Learning to clear your mind and let thoughts go is vital in managing anxiety. But this is much easier said than done, right? If it was that easy, we wouldn’t need psychotherapy! Therapy can give you an outlet to explore why you might be fixating on certain thoughts and the tools for how to deal with them. When you’re finding that simply “clearing your mind” or reframing your thoughts is not relieving the anxiety, it can be helpful to turn to the body to intentionally release tension. The body often responds to anxiety with physical changes and sensations that can feel alarming. This tip is going to walk you through 6 steps to identify how negative emotions manifest in your body and give you tools to shift them so your mind has the chance to relax.
Step 1 of Releasing Anxiety Through The Body: Grasp The Meaning of Consciousness
Consciousness and anxiety have been described in many ways. Sometimes it’s helpful to put an image to these abstract concepts to better understand and manage them. Imagine that you are the sky and your thoughts are clouds. You are vast and full of infinite possibilities. When you are in the present moment, you are the observer of your thoughts; you see your thoughts float by, acknowledging their presence but not giving them any more attention. What you bring your focus to grows and becomes more powerful. As you start to get caught up in a negative or irrational thought, possibly picking it apart, analyzing it, and even judging the thought for existing, it grows, and the next thing you know you have a storm brewing and it’s so cloudy you forget that there was ever a blue sky in the first place. But beyond the clouds, beyond the internal chaos, there is always a blue sky, just existing, observing.
Step 2 of Releasing Anxiety Through The Body: Understand Anxiety’s Role in Nature
Your imagination can create such scary ideas that your body physically reacts as if the danger is really happening. It’s what your body does when it goes into fight or flight mode as your sympathetic nervous system is activated to save you from danger. Often the danger we feel is due to an anxious thought of a perceived threat versus the real danger our ancestors faced when running from large animals. In the case of the former, your anxiety is not serving you past the point of planning and preparation. But on the flip side, you can use that same powerful imagination to create happy, relaxing, or neutral images.
Step 3 of Releasing Anxiety Through The Body: Learn How Anxiety Manifests in Your Body
Very common somatic or physical experiences of anxiety include a tightness in the face or chest, raised stiff shoulders, racing heartbeat, uneasiness in the stomach, a heaviness in the heart, cold sweaty palms or feet, a hot or dizzy head, having to urinate, or the feeling of not being able to take a deep satisfying breath. All of these sensations are normal reactions to anxiety.
For this exercise, let yourself think of something that makes you somewhat anxious. Pick something that doesn’t create so much anxiety that you’re jumping out of your skin, but enough to feel a change from your regular calm state. Really try to feel it in your body. Now, close your eyes if you feel safe to do so and slowly scan your body from head to toe. Notice what feels tight, where you hold tension, or perhaps temperature differences. Now take a moment to write down the sensations you noticed in your body scan.
Step 4 of Releasing Anxiety Through The Body: Combat Unhelpful Anxiety
One of the best ways to combat getting overwhelmed by anxiety is to learn to recognize when these sensations are just beginning to occur. Your body is warning you that you need to take a moment to soothe yourself, whether that means taking a deep breath, laying down, talking to a loved one, or removing yourself from a situation. The more you practice this scanning technique, the better you will be at understanding your body's physical responses to distress. Sometimes it’s easier to recognize physical sensations than illogical thoughts or emotions; therefore, you have a better (or more reliable) early detection system to help you manage your anxiety.
Step 5 of Releasing Anxiety Through The Body: Using Deep Breathing to Elicit Relaxation
Now to start calming yourself down and activating your parasympathetic nervous system (the one that’s working when you’re relaxed), you will focus on deep breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing. Put your feet on the floor and sit up straight, or lay down comfortably. Breathing is easier when you’re not slouching. Inhale deeply through your nose and slowly into your belly. You want to fill up your lungs so the lowest part puffs out while your shoulders lift last, if at all. Try to keep your shoulders relaxed if possible. When you breathe out, exhale slowly through your mouth. This should not feel forced, so just breathe comfortably. One method for timing the breathe is to count four slow beats on the inhale, hold for one count, then exhale in five slow counts. You can adjust the timing for what feels natural and calming to you. The idea is to deepen and slow your breathing, to fully oxygenate your blood and lower your heart rate. You can give yourself a set time like 2-3 minutes, or just take as many breaths as you need to notice your body relaxing. This is the first step to changing how your body is holding onto anxiety.
Step 6 of Releasing Anxiety Through The Body: Actively Reverse Physical Symptoms of Anxiety
Next, go through the list of bodily sensations you recorded when anxious and take note of any differences you feel and what still needs some attention. Take a moment to try to counteract each one. For example, go from head to toe, stopping wherever there is tightness, and tell your muscles to release. Try to actively unclench whatever is clenched. Give yourself permission to let go. Imagine a soft white light coming in through your nose on each inhale and send the light to the parts of you that are tight. Let the light warm your muscles and fill you with ease. Send that warmth to your hands and feet if they are cold. If you feel queasy or dizzy, you may need to put your head between your knees or lay down to get blood flowing to your brain, but if it’s not that bad, imagine that the spinning is slowing down or the rocking is getting slower and slower until you feel an inner calm. Do this practice of relaxation for as long as you need, and don’t worry if it feels challenging at first. It takes practice to undo these automatic and learned responses.
When you feel more relaxed, you may notice it is easier to let thoughts pass you by without getting stuck in them. So if simply just “clearing your mind” seems like a stretch, use this body scan and relaxation method as a way to let go and see how your mind might follow.
Remember there is always a blue sky behind the clouds. Like any new skill, it takes practice and patience. Overcoming anxiety is not easy, so don’t feel discouraged if you’re finding it too challenging on your own. Having the guidance of a professional counselor can provide you with additional support needed to tackle anxiety. If you’d like to schedule an appointment with one of our therapists, please call the Center For Growth at (215) 922-5683.