During my first year of my master’s program, I saw how anxiety, stress, and lack of time would hit me with intense experiences of overwhelm. I was working close to full time hours at a nanny job, attending class 4 nights a week, and serving in my church in my “free time.” Any extra time I had was filled with studying and attempting to navigate my way through our massive textbooks. With a temperament that errs on the side of anxiety and perfectionism, it was easy to talk myself into a state of stress that would make it difficult for me to function.
My school was a commuter school about 30 minutes away from where I lived, so I began listening to podcasts in my car. (Cue the beginning of my obsession with podcasts). One of those podcasts interviewed a life coach and therapist who gave tips on dealing with anxiety. She taught a technique involving deep breathing, which I’d never tried before. I decided to give it a go in the 10 minutes I sat in my car before class. Let me tell you: it was like magic. I felt like I could enter into the classroom in a completely different and relaxed state of mind.
Everyday anxiety is something many people experience, especially during stressful seasons in their lives. Anxiety engages our internal fight-and-flight response, which pumps up our body with adrenaline and cortisol, a stress hormone. By practicing deep breathing and other techniques below, you can take control over your body’s instinctual reaction. As you slow down your breathing and your thoughts, you’re essentially reminding your body that you aren’t in danger. This calms your fight-or-flight response.
Here are some tips on how you can respond with mindfulness when you feel yourself becoming anxious, nervous, and overwhelmed.
As the foundation of all the exercises that follow, daily meditation helps you become attuned to your body. Spend time in a quiet room in silence for a few minutes to start. Gradually increase to more time as you become more comfortable. Pay attention to the way your body feels, noticing each part of your body, any emotions that arise, or any physical sensations.
Oftentimes meditation is associated with “clearing your mind,” which can discourage you if you feel as though you can’t turn your thoughts off. Instead, accept the likelihood that thoughts will cross your mind, and allow yourself to notice them, but not shame yourself for having them.
There are several apps that offer guided meditations, if you’re someone like me and are too easily distracted to sit quietly. I’m a particular fan of Happify and Headspace, but there are many out there you can try and find the best fit for you.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is the practice of mentally becoming aware of each part of your body by isolating one muscle group at a time, tensing and flexing the muscles. Pay attention to the feeling of holding tightness in your muscles as you tense them, and notice how it feels to release and relax them afterwards.
This practice can also help you fall asleep at night or re-energize yourself during the day. In the morning or throughout your day, start by tensing and releasing your toes and work your way upward through different muscle group such as your legs, knees, stomach, chest, arms, shoulders, neck, jaw, and forehead. At night, do the opposite - start with the muscles in your forehead and work your way down through your body.
Deep Breathing Exercises
Deep breathing was the technique that I heard Dr. Jennifer Degler speak about on that podcast all those years ago. She introduced four-square breathing: a technique where you breathe in for 4 counts, hold the breath for 4 counts, breathe out for 4 counts, and hold for 4 counts. Completing about 10 cycles of these deep breaths allows you to begin to feel the anxiety melt away.
As you’re practicing these breathing exercises, you’ll want to breathe from your diaphragm or abdomen. In order to do that, it can be helpful to imagine that there is a balloon in your stomach, just behind your belly button. Breathe in through your nose, trying to make that balloon expand. As you breathe out through your mouth, imagining the balloon deflating. Another helpful strategy involves laying on the ground or on a sofa, placing your hands on your stomach, and feeling your stomach rise and fall as you breathe.
5-4-3-2-1 Senses Grounding Exercise
This is a personal favorite of mine, especially when I’m feeling particularly triggered by thoughts or emotions. Begin taking a few deep breaths, noticing the rise and fall of your abdomen. Next, take a look around you and notice 5 things that you see. Notice the colors, textures, and other characteristics of those objects. Next, move on to identifying 4 things you can hear, noticing the quality of the sound, whether it is loud or soft, repeating or one-time. Continue down through this pattern by noticing 3 things you can touch/feel, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. You’ll feel yourself becoming grounded in the present reality around you, and emotions will likely become less distracting and more manageable.
Often when we talk about Christian meditation practice, it is accompanied by reading or memorizing Scripture and seeking to understand truth about that passage. While that can be helpful to engage your mind, when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, this isn’t always the quickest way to address that anxiety. Instead, integrate some of the earlier mentions of breathing exercises and Biblical truth through breath prayer. Breath prayer involves identifying a short phrase or sentence of truth about God or prayer to God. Examples might be phrases such as, “Lord, have mercy,” “God, I need you,” or “Holy Spirit, come.” You could also use short Bible verses that are meaningful to you, such as “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13 ESV). Repeat those words to yourself out loud or in your mind while you are practicing deep breathing. Breathe in on the first part of the phrase, and release your breath on the second half of the phrase.
While these mindfulness strategies didn’t immediately fix my stress levels or perfectionism, they did provide a way for me to calm my body down and remind myself of truth. Test out some of these strategies for yourself when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, and see which ones help you to lower those levels of stress.
This article was originally posted on May 4, 2017.
As you begin to address your worry or stress, you may find that you feel better for a short period of time, but then the anxiety floods back in. Or maybe even the thought of making time to complete these exercises gives you more anxiety. At Restored Hope, I’d love to hear your story of anxiety, perfectionism, or stress and help you navigate to a place of calm and peace in your life. Restored Hope is an Ann Arbor based therapy office where my goal is to support you on your journey to healing and wholeness. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out my form here to schedule your first appointment today.