Skill #11: How to Calm Anxiety in your Nervous System

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You can learn to turn on the parasympathetic nervous system and calm anxiety by doing these simple body-based skills. Anxiety, PTSD, trauma, and other intense emotions are rooted in the nervous system, specifically the sympathetic response, but our body has a built-in natural ability to calm anxiety by turning on the parasympathetic nervous system.

Learn to Calm Anxiety in your Body First

“A calm body creates a calm mind”- Gayatri Devi

I once read a story about a woman who adopted a stray dog that she found wandering the highway. He was a sweet mutt, good with kids, well-behaved, and he didn’t make messes in the house. 

The only downside was that every time they got into the car, he would get worked up into a tizzy. He would run back and forth in the back seat, frantically panting and whining with anxiety. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he would then throw up all over the back seat. This happened every time they got into the car. 

You can imagine the dog owner was about at her wits’ end. In desperation, she decided to take the dog to a trainer and ask for help. The trainer taught the woman to teach the dog to be calm by having the dog lay down in the car. She explained that when the dog’s body is in a calm position, it sends messages to the brain that he is safe and triggers him to relax. 

The woman started working with the dog every day, putting him in the car, gently making him lay down, and before long he stopped throwing up in her car. Problem solved! 

In previous sections in this course, we learned that our emotional reactions are much deeper than our thoughts. They show up in the body and are powered by the fight/flight/freeze response in our limbic system. 

Now we are going to talk about how to soothe anxiety in your nervous system through the skill of self-regulation. Basically, this means calming down your nervous system and creating the physiological response of feeling safe when we are actually safe. 

Is it possible to have an anxiety disorder or PTSD if your body is calm? I’ve worked with many professional trauma educators who say that you cannot have PTSD or anxiety disorders in a relaxed body. 

Anxiety and PTSD are the outward symptoms of having your nervous system stuck in high alert, when your amygdala is sending the message that you’re in danger and triggering that fight/flight/freeze response. This is why anxiety is something you feel in your stomach and PTSD locks you into hypervigilance, jumping at the slightest threat — because your nervous system is stuck in that sympathetic response. 

People often feel helpless to change their stress response, and it can feel impossible because this FFF response is an autonomic reaction. However, we have more influence than we realize. 

For example, when stressed, our muscles get tense without us consciously thinking about it. However, we can control our muscles when we think about it. Another example is when we feel nervous, our breathing gets shorter and shallower. But if we consciously take a deep breath, we can slow down our breathing. These are two autonomic reactions that we can influence. 

We can change how stressed our body feels by doing simple techniques. The coolest thing about this is that not only does your brain send messages to your body about whether to be stressed or calm, but your body also sends messages to your brain about whether to be stressed or calm. So when we choose to breathe deeply or slowly, we choose to turn on that parasympathetic response which fosters calm.

In this section I’m going to teach you a half dozen ways to regulate your nervous system and turn on that parasympathetic response. When you practice this, you can transform your nervous system from being dominated by the stress response to being dominated by the rest-and-digest response.

Relaxation Versus Self-Regulation

Many people are familiar with relaxation skills. With relaxation, we stop doing a task, step away, and engage in an activity that takes much of our attention. Relaxation skills really are important, but again, they are hard to practice daily and can be a form of avoidance that leads to problems in the future.  

We sometimes think that if we are working we also have to be stressed and that the only way to be relaxed is to be away from work. Seeing the situation this way creates a dependence on avoidance. Remember, avoidance makes us anxious. 

When we think of situations as the cause of our stress, we create helplessness around our stress levels. So if you have the belief that “I’m stressed because of my job,” then you may feel like your only option is to quit your job or just grit your way through it.  

There is another way to think and act. We can train our minds and bodies to separate the situation from the response. If instead you recognize “I’m stressed because I constantly believe I am in danger when I get feedback at my job,” this can help you reduce that stress response at work. 

We learned a lot more about this in the sections on Perceived Danger and Creating Safety, but when you acknowledge that it’s the belief that you’re in danger when you’re actually safe that is making us anxious, then that opens up a little space to change how you see your job. 

So if you have a massive stress response in the face of a job evaluation, you could change your thinking by reminding yourself “This is not a threat to my physical safety. I don’t need to fight off a tiger right now. I am safe.”  

Unlike relaxation skills, self-regulation skills are things we do while performing a task to keep our nervous system balanced. We can practice them throughout the day and while doing almost any activity. They keep our nervous system calm while active, thus decreasing stress and exhaustion. 

The goal of self-regulation is to pair “I am safe right now” thinking with a relaxed body, which keeps us calm, clear headed, and focused.  When we are calm, we are better able to make values-based decisions, instead of being reactive. Practicing this creates relaxed vigilance.

Calming Anxiety when you're at Work

I used to work at a treatment center for teenage girls. It was a very rewarding job, but for me it was also very stressful. Each of these girls faced many challenges, and I cared so much about them and always wanted to do my best to help them. 

