How to calm your nervous system if breathing doesn’t work for you.
Anxiety comes in a variety of forms and everyone’s experience is different. For some, anxiety is about thoughts. Negative, catastrophic and irrational thoughts that can hum away in your mind and keep you distracted and overwhelmed.
But for others, anxiety is in the body. It’s a sense of dread, a feeling of being unsettled, a tension and tightness that can overtake you. While it may be connected to anxious thoughts, it can also feel like it is just happening without any cause or explanation. This feeling can range from a slight sense of unease to overwhelming panic.
While there are a number of ways to deal with the anxious thoughts that show up, I think it is important to find ways to soothe the nervous system, to let your nervous system know that everything is OK, that there is no reason to feel uneasy or to panic. But how?
I always start with breathing. It is easy and portable and doesn’t require any special skills and nobody will look at you funny if you do it. There are lots of ways to use breathing to relax and calm your nervous system and you can try some of them here.
But breathing doesn’t work for everyone. Sometimes I offer breathing to my clients and they let me know that it doesn’t help and can even make them more anxious. For some, breathing just isn’t comfortable or maybe it is associated with something anxiety provoking in their past.
Soothing your nervous system
The good news is that there are other ways to sooth your nervous system when you’re feeling anxious.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is a great way to soothe you nervous system. It is a simple technique and you can customize it depending on how much time you have. The practice is easy: start with a muscle group in your body, tense the muscle group, hold for a few seconds and release. Then move on to the next muscle group. So you could start by tensing and flexing your toes, releasing; tensing and flexing your feet, releasing; tensing and flexing your calves, releasing; and continuing on up your body.
Depending on how much time you have you can tense and release whole areas of your body or very specific muscle groups. Progressive muscle relaxation induces a relaxation response in your body and the more you practice it, the more you can train your body to move quickly into relaxation mode. There are a number of written and audio scripts available online to guide you through this exercise, including here and here.
Similar to progressive muscle relaxation, a body scan encourages your nervous system to relax by utilizing your senses. You take your body part by part and engage your senses to notice what you can in that part of your body. So, perhaps you start with your forehead and focus your attention there. What do you notice? What do you experience in your forehead? Perhaps you notice tingling or warmth? Or maybe you feel the sensation of cool air touching your forehead? Then you move down to your eyes, your ears, your cheeks, etc., and continue all the way down your body. Like progressive muscle relaxation, there are a number of written and audio scripts available to help guide you, including here and here.
This one may seem obvious but it bears repeating. Exercise can help calm your nervous system by refocusing your mind on physical movements and by encouraging the production of endorphins. Any exercise can be helpful and even small amounts can show benefits in calming your nervous system.
A number of yoga poses are specifically utilized for inducing a relaxation response. You don’t have to be an expert to get started with yoga and there are plenty of resources available to give it a try. It can be helpful to work with a yoga teacher skilled in identifying poses that will help you soothe your mind and body.
You already know that there are parts of your mind that can get fired up and cause stress and anxiety response. For many, just thinking about their work day or a difficult relationship can bring up plenty of anxiety. Conversely, you can fire up parts of your brain to cause a relaxation response as well. This involves using your imagination (your mind’s eye) to create a visualization that is peaceful and relaxing. You might start by identifying a peaceful place such as being at a beach or walking in a forest. Then you engage your imagination and senses to notice what you see, hear and feel in this environment. As you do this you may notice your body begin to relax and you feel less anxious. Like progressive muscle relaxation and body scans, guided imagery can train your brain to relax quickly as you continue to practice. There are a number of video and audio guides online including here and here.
Relaxation breathing is a great tool for relaxing and reducing anxiety, but it doesn’t work for everyone. The good news is that there are plenty of other options to soothe yourself and calm your mind.