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Biological hacks for decreasing anxiety

Biological hacks for decreasing anxiety

Let’s talk about anxiety. Fun fact for the day: Anxiety is an emotion. The APA defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” Notice that the APA includes the physical changes associated with anxiety. It’s like whoa your palms are sweating, your heart is racing, and you’re breathing fast (and it turns out, your blood pressure increases!). This is what we call the “fight or flight mode” or the sympathetic nervous system being activated.

When we get to a point where we’re experiencing physical anxiety, cognitive tools like thought restructuring, reframing or thought challenging will prove futile because your body is too. far. gone. What you have to do first is reduce your physical anxiety so your other coping skills can come online. This means activating your parasympathetic nervous system, or “rest and digest mode.” But like I said, trying to use coping skills when you’re in the middle of an anxiety attack simply isn’t going to be very effective.

Put an ice pack on your face

If you are having a full blown panic attack, there’s a really quick fix that activates your parasympathetic nervous system. Put an ice pack over the bridge of your nose and on your cheeks for thirty seconds and wait for the magic to happen. Fun fact: putting an ice pack on your face or dunking your face in 50 degree F water activates the dive reflex found in all mammals. This literally throws your body into rest and digest mode. (Have you ever jumped into a cold lake or pool? Same thing.)

Unfortunately, this is a quick solution for a short term fix–the effects sometimes last only 15 minutes. But it gives you a chance to calm down your body and then practice some other coping skills.

Have a dance party for 20 minutes

Here’s the thing. When you’re feeling extremely anxious, it can have energizing effects on your body. Rather than swim against the tide of that energy and do something like take a nap, lean into that pent up energy and engage in some vigorous physical activity. In other words, match up the anxiety in your body with the activity that you’re going to do. This can be a dance party (which is always the superior choice) or jumping jacks or even a brisk run.

Exercise also has some really positive benefits on your body. For one, you get a nice rush of endorphins from exercise. It also serves as an excellent distraction: you can’t focus on how anxious your body feels when you’re dancing with wild, focused abandon.

I also have a theory that our bodies store up anxiety or stressful emotions and physical activity works off that store up energy. It’s kind of like taking your dog for a walk. Sometimes a human needs to be taken for a walk to burn off extra energy. So, go forth and burn, my friends!

Breathe deeply

Guess what? Spending ten minutes taking deep breaths is another neat biological hack. First of all, why does this work? You can thank a special nerve that you have called the vagus nerve. (What happens in vagus–okay I won’t do it.) The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your body. It also regulates your parasympathetic nervous system, which is your “rest and digest” mode. (When you are stressed out or anxious, you take shorter, shallower breaths and make a lot of stress hormones; this is what we call “fight or flight mode.”) By practicing diaphragmatic breathing, your body sends signals to stimulate the vagus nerve and push your body into rest and digest mode. HOW COOL IS THAT? You literally have a relaxation nerve in your body.

So how do you do some diaphragmatic breathing? To test out how it feels, put your arms over your head and take a deep breath in. (You don’t need to have your hands over your head the entire time, but it’s a good way to learn how to do it.) Notice how you have to breathe into your belly when your hands are over your head. Now put your arms back down and practice breathing into your belly. See nifty that is?

Breathing practice: Set a timer for 10 minutes. Get comfortable; relax your spine, and close your eyes if that’s okay for you. Then, breathe in 3 for seconds, hold for 3 seconds, breathe out for 3 seconds, hold for 3 seconds and repeat. Continue breathing like this for 10 minutes. If you can, extend your in breath and out breath to up to 6 or 7 seconds.

Adapted from Marsha Linehan’s DBT TIPP skills.

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