The other day I noticed an advert on the London Underground for a herbal medicine. The advert said something like: 1 in 5 people experience or suffer from anxiety. “Really? Only 1 in 5?” I thought. Leaving aside the big, and perhaps impossible, area of cure, I decided I would write something in response to this.
My understanding is that everyone can/does experience anxiety to varying degrees as anxiety is one of our human emotions. Anxiety is a response to specific triggers for some people, i.e. how they perceive a partner to be behaving. Or a response to what would be common triggers for most of us, such as job loss or some other situation that threatens safety and stability.
Some psychoanalytic writers have seen anxiety to be experienced from our very first days as human beings when our primary needs (i.e. for food and attention) arise and are not satisfied quickly enough. Anxiety can certainly be relational and become a hard-wired response. As such it can be sensitively worked with in therapy.
Anxiety can be very physical with shortness of breath, palpitations, and restlessness; and/or it is experienced very much in the head with thoughts which can be quick, reactive and fearful. For some people it is chronic; for others very manageable. But it is not pleasant. Anxiety contracts us.
One tool that can really change anxious feelings is deep abdominal breathing. So rather than breathing up in the chest, you breathe in through the nose slowly to feel the belly inflate, and then slowly out through the nose allowing the belly to deflate. Breathing like this quickly adjusts the nervous system by switching on the parasympathetic response associated with rest, digest and relaxation.
The best way to breathe like this and switch on the rest and digest mode is to lie on your back on the floor in a safe, quiet space with the knees bent, heels under the knees and with the knees hip width apart. The head and spine are in a straight line and if needed, you can have some support under the base of the head to tip the chin gently towards the throat, lengthening the back of the neck. In yoga this is called ‘Constructive Rest Pose’ as it places the spine off load, allowing the pelvis and spine to align, and the breath to deepen as the relaxation of the body begins.
If it is not possible to lie like this, then simply sit upright in a chair with the spine stacked and the feet on the floor, focusing on breathing into the belly as described .
If you can do this for a few minutes at first, building up to 20 mins, and train your body to breathe more deeply into the abdomen rather than the upper chest, you have a simple tool to manage the symptoms and experience of anxiety.
Don’t expect magical immediate life transformation or for thoughts to cease in this practice. Don’t be surprised if you feel like crying. Notice what you do experience. Depending on this, you may want to find someone to help you as such a practice can bring up a lot that has been suppressed.