Relaxing the anxious brain.
My last blog set the scene regarding your brain and what is occurring at times of stress and anxiety. Understanding the impact that the anxious brain has on your body is really helpful; strategies that use both the body and mind will help give you a break from those anxious thoughts that literally drive you to distraction and physically drain you.
Strategies and ideas.
I would always recommend someone talking to a health professional in the first instance, particularly your GP, if you feel you are struggling with anxiety. It is important not to self-diagnose as you may overlook an alternative condition, explanation or better support. If you receive a diagnosis, medication is not always the first option, and per NICE guidelines, a professional will offer information about local support groups, self-care information and psychological therapies before medication is explored.
Here are some strategies that were found to be beneficial for those I have worked with in my time as a mental health and therapeutic practitioner;
1. It’s simple, but effective. Slow, deep breaths have a significant impact on the brain, signalling that, “hey look, my breathing is slow, I’m pumping oxygen around nicely, so I must be relaxed, no danger here…lower brain, you can step down now”. Slow breaths will slow you down in the moment, give your body and mind a break, a much needed rest…and hopefully give the upper brain chance to kick in and take over again.
2. A strategy I loved to use with children, particularly those who struggle with their behaviour, anxiety or low mood, is to help them create a character to represent the difficulty. A third-person approach really helps a child to step away from feeling blamed, feeling that their difficulty defines them, and it can help them open up a lot more about the challenges they face and ways they can tackle it. For more information, refer to “Starving the Anger Gremlin”, by Kate Collins-Donnelly, which uses this technique with a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approach.
The approach can work with adults, too. Someone with an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) for example, may prefer to name it as something else, rather than feel that it defines and consumes them. So calling the OCD behaviours, “Nagging Nora”, for example, may help someone talk more about what has happened today, or how they managed to do something positive that put “Nagging Nora” in her place. It is important, however, for the person/child to still take responsibility for thinking how to stop the character from effecting their day to day life. When you step out of it being about “me”, emotions change and you are more likely to be calm and able to think straight (upper brain). It is not about someone totally stepping away from owning the difficulty, as some level of thought needs to be exercised before changes can occur. Think if this approach would work for you, or even with your children?
3. Yoga. It slows down your body and mind. It makes you think about your posture, your breath, holding your balance. You get a break from the “what ifs” that are usually racing around your mind, creating tension. Those who practice yoga speak of how grounded it can make you feel, which must be a wonderful experience when at other times you feel like your body and mind are restless, agitated and out of your control. Slow breathing, a regular heart rate, gentle rhythmic movement – all has a lovely calming effect on your brain. Just 5-10 minutes before bed time, or before the kids wake up could make a big difference to you. There are some great YouTube channels to follow (personally, I like following “Yoga with Adriene”) if you cannot make a class. I refer to yoga as it is what I know, but similarly other activities like Pilates, Tai Chi, or sports that require thought and slower movement may also benefit you physically as well as mentally for anxiety.
4. Mindfulness. More people are becoming aware of this ancient approach, and apps such as “Headspace” are great for getting people started. I trained in it a few years ago and it was one of the most relaxed weeks I have ever experienced! Mindfulness helps us to slow down, think about the moment we are in, engage your senses, allow thoughts to be. At first, it may feel a little abstract and even difficult to practice with so many racing thoughts in your mind. But remember, mindfulness helps so many people in the same situation as you, everyone has to start somewhere. Even if you manage 2 minutes to begin with, think about the physical benefits you will gain from it while giving your brain and pumping hormones a break from their usual levels of intense work.
5. Do you see friends who as much as you love to bits, you leave feeling more anxious than when you first arrived? Or family who often just say the wrong thing? Your poor brain is not getting much rest. Think carefully about those who you spend time with. If you are feeling anxious and vulnerable anyway, think about surrounding yourself with people who make you feel happier, relaxed, who help you think straight rather than those who off load their additional worries onto you. There is nothing wrong with managing friendships or relationships in a manner that works in your favour; you must put yourself first before trying to support or care for others.
6. CBT is a popular therapy for the treatment of anxiety. You may not be in the health system and able to access it directly in its clinical form, but due to its practical approach, you can read up on it yourself and see if any strategies may benefit you. www.getselfhelp.co.uk have some great downloads that you may find useful. You may also like to access private therapy. Therapeutic support may work wonders for some, but it is not necessarily the answer for all, and my next point may help to explain why.
7. Anxiety is an emotion that is telling you that you have something to be fearful of, cause to worry. OK, some worries are irrational, and some make no sense; but what if those worries make perfect sense and are keeping your lower survival brain active for a reason? I have worked with many children who were experiencing abuse, witnessing violence, suffering from neglect. In such circumstances, would it not be right to assume that yes, of course they are at risk and need to survive? First and foremost, the situation that is keeping their anxieties going needs to change. Self-help strategies may offer moments of small relief, but realistically, they are not going to touch the sides. Can you imagine how many times others would refer to these children as, “unable to concentrate”, “fidgety”, “flies off the handle easily”, “does not listen”…hardly surprising that their lower brain is on over drive, is it?
Take time to think about whether you are in a situation that is genuinely keeping your anxieties alive. You may even experience trauma from a past event, trauma that is unresolved? These are huge factors that need to be addressed first. I appreciate for yourself such contributors may not be as intense as those described, but when you start to think about it, you may be surprised what is keeping your struggles going… are there some changes you could make?
Want to know more?
There is a whole wealth of knowledge on anxiety, and many wonderful blogs that offer personal accounts. The list of strategies and ideas could have been endless, but I chose the ones that I felt were most beneficial and which you may understand differently now you know more about how the anxious brain functions.
Complicated stuff? You did well to bear with me, thank you!