Have you ever felt like there was no way out of your highly-anxious state?
Anxiety can feel all-consuming, and it usually comes along with a fight-or-flight response that can feel uncomfortable, make dealing with life stressors extra challenging, and even cause you to turn to destructive behaviors to cope.
“When we are anxious and our sympathetic nervous system activates, we are hyper aroused … this is activated when we encounter a threat to our safety or our survival, and this can also be perceived as a threat,” says Amanda Marks, owner and founder of Resilient Counseling.
Here’s the good news: You can work with our own autonomic nervous system to bring yourself into a state where anxiety and other hard emotional states, like anger and sadness, are more manageable.
First, you need to understand the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest-and-digest or ventral vagal state.
“Our ventral vagal state is when we are safe and connected. We know and feel that we are safe,” Marks says. “It’s where we are functioning at our best. We can regulate our emotions and manage difficulties effectively.”
Our bodies can be reliable messengers, letting us know where we are in our systems. For example, when our sympathetic systems are activated, we may experience increased heart rates and/or shortness of breath. “We may feel overwhelmed, on edge and even panic. … We don’t feel safe,” Marks explains.
In working with my clients who are first learning about their nervous systems, one misconception I notice is thinking that being in our regulated or ventral vagal state means we are always blissful. Instead, it means we are grounded enough to manage the hard things that come with being a human and doing so in life-supportive and nondestructive ways.
Sit in a comfortable chair with your feet on the floor, and bring your awareness to the connection of both feet to the ground and the chair’s connection to your back and bottom. Take some time to feel held and supported. You can also try wrapping yourself in your favorite cozy blanket (or drape it over part of your body, such as across the lap or shoulders). Bring your awareness to the feel of the blanket against your body.
Try Cold Water
According to Marks, who recommends this tool to her clients who are hyper-aroused, cold water directly activates the vagus nerve, which is the main nerve network of our parasympathetic nervous systems. When the vagus nerve is activated, we are better able to access the ventral vagal state. “[I recommend] splashing your face with cold water or using a frozen ice pack on your forehead,” she suggests.
Turn to Your Breath
“When clients are hyper-aroused, I teach them breathwork, such as cleansing breath [which is] basically a big sigh, shaking their hands and stomping their feet to help complete the stress cycle,” Marks shares. Aside from cleansing breath, using an extended exhale to stimulate our parasympathetic states, with or without counting, can work too. If counting is included, try inhaling for three counts and exhaling for six for several rounds, and then inhaling for four counts and exhaling for seven or eight counts for several rounds.
The Name Game
I often use a grounding technique called “five-four-three-two-one,” where I guide my clients through their senses, and have them name five things they can see, four they can touch, three they can hear, two they can smell, and one they can taste.
Marks says she likes to have her clients name ten things they can see. Listening to soothing music can also have a down-regulating effect on our systems.
Spend Time With a Safe Person
Safe social engagement is linked to the ventral part of the vagus nerve, so spending time with a loved one who fosters a sense of safety, love, and acceptance can be soothing for our systems.
Whether it’s taking a nature walk, sticking your bare feet in the grass, or simply giving yourself time to look at trees and flowers out your window, connecting to the natural world can have a positive effect on your autonomic nervous systems and help you calm down when revved up.
Read on for the four keys to unlock the wisdom of anxiety.