When you can’t control your anxious thoughts, what can you use to get a foothold on stability?
This was the issue for me for years, if not decades. During panicky times, I’d close my eyes at night and see a montage of fleeting images like a rapidly changing patchwork quilt that I couldn’t stop. It was kind of like at the beginning of a Marvel movie, where images whiz by you. Except that for me there were no superheroes or rush of excited anticipation.
Anxiety meant being blanketed by nausea and fear that blocked my view of reality. I couldn’t see past any of it because the sensation was all-encompassing. Mindful grounding has enabled me to get a hold on the edge of that blanket and pull it up ever so slightly to let some light in.
That was accomplished by two simple things that I could control in the midst of everything else I couldn’t:
1) changing my breathing pattern
2) identifying and releasing muscle tension
I might not have been able to slow the thoughts, decrease my heartrate or relieve the nausea directly…but the combination of the breath and relaxing my muscles provided a path that led around those things and quietly affected them behind the scenes.
First, start with your breath
Bring your attention to the breath and consciously slow it down. Start by trying to make your inhales and exhales the same length, adding a second-or-two pause in between. Depending on your level of anxiety, this may take some time if your breathing has been rapid and shallow. Any slowing is helpful, especially at the beginning. Be compassionate and patient with yourself.
I find it easiest to deepen the inhale first, drawing the breath into the belly. Placing a hand on the belly helps keep your focus there as the sense of touch supports grounding. Try a deep inbreath, pause, and a lengthened outbreath. Blowing out through pursed lips helps control the air flow and draw out the exhale. An exhale that is longer that an inhale helps slow your heartrate. Belly-breathing makes a big difference.
Aim for an inbreath of 4 counts, pause and hold for 2 counts, exhale for 6 counts.
Some guidance recommends that you place one hand on the chest while you have the other on your belly. However, in my experience, if you are particularly anxious it’s helpful to keep your focus off a racing heart. Keeping your hand on your belly is enough.
Next, relax muscular tension
Releasing the tension in your body will help calm you. We often don’t realize how much tension we’re holding until we mindfully scan our bodies.
First, streeeetch the way you’d stretch after waking or when you’ve been stuck in one position for a while. Imagine you’re a sleepy bear coming out of hibernation. Too often when stressed we crumple in and hunch over — opening up through a stretch may signal to the body that it’s safe to come out.
Then, roll your shoulders forwards and back. Gently roll your head in a front semicircle, ear to ear, paying attention to how it feel to move in that way. So many of us hold tension in the neck and shoulders and we squeeze muscles there without realizing it. Spend some time loosening up these areas.
Feel into your face. Raise and lower your brows several times. Relax the muscles around the eyes. Open and close your mouth and wiggle your jaw. Clenching in this area can cause headaches so try to release tightness here.
Turn your attention to the rest of your body. Are you knotted anywhere? Simply the process of noticing where your muscles are tightening can change your focus from anxious thoughts in your head to sensations in your body, keeping you present and less likely to get trapped by fears.
Aim for progress, not perfection. This is a learning process, so don’t wait for anxiety to reach a peak before starting. Practice when you’re calm so you know what a lengthened breath and relaxed state feels like in your body.
Those of us who have lived with anxiety would love to hang out in peaceful bliss all the time, but that’s not the reality of life. However, nurturing calm through techniques such as breathwork and muscle relaxation lessens the distress of anxiety-provoking situations and helps us find a sense of comfort within our discomfort.