease of anxiety and stress. Intervention, on the other hand, involves techniques to engage in when you are in throws of anxiety or panic.
Prevention would be things like maintaining a regular sleep schedule, engaging in a daily meditation, exercising, practicing yoga throughout your week, ensuring you are eating well, using a diffuser with essential oils while you work, and maybe going easy on your caffeine intake.
Intervention would include specific breathing techniques, grounding techniques or general self care that you practice when you notice those uncomfortable warning signs of anxiety. Sometimes, the best thing we can do when we are in anxiety-mode, is to physically get the cortisol-induced energy out. Cardio or interval training is actually great for this. Obviously, it is not always realistic (or healthy) to start sprinting every time we feel anxious, but when our body says to move, it's usually a good idea to listen.
Grounding techniques and breathing techniques can be somewhat interchangeable. We don't need a hundred different options to choose from. We just need a few, easy to remember and simple to practice options to get our body's calming system to turn on. One of these techniques is called Box Breathing. This technique is so effective, it is taught to and used by Navy Seals! Also, since it is a breath-based technique, you can quite literally practice it anywhere. Check out the graphic below to practice in your own time. The premise is as follows:
Breathe in while you count to 4
Hold your breath while you count to 4
Breathe out while you count to 4
Hold your breath while you count to 4
Image found on Science of Connectedness
Try this out for 5-10 breath cycles and see what you notice. If you find yourself becoming lightheaded during the practice, take a few normal breaths and resume when you feel ready to.
If you are more of an active learner and would rather get the feel for this practice in meditation form, check out my latest podcast. You can find additional meditations and mindfulness practices there as well, with new practices uploaded weekly.
If you'd like to be guided through this practice, check out my podcast on Spotify.
There really is such power in our breath. Simply practicing how to get fuller, deeper, more satisfying breaths has a great impact on the stress we feel.
Often times where we are overwhelmed with stress or anxiety, we tend to experience shallow, unfulfilling breathing which leaves us...well...breathless. Which of course only exasperates the problem as we then tend to think we are dying or are having a heart attack. (Hey panic)
The good news is that there are so many different ways to regain control of your breathing, therefore increasing feeling calm and grounded. One of the options you have is to practice something called Belly Breathing. Basically this is simply a practice of sending your breath all the way down to your lower abdomen, rather than breathing solely into your chest.
If you've never tried this before, I encourage you to experiment with your breath by placing one hand on your heart and one on your belly. As you inhale, notice which hands moves more. Is it the hand placed over your heart or the one on your belly?
Try a few breaths as you imagine sending breath to your lower abdomen as you inhale.
When you practice this way, notice your belly-placed hand rise as you inhale and lower as you exhale. Observe how your chest and shoulders stay relatively still when the breath travels to your belly and fills your lungs more deeply. Observe the fullness of breath you can have when you intentionally focus on how you breathe. Allow yourself to be kind and gentle with yourself, especially if you are new to this practice. As with most things in life, it will take practice and repetition to feel comfortable with a new skill.
Bonus - If you practice breathing techniques like this when you are not feeling overly stressed or anxious, your mind and body tend to remember how it felt during the practice and will therefore have an easier time thinking to use this as a way to calm down when you actually are feeling stress or anxiety. Not to mention, this type of practice leads to feeling relaxed as you practice it because it activates your body's amazing calming system. Pretty cool right?
You can check in for weekly guided meditations and other mindfulness practices here and on my podcast, Mindful Moments. Listen on AnchorFM or Spotify.
Katie McLaughlin, LPC
I was recently listening to a podcast about Neurocounseling and Biofeedback which reminded me of some truly crucial information to acknowledge through the continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you’re interested in finding some relief and moments of calm in this crazy time, I hope you stick with me through this post. And if you’d like to listen to the podcast that inspired me, check out NeuroNoodle's January 14th, 2021 post on Spotify or on their website.
When COVID-19 became a true reality in our life, a looming, unknown and uncertain threat entered our world. If the virus itself wasn’t enough, we have also been bombarded with reminders of this threat on a daily basis since its inception. Can we just bring awareness to the process that occurs in our brain and body when we are reminded of a threat?
