Episode #39: 7 Tips for Coping with Anxiety and Supporting Well-Being in a Crisis (and Beyond)
You can't sleep. Maybe your chest is pounding. Or you were on the phone with your boss or client and couldn't find the right words. In the midst of a global pandemic, our fight or flight response is on overdrive, and that response, intended to help us escape a sabre toothed tiger, shunts our performance to our breathing function and our critical organs. This same fight or flight response means our executive functions (context, decision-making, perspective, impulse control) are short-circuited. Living in fight or flight compromises our immune response. And living in fight or flight for extended periods of time can leave us with chronic or terminal illness. The 7 tips I cover in this episode will help you calm your fight or flight response so that your body and brain can have a much-needed break. These tips don't cost any money. And the majority of them only take a few moments at any given time.
Welcome to the Freedom from Empty Podcast: Building Strong, Effective, Resilient Leaders and Humans. My name is Booth Andrews, and I am your host. Thank you so much for joining me for this episode.
So I am coming to you today for the first time from my converted now basement office and studio in the midst of the shelter at homes orders that many of us are living under right now and given this time in our lives, I am going to walk you today through 7 tips for coping with anxiety, including signs and symptoms of anxiety, the impact anxiety has on our executive functioning, and how we can down-regulate our nervous system in support of not only our executive functioning, but also our overall health and well-being.
Even if you have not been prone to anxiety in the past, these are anxious times. So, what does anxiety feel like anyway and how do you know that you are experiencing anxiety? Well, it can show up differently in different people, but some of the common manifestations are things like this:
A racing mind
Feeling breathless, breathing fast or shallow
Heaviness in the chest
Nausea or lack of appetite
Weakness or “jelly” legs
Sweating or shivering
Heart racing or palpitations
Difficulty swallowing or throat constriction
Strange or blurry vision, and
Dizziness, disorientation, or lightheadedness
Now, I want to pause for a moment and say that obviously all of these symptoms could also be signs of other medical issues, and so if you are having these symptoms, it is absolutely okay to ask your doctor to just make sure there is not something else going on in your body. But these are also manifestations of anxiety, things that I personally have experienced, and I know many of you have experienced too.
The problem with anxiety, one of the problems I guess, is that it taxes our physiology--including our immune and nervous systems--and that can limit our ability to access our executive functions which are really important during this time. So, which executive functions am I talking about, well, anxiety can:
Limit our ability to organize and prioritize our work
It makes it hard to focus
Makes it difficult to access memory
It makes it harder to manage our frustrations and modulate our emotions
To monitor and regulate our actions and impulses; and
It can also make it difficult to sustain alertness and consistent effort over time
So today, I am sharing with you 7 tips for down-regulating your nervous system so that you can give your body a break from this physiological response which increases the impact of the stress in your body and also so that you can access important mental and emotional tools during this and any other period of high stress or uncertainty.
#1 List things you are grateful for and be as specific as possible. Gratitude reduces our fear and anxiety by regulating stress hormones. It also enhances serotonin and dopamine which are the neurotransmitters responsible for happiness. I have spent many a night falling asleep by listing things I am grateful for in lieu of letting my brain churn. I think a couple of the things I listed last night were things like cozy pajamas, a safe place to sleep, the time that I am enjoying with my three children at home even though that can be a little taxing on this introvert. So, write down what you’re grateful for and be as specific as you possibly can. Um, it could be the flowers that you see outside your window, and speaking of flowers, the second tip is .
#2 Find nature. If you live somewhere nature is still accessible to you, then go outside every day as the weather permits. Put your feet on the ground. Literally. Take your shoes off and put your feet on the ground. If you cannot access nature right now, but you have plants, arrange plants around your work area. I had some fresh flowers delivered last week, I literally have been carrying them around the house with me wherever I am. If you do not have plants, put nature on your screen saver, you can watch nature films or videos or even listen to nature sounds. But commit 15 minutes per day to being "with" nature in whatever way(s) are available to you. And I just want you to know the research supports the benefits of nature even if it is really virtual nature, like looking at pictures.
