The short and sweet of it is that anxiety is tied to a heightened sympathetic nervous system, or your fight, flight, freeze response. The simplest ways to get out of that heightened state is to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, or your rest & digest response.
As you try these exercises, think about how often you do the rehab movements compared with how often you do anxiety provoking movements such as losing visceral awareness, staring at a near distance point for long periods of time, or shifting between many stimulating ideas but without action (Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest). Like any other habit though, it’s only with consistent practice that long term changes occur. By practicing more parasympathetic stimulation in your life, you will learn to reduce or manage your anxiety permanently.
1. Visual Reset Pt. 1
Rub your palms together for about 5 seconds and place them over closed eyes. With eyes closed and covered, slowly move your eyes to the right and hold until a deep breath or easy swallow naturally occurs. Then shift the eyes left and wait for another deep breath or swallow. Repeat this eye pattern as needed. Keeping the eyes covered, open them and slowly remove your hands.
Why this works: Reducing visual input gives the brain a break from processing visual information. Holding the eyes to the side increases vagal tone.
2. Breathe Well
Using a belt or strap wrapped around your low ribs or your hands pressing on the sides of the low ribs, inhale 3 seconds, exhale 6 seconds focusing in the expansion of the lower rib cage. Bonus points if you inhale through the nose and exhale through pursed lips. Check in and ensure your shoulders are not lifting on the inhale. Repeat at least 6 times.
Why this works: Breathing mindfully increases vagal tone and requires you to focus on a visceral task. A longer exhale than inhale stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system.
3. Pair Movement with Breath
Choose a simple movement such as looking up and down, looking side to side, or turning thumbs up and down. Now pair that movement with breathing. Inhaling one direction and exhaling to the other direction. Be sure the movement and breath move together. Repeat at least 6 times.
Why this works: Pairing movement and breath regulates your breathing, lowers heart rate, and increases positive neurological function by coordinating movement.
4. Visual Reset Pt. 2
Set your gaze on a steady object about a foot in front of you then establish a steady object as far as your eyes can see clearly. Shift your gaze quickly between the close object and the far object ensuring they both stay visually clear. Repeat at least 5 times.
Why this works: Engaging distance vision pulls us out of a condensed posture and attention. The muscles of the eyes love this novel movement and will shift your anxious focus to the task at hand.
5. Tactile Feedback
Run your fingers through your hair, rub your eyes, arms, belly and legs, or pat down your body. The key to this one is to notice the sensation of the touch. Repeat as needed.
Why this works: Tactile feedback calms the parasympathetic nervous system.
One applicable tip for every exercise listed here to to focus on the task or sensation. Anxiety tends to creep up when we feel paralyzed or at a loss for how to proceed. Shifting your focus to sight, touch and visceral awareness is a quick way to snap out of an anxious state and get back in your body.
How did these exercises work for you? Let me know in the comments below. Move well!
Kiera Lucich is a neural integration specialist based in Salt Lake City, Utah. She’s the owner of Smart Move Wellness, a brain-based wellness company dedicated to educating and training people to heal chronic and trauma-associated pain. For more information visit smartmovewellness.com.