Our brain is constantly observing our surroundings, making meaning and attempting to ensure our body’s safety. When our brain observes a possible threat, it immediately turns on the body’s threat response system (AKA Fight/Flight/Freeze). It doesn’t even matter if the threat is real, our brain would rather be safe than sorry. That is, after all, how our ancestors have survived all these years. So we are in Fight/Flight/Freeze and noticing all of the uncomfortable physical sensations that come with this. Typically, our brain would then either acknowledge our actual state of safety and go back to baseline, or prompt action to get out of danger. COVID-19 is a chronic stressor though, and with a chronic stressor, our brain continues to say, “I don’t feel safe” and so we stay in our high-alert, threat response mode. If our brain doesn’t know we are safe, then we aren’t going to experience relief.
That is where something called the Vagus Nerve comes into play. The Vagus nerve is the longest nerve in our Nervous system and is truly incredible. It has the ability to send messages from the body to the brain, and from the brain to the body. What does this have to do with anything? Well, as you may know, when we are in Fight/Flight/Freeze, it feels near impossible to talk ourselves down from those fearful, anxious thoughts. So knowing the Vagus nerve can send a message from our body to our brain to calm down, this opens up many more options for us to return to baseline. Engaging in simple breathing techniques can even do the trick.
So if I may, I’d like to lead you through one of those simple tricks to tell your brain you are safe without the use of thoughts.
First and foremost, find a place of stillness and take three of the deepest breaths you have taken all day.
Be kind to yourself and don’t skip this part. Just breathe.
Acknowledge your brain’s desire to go to the absolute worst-case scenario right now. Instead of berating yourself for doing so, bring a sense of kindness here and thank your brain for being observant and wanting to protect you. It has been working overtime lately.
Over the next few minutes, give this breathing technique a try. It’s okay to keep your eyes open at first as you get the hang of it. Then try closing your eyes for a few breath cycles and see what you notice.
Gently place your hands on your lower abdomen
Breathe in through your nose to the count of 4
As you breathe in, feel your abdomen fill with air. Image filling your lower abdomen with air first and fill your body all the way up to your chest.
Hold your breath for a moment or two
Breathe out to the count of 6
Image emptying your body in the opposite direction as you filled it as you feel your abdomen deflate completely
Take a few regular breaths and repeat this practice 5 more times
Notice how you feel
If you started this practice feeling highly anxious, you may feel a bit shaky still. Maybe you notice your heart rate has slowed down a bit, though. And perhaps you even feel calm. Wherever you are, bring a sense of appreciation for all your body does to keep you alive and know that you always have your breath to return to when you need relief from the chaos of life.
If you’d like some additional body hacks to calm your nervous system, check out this video.
Be well and stay kind,
As the banner year of 2020 comes to a close in just a few weeks, I’d like to go through a brief activity to commemorate the good, the bad and the ugly. You may not want to reflect on what was likely a chaotic year, but I encourage you to stick it out. I will keep it simple and take you through step by step. Before you start, go ahead and grab a notebook in case you’d like to write down any notes.
Take one of the deepest breaths you have taken all day and settle into this moment.
Now take a second.
And a third.
Just breathe and allow yourself to take this time away from your schedule.
Think back on the trials you have faced this year.
The challenges. The crises. The losses.
Just sit with these for a moment and acknowledge all that you have survived just in this one year. Bring awareness to the perseverance and strength it has taken to make it through the last 9 months.
Allow accomplishment to wash over you without any justifications.
Try to not brush this away or talk yourself out of it.
Simply allow it to come and be felt.
Reflect on every good thing that has occurred this year as well.
Perhaps working from home has given you additional freedom, comfort or balance in your life. Maybe you learned a new hobby during quarantine. Have you experienced joys from extra family time?
No matter how big or small, write down every blessing that came your way.
Acknowledge all of the good that came with the difficult.
Bring a sense of compassion to each of these steps.
Lovingly allowing yourself to sit and breath.
Acknowledging the pain you have endured while also considering the strength each challenge created.
Remembering the good, the light, that has been experienced even in the darkest of times.
Allowing yourself to be present with every emotion that arises through this exercise as you breath through each one.
Acknowledging the challenges, crises, and losses of 2020 has the power to bring validation, understanding and empowerment to your being. You have survived one heck of a year! It’s okay to be proud of yourself for simply surviving. It is also okay to find joy and peace when you have seen so much suffering.