Relaxation Techniques For Anxiety
Anxiety is a cognitive state associated with the inability to regulate emotions. While anxiety can be challenging to manage, there are several techniques proven to effectively decrease, or even eradicate anxious feelings. It is estimated that nearly 40 million Americans struggle with some sort of anxiety disorder.
Breathing exercises are a quick and effective solution for decreasing anxiety. Proper breathing exercises work for anxiety on a physiological level, through slowing the heart rate. Deep breathing is what many people think of when talking about breathwork and anxiety. Yet, slowing one’s breath is actually far more effective. With slow breathing, the focus should be more on the out-breath, rather than the in-breath. To achieve an out-breath that is slow, steady, and gentle, some find it helpful to imagine they are blowing up a balloon with the least amount of force.
Visualization, also referred to as guided imagery, is known to help alleviate anxiety through calming the body and the mind. For visualization to be effective, it is vital for one’s surroundings to be comfortable, quiet, and without distractions. There are a variety of visualization techniques, and while each technique may be slightly different, they should all be done with eyes closed.
Visualization starts with a period of deep, slow breathing. Starting with deep breathing helps lower the respiration rate, which essentially jump-starts the relaxation process. After sufficient breathing has taken place, breath can return to it’s natural rhythm, and the visualization can begin. It is completely up to the person engaging in the visualization to determine the place they will visualize, as long as it is serene and tranquil. Many people choose to envision themselves on the beach or in the forest. But visualization goes further than simply visualizing a calm environment. Engaging all five senses, through imagining what the smells, sounds, etc. are can maximize relaxation. Visualization, like many relaxation techniques for anxiety, becomes easier the more you do it.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is an anxiety-reduction technique first used in the 1930’s. PMR attends to one of anxiety’s most common physical symptoms – muscle tension. A progressive muscle relaxation involves alternating between relaxation and tension in the body’s major muscle groups. Through practicing progressive muscle relaxation, individuals with anxiety can gain a greater sense of control of their body’s response to anxiety.
Some of the most commonly used techniques for managing anxiety fall into the category of grounding. Grounding skills help bring the focus back to the present moment through noticing one’s surroundings and/or connecting to one’s body. Frequently used grounding techniques include:
–Feel your feet – this approach to grounding is just as it sounds – taking your shoes off and feeling the ground beneath your feet. This can be done standing or sitting, as long as one’s awareness is focused on the sensations at the bottom of the feet.
–Body scan – during a body scan, one’s attention is turned to the different parts of the body. For example, if seated, one might start with noticing the parts of the body making contact with the chair. From there, the attention should be shifted to other parts of the body. This can be done systematically (like scanning the body from head to toes) or through scanning the body based on whatever bodily sensations one is noticing.
–Name the objects – this grounding technique is great because it can be done anywhere, at any time. Through looking around the room and naming the objects (i.e. – chair, desk, lamp), one’s focus is brought back to the present moment, rather than on whatever distressing thoughts were going on in the mind. Naming the objects can be done silently, in one’s head, or aloud.
Not only do grounding techniques help decrease anxiety, studies show practicing grounding can also reduce inflammation, increase blood flow, and improve immunity.
Research shows meditation, over time, can reprogram neural pathways in the brain, which can expand one’s ability to regulate their anxiety. Through meditation, the ability to notice, and let go of, anxiety-inducing thoughts can be achieved. Additionally, meditation increases body awareness, as many meditations include turning one’s attention to bodily sensations. There are countless types of meditation practices to try (guided, mindfulness, transcendental, etc.), so those who are new to meditation could benefit from trying a variety of approaches to find their right fit.
The amygdala is the part of the brain that controls anxiety, and something as simple as walking can work to ramp down that part of the brain. While walking anywhere (at home, at work, outside) can be helpful, many find walking in nature is most effective for tamping down their anxiety. This may be, in part, due to the fact that humans tend to be more mindful of their surroundings when in nature.
Journaling can be a powerful tool for managing stress, decreasing anxiety, and finding overall balance. There is no “right way” to journal, as long as you are putting pen to paper. Some people like to write their worries, list their fears, or detail their day.
After a period of consistent journaling it can also be helpful to reread past journal entries. Through reflecting on past entries, one may be able to pick out and challenge unhelpful or unrealistic thoughts. Overtime, this reflection process can help “train” the brain away from those ruminating, catastrophizing thoughts that contribute to anxiety.