#3 Drink water . Stress can cause dehydration and dehydration can cause stress. Dehydration increases the release of cortisol in the body (which is the stress hormone) and the symptoms of stress “can result in many of the same physiological responses as dehydration--such as an increased heart rate, nausea, fatigue, or headache. So, if you can remain hydrated, you can reduce the magnitude of the physiological responses we have to stress.” and this is actually from Trent Nessler, PT, DPT, MPT, managing director of Baptist Sports Medicine in Nashville. One of the ways I try to make sure I stay hydrated is I drink a fair amount of water first thing when I get up in the morning and I keep a water bottle with me even just all around the house because it reminds me to drink water.
#4 Name your emotions. Brene Brown says that “Leaders must spend a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings, or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior.” A study conducted by UCLA professor of psychology Matthew D. Lieberman found that putting feelings into words makes sadness, anger and pain less intense. According to Lieberman, when we feel angry we have increased activity in the part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for detecting fear and setting off a series of biological alarms and responses to protect the body from danger. When the angry feeling is labeled, Lieberman and researchers noted a decreased response in the amygdala and an increased activity in the right prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is involved with inhibiting behavior and processing emotions. And so, Lieberman explains it this way:
When you put feelings into words, you're activating this prefrontal region and [we see] a reduced response in the amygdala. In the same way you hit the brake when you're driving when you see a yellow light -- when you put feelings into words you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses. As a result, a person may feel less angry or sad.As we learn to identify, label and express emotions, this area of the brain is strengthened. [And then we] wn turn, we are then better able to respond to our feelings less reactively and more responsively. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-science-behind-why-na_b_7174164
So, basically what happens is, if we ignore our feelings, don’t acknowledge them, don’t take the time to put words on them, they actually have more power over our mental response than if we just take the time to put a name to what we are feeling.
But, some of us are not well-practiced in naming our emotions, and I know this is still a practice for me. My default answer when I am feeling an emotion that feels hard is to say that I am “tired.” Which may be a side effect, but it is not usually the source emotion. So, if you are not comfortable and practiced in naming your emotions, I am attaching an emotions list in the show notes for your reference if you need it.
It is also important to consider who is a “safe” person with whom to share your emotions. Because it has become so uncommon in our lives to take time to acknowledge and validate our emotions, and frankly because there are a lot of people out there who have made it a practice to invalidate the emotions of other people, not everyone is well-versed in this practice. But, do you know someone who is authentic and grounded? Who is able to hold space for you when you need it without making it all about them? THAT person is likely someone who can be a sounding board for your emotions. And another option is just to write down your emotions for yourself. Each morning, spend 5 minutes writing down as many emotions as you can identify within you. And I want to remind you that seemingly conflicting emotions CAN peacefully co-exist and be fully valid at the same time. In yoga teacher training, I learned to frame emotions this way (and I actually share some of the ones I have been experiencing lately):
Part of me is grateful to live in East Tennessee during a beautiful spring, grateful for my health and the health of my children, grateful for a safe place to live and enough food to eat . . .
Part of me feels anxious about the future . . .
Part of me aches for the pain, loss and grief so many are experiencing . . .
Part of me is hopeful that this “reset” will have long term benefits for our relationships and our communities . . .
Part of me is so grateful for the quality time I have with my children . . . and
Part of me is exhausted by the quality time that I have with my children. . .
Write down whatever emotions you are experiencing in any given moment on any given day. Allow them to be. You don’t have to talk yourself out of it, devalue your experience by telling yourself that others have it better or worse. Just acknowledge and allow them to be what they are. In doing so, your emotions will actually have less power in whatever actions you take next.
