In the last article, we talked about the physiological chain reaction that occurs with anxiety. As anxiety triggers the release of stress hormones into our bloodstream the body is switching from a state of relaxation to a state of arousal. For many people, this creates a rapid snowball effect that causes anxiety to spike quickly in the moment.
Principles of Reactive Tools
The primary goal with reactive tools is to try to reduce anxiety in the moment and prevent the cascading snowball effect and keep anxiety from building or triggering a full-blown panic attack. Unfortunately, we cannot control much in the physiological chain reaction in order to keep our body in a state of relaxation. The main objective of reactive tools is to try to get our body back into a state of relaxation. With some conscious effort, there are a couple of things we can control to try to force the body back to a relaxed state.
When we feel stressed and anxious, physical tension builds in your chest which causes chest muscles to contract. This causes breathing to become short, shallow, and choppy. This general lack of oxygen, in turn, causes your veins and arteries to constrict and the heart has to pump harder to circulate blood flow. All this facilitates increased arousal.
For the most part, our breathing operates unconsciously. Fortunately, with a little conscious effort, we can control our breathing. We have the ability to speed it up, slow it down, or even hold your breath. In the spirit of relaxation, oxygen is your friend. An increase in oxygen helps veins and arteries open up and increases blood flow. That increased blood flow also helps those stress hormones naturally break down in your bloodstream. That said, all breathing is not alike. Every night you are in your most relaxed state – asleep. When we sleep, we take long, slow, deep breaths from our diaphragm (stomach area). When trying to force your body to relax by increasing your oxygen, we try to replicate the same breathing we naturally do when we are sleeping.
The task of diaphragmatic breathing is fairly straight forward and simple. With conscious effort, we take long, slow, deep breaths from your diaphragm, not your lung, which men, in particular, are more likely to do. Simply count to four as you inhale from your diaphragm, hold it for a second, and then slowly exhale for another count of four. You may need to breathe this way for 10 or more minutes to notice any marked reduction in anxiety. Taking two breaths and then giving up in frustration will not cut it. Remember it can take 15-20 minutes for these stress hormones to naturally breakdown in your bloodstream. Hang in there with it for a while and see how it work. Over half or more of clients we work with really like this technique and report a marked reduction in their anxiety.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Another reactive tool we can use in the moment of increased anxiety is progressive muscle relaxation. As stress hormones are running through the bloodstream, they are leaching into the muscles in preparation for fight or flight. Again, with conscious control, we are able to control our muscles. The essence of this technique is to systematically go through the various muscle groups tensing and relaxing them. Although muscle groups are already tensed up from the stress hormones, we actually want to increase that tension. This is based on the principle of a pendulum. If we want the arm of the pendulum to swing as far over as possible to the state of relaxation, we want to force the pendulum as far over into the state of arousal as possible, so that we can use the momentum of the pendulum to get it to swing as far as possible.
Let’s practice one muscle group so you get the idea. We will start with our hands. What we do is make our hands into a fist and squeeze them together as hard as you can, tensing the muscle in your hand for a count of 8-9 seconds. Then you release your hands and open them back up. At this point you should feel a rush of blood going back into your hands, perhaps some warmth, and your hands may feel a bit more limber and looser. That is the essence of the technique. Many people start at their feet and work their way up through their body. By curling their feet, they can tense those muscles in their feet. By tipping your toes up, you can tense your calf muscles. Move your tights, glutes, abs, pecs, shoulder blades, biceps, and triceps. All of these can be quite discretely regardless of where you are. There is then a series of muscles in the neck and face (jaw, lips, eyes, forehead), but these are more difficult to do without drawing some looks of concern by people in the area.
Many people have done a similar relaxation or meditation exercise that involves this process. We also have many people who use this technique for insomnia as well. The idea is similar to wringing out a wet washcloth. We are trying to squeeze out the stress hormones that have our muscles tensed up and get those chemicals back into the bloodstream so they can break down. We have many people who find this technique helpful. We also know that one of the reasons the breathing and muscle relaxation works, is because it forces our brain and thoughts onto something else; in this case counting. Because we are no longer focused on whatever was making us anxious, it disrupts that slow drips of stress hormones into the bloodstream and allows us to shift back to a relaxed state within 15-20 minutes.
In the next article, we are going to discuss proactive tools for anxiety which are intended to help you stop anxiety from manifesting in the first place. Proactive tools are focused on trying to teach you how to control your thinking and keep those anxious thoughts are setting off the chain reaction in the first place. This keeps you in a relaxed state and hopefully a more peaceful place mentally.
If you have anxiety and are interested in talking with one of our psychologists or psychiatrists about treatment options, please call us now at 763-416-4167, or request an appointment on our website: WWW.IPC-MN.COM so we can sit down with you and complete thorough assessment and help you develop a plan of action that will work for you. Life is too short to be unhappy. Find the peace of mind you deserve.
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