Anxiety: Your Worst Nightmare or Your Best Friend? Part 2
How to Make Anxiety Your Best Friend
Now you know that your anxiety is really a mechanism to keep you safe, it is time to start using that knowledge to help you take your anxiety from being your worst nightmare to your best friend. Easier said that done, but not by much! There are a few simple, powerful ways that you can calm your anxiety and find a more peaceful, balanced life. Remember, we don’t want to “get rid” of anxiety, we just want it to give us the message and we will decide whether to act on it or not.
Connection to Others
Our connection to others is very important. Relationships are a huge factor in our overall well being as humans. Research has shown that having supportive relationships have quite a few benefits.
- Longer Life
- Greater Physical Health
- Greater Mental Health
- Greater Happiness
With anxiety, we are focused on how relationships can impact our mental health. So how do supportive relationships help with anxiety? It seems that this faucet of supportive relationships ties into our physical health, as well. Studies have shown that supportive relationships can lower the stress-producing hormone, cortisol (Wake Forest University). This, in turn, will not only help your amygdala and autonomic nervous system calm itself, but it will also help relieve the stress from your internal organs, increasing your immune system and helping out your heart.
Having even one supportive relationship can significantly help you lower your cortisol level, and thus your anxiety level. But there is another significant reason to create and hold on to healthy relationships.
Dan Siegel, an M.D. and psychiatrist explains that we cannot reflect on ourselves if we haven’t had relationships with others. If you read that and were confused, it makes sense. We all think of our ‘self’ as permanent and innate, but that seems to not be true. It is only in relationships to others that we can create our own identity (Dan Siegel, 2013). This means we can’t connect to ourselves without connecting to others.
Connection to Self
A connection to yourself is a huge part of managing anxiety. Remember, we don’t want to totally get rid of anxiety; we need it there to help us when there is danger or risk. What we want to do is to lower our anxiety enough that we are working with it to keep ourselves safe and happy. This means creating a deep connection with ourselves and the thoughts and feelings behind our anxiety.
The best way to connect with yourself is through contemplative practices. My favorites are meditation and yoga–that’s what happens when you are a certified yoga & meditation teacher. Yours might be Tai Chi, prayer, or heart rate variability biofeedback, like HeartMath. Either way, contemplative practices help us switch from the sympathetic nervous system (the fight/flight/freeze/faint side of the autonomic nervous system) to the parasympathetic system (the rest/digest side). This means that contemplative practices help you calm the amygdala’s fight/flight reaction that is the heart of anxiety and promote the prefrontal cortex’s calm, rational, and creative state (Frontiers in Human Neuroscience). The science is pretty clear that contemplative practices, especially those that focus on the breath, are extremely helpful with managing anxiety.
I will include a meditation at the end of this post and a link to a great yoga video that you can follow if you would like. Or, you can move on to the next heading, which can also be a contemplative practice.
Connection to Nature
Time in nature can also be a contemplative practice, but it comes with its own set of benefits that are separate from its meditative aspects.
First, let’s discuss the sun. While the sun does cause skin cancer, it also helps us regulate our sleep cycle and helps us feel awake and safe–the brighter the light, the easier it is to see threats, yes? So, even if you are covered up and wearing sunscreen, 30 minutes of sunlight exposure will definitely help you sleep better. And if you sleep better, your brain works better, which means less anxiety.
For those of you who garden, you’re in luck! This can be a contemplative practice, but it also has some very real mental and physical health benefits. It’s exercise, which helps calm our sympathetic nervous system, but it also gets us up close with the dirt. Yep, I’m gonna talk about the dirt.
Dirt has been found to have its own microbiome, like our guts, and this microbiome seems to have some very helpful little bacteria. Mycobacterium vaccae and perhaps other microbes in the soil not only help decrease inflammation and boost the immune system, but they seem to have an effect on mood (Quartz Article). While these little guys have only been linked to depression at this juncture, inflammation has been shown to be linked to anxiety as well (PubMed; DrWillCole), making anything that reduces inflammation a great way to help manage anxiety.
Hopefully I’ve given you some ideas about how to manage your anxiety and create a relationship with it that is functional and healthy. Time in nature, creating and maintaining supportive relationships, and contemplative practices are are ways to reduce inflammation, reduce cortisol levels, and help our autonomic nervous system function normally. So, meditate, hang out with friends, and get outside! It doesn’t take a lot–30 minutes to 1 hour a day–to see some changes. I hope you feel better!