#5 Breathe. Most people take short, shallow breaths into their chest. And it can make you feel anxious and zap your energy. So I am going to go through a technique . . . you can pause this and come back to it, or you can come back to it anytime you have a moment, because I am actually going to guide you through this process:
So first, I want you to get comfortable in your chair. Allow your back to be fully supported against the back of the chair. Release your shoulders down away from your ears and neck. Allow your spine to support your head. You may close your eyes or lower your eyes.
Take a few breaths here . . .
After you have taken a few breaths, and after your next exhale . . .
Inhale through your nose for 5 counts.
And then, breathe out through your nose to the count of five.
Repeat this cycle several times.
After you have repeated that cycle several times, if you feel comfortable with the breaths that last five counts, you can increase how long you breathe in and breathe out; working up to breaths that last up to 10 counts on both the inhale and the exhale.
When you are ready to conclude the exercise, after your last exhale, return to breathing normally and gently open your eyes if they have been closed.
You can do this exercise at any time of the day for multiple times of the day as you need it. As you need it. Anytime we return to our breath, and anytime we balance our inhale and our exhale, we give our nervous system the change to re-regulate itself. We are sending the body a signal of safety, and telling our body that we really are okay. And so, this breathing exercise can be incredibly valuable, and as you can tell, it doesn’t take a whole lot of time.
#6 Turn off the news; shut down your work computer; and put your phone away. When I first got on twitter back in 2009, I “followed” a feed called Breaking News. Soon enough, I found my anxiety going through the roof. It turns out that there is death and disaster around every corner all of the time. I am not encouraging you to be blissfully ignorant, but I am suggesting that being informed is different than being inundated all of the time. The constant hits of news are not kind to our immune system or our nervous system; particularly when they leave us feeling overwhelmed and helpless. I encourage you to set boundaries around your use of media and social media. Whether that’s limiting yourself to one or two times a day, whether that’s taking a complete break from media and social media one day a week, I encourage you to practice setting boundaries around your intake of information, and I think you will find that when you leave your devices tucked away somewhere for a day or a few hours a day, that your nervous system will thank you.
#7 Connect to your senses. Anytime we connect to our senses, again we are bringing ourselves back to the present moment, and anytime we are able to exist fully in the present moment, our nervous system gets a break. So this is also a practice that I am going to lead you through, and you can access it back anytime as needed.
5: Acknowledge FIVE things that you see around you. It could be a pen, a spot on the ceiling, anything in your surroundings.
4: Acknowledge FOUR things that you can touch around you. It could be your hair, a pillow, the ground under your feet.
3: Acknowledge THREE things you hear. This could be any external sound. If you can hear your belly rumbling that counts! But focus on things you can hear outside of your body.
2: Acknowledge TWO things you can smell. Do you smell flowers, a pencil, do you smell a pillow or your laundry detergent? If you need to take a brief walk to find a scent you could smell soap in your bathroom, or nature outside.
1: Acknowledge ONE thing you can taste. This one always makes me giggle a little bit, but what does the inside of your mouth taste like—gum, coffee, the leftover peanut butter and jelly sandwich I just had for lunch?
I encourage you to practice one of these 7 tips over the next few weeks until you have tried them all. Note what difference they make for you, if any. Whenever you have identified ones that are helpful, write them down on a list and post it somewhere you can easily find it. Because what is also true is that when we are feeling anxious, we also have a hard time remembering what helps us feel better (at least until we have created new habits). I hope you find these tips give you a little bit of peace during this incredibly stressful time.
And again, I am not suggesting that you check out from what is happening in the world. What I am suggesting is that we were already living in an extremely stressful time before we faced a global pandemic, and chronic stress causes chronic illness. Chronic stress affects our immune system which is a part of our bodies that we really want to support right now. And chronic stress interferes with our ability to make grounded decisions using the best of our executive functioning at a time when it is becoming more and more important that we make decisions from a grounded, less anxious place.
Thank you for listening today. And, if you haven’t already, please hit subscribe and remember to rate this podcast on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts. When you subscribe and rate, you make it easier for other people to find this content. If you write a review of the podcast, I would love to share it on air in a future episode.
I look forward to being back with you next time!