One of the most stressful parts of the job was parent weekends, when the parents of these girls would fly out and visit for three days. We would cram in as many individual, family, and group therapy sessions into a weekend as was humanly possible. 

For my first two years working there, these weekends were times where I felt like I was sprinting. I didn’t sleep well, I was high-strung and stressed out, trying to almost frantically cram as much intensity into my day as possible. I didn’t know any other way. 

I thought that in order to perform under pressure, I had to be worked up and wound tight. That if I cared about my work, it was natural that I was going to be stressed, and that the only alternative was to choose a job that was boring and not as important. I really didn’t know any other way, so I kept going through the stress-out and exhaustion cycle. 

Then one January I attended a conference on treating trauma that changed my perspective. Using many of the activities I’m teaching you in this chapter, the facilitator trained us to foster a calm body while engaging in an intense activity. As I practiced these skills, I developed the ability to facilitate a parent weekend without having to be completely stressed out. 

I still cared, I still brought my A-game and was excited to be there, but by monitoring and relaxing my body’s stress response, I was able to stay regulated in my body, think more clearly, and go home at the end of the day feeling more energetic and less exhausted. It was still hard work, but it became enjoyable and sustainable again. 

We can create this state by pairing the perception of safety with mindful awareness and physical self-regulation. We perform the same tasks that we previously found to be exhaustingly stressful while keeping a calm body. 

I made a previous video on this. If you haven’t seen it, search “4 Ways to Soothe Anxiety in the Nervous System — Therapy in a Nutshell.” So, many of these are simple things you can do throughout your day to regulate your day even when you’re facing stressful tasks. 

I think it’s pretty cool that your phone or your smartwatch can remind you throughout the day to take a deep breath or pause for a moment and go for a walk. All of these skills help your nervous system calm down, and they’re like strengthening your “calm muscle.”  The more you practice, the better you will get at getting calm. 

There are lots of other activities that help stimulate the vagus nerve and its calming effects, so I’m going to teach you four more right now. 

Go ahead and write down your anxiety level right now on a scale from 1-10.

EFT/Tapping to Calm Anxiety

So this first skill is an interesting one. It’s called the Emotional Freedom Technique or Tapping.  Go ahead and just gently tap seven times on your forehead, next to your eye, under your eye, above your lips, below your lips, your collarbone, under your arm, and then on the karate chop area.  And repeat it 3 times. 

Now that the activity is over, write down your anxiety level again on a scale of 1-10. 

Here’s the thing about this technique: there is no scientific evidence to back this up.  Proponents of tapping say that you’re doing work with your energy or your meridians or chi, but there’s no research to back this up. However, what we do know is that it tends to take the anxiety level down a notch for most people. 

In my opinion, almost anything we can do to get grounded in the body can help the body remind the brain that you are safe right now. So that’s why I think this works for some people. 

Other Techniques to Combat Anxiety

Ok, now that we have tried that one together, here is a list of several more things you can experiment with. I think the next one is a lot more fun.

  • Laugh. Watch some funny videos. Laughter triggers that parasympathetic response. Have you ever noticed how when someone has a near miss, like they nearly get hit by a car or something, they have this instinctive laugh? That’s the body’s way of relieving that pressure, that built-up fear response. 
  • Get upside down. As in doing a headstand. This sends blood to the heart, slows its beats, and can trigger a relaxation response. 
  • Wash your face in cold water. This triggers the dive response, which slows heart rate and breathing.

 

Here are some other ways to really foster that balanced nervous system:

  •  Monotask. Do one thing at a time. Your brain perceives multitasking as a threat. 
  • Practice mindfulness. This is a big word for saying be where you’re at. Be present doing what you’re doing. 
  • Do one slow thing a day. Stop to pet a dog, sit and drink cold water without doing anything else, etc. 
  • Have sex. Parasympathetic activation is necessary for arousal, sympathetic activation accompanies orgasm, and then the parasympathetic system rebounds afterward.
  • Pay attention to your biorhythms. Eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired, etc.
  • Hug someone you care about. Hugs send a sense of safety to the brain, which then releases oxytocin, lowers blood pressure and heart rate, and turns down that stress response. 
  • Stretch. When we release muscle tension, it sends a message to our brain to calm down. 

 

Please remember from skill #5 that if we try to force, control, suppress, or avoid our emotions, these attempts tend to backfire. If you’re feeling anxious and you try to force yourself to calm down, it can make you feel more anxious. 

Instead, practice willingness like we learned in skill #6: allow yourself to feel your emotions, and then expand your awareness to the calm and content areas that are already in your body. Gently lean into these sensations of calmness instead of trying to force them. 

You should have plenty of opportunities throughout your day to feel a little tense, notice it, and actively work to soften while still doing the activity. Practice this act of self-regulation every day. It takes no extra time, just a little awareness. 

The person who trained me in it said we should be doing this every couple of minutes throughout the day. The practice of checking in and regulating your muscles and response takes seconds to do, but when done repeatedly can completely change your nervous system to be dominated by calm. 

In the next section you’re going to learn how to soothe your mind and create that felt sense of safety.

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