Anxiety serves a life-saving role when we are in real danger. Adrenaline pumps through our system, and suddenly we can run like Usain Bolt and lift a 200-pound man without much effort. However, most of the time, anxiety is like a fire alarm with a dead battery that beeps annoyingly every five minutes when there is absolutely nothing to worry about. We experience the heart palpitations, restlessness, panic, and nausea as if a saber-toothed tiger were 20 yards away.
Thankfully there are a few simple gestures to communicate to your body that there is no immediate danger — that it’s a false alarm… yet again. I have used the following activities to calm down my nervous system that is ready for an adventure, and to ease symptoms of anxiety.
We have known for decades that exercise can decrease depression and anxiety symptoms, but a 2016 study by researchers at the University of California at David Medical Center demonstrates how. They found that exercise increased the level of the neurotransmitters glutamate and GABA, both of which are depleted in the brains of persons with depression and anxiety. The study showed that aerobic exercise activates the metabolic pathways that replenish these neurotransmitters, allowing the brain to communicate with the body.
You need not commit huge amounts of time. Short, ten-minute intervals of intense exercise (such as sprints) can trigger the same brain changes as long, continuous workouts.
Drink Chamomile Tea
Chamomile is one of the most ancient medicinal herbs and has been used to treat a variety of conditions including panic and insomnia. Its sedative effects may be due to the flavonoid apigenin that binds to benzodiazepine receptors in the brain. Chamomile extracts exhibit benzodiazepine-like hypnotic activity as evidenced in a study with sleep-disturbed rats.
In a study at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center in Philadelphia, patients with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) who took chamomile supplements for eight weeks had a significant decrease in anxiety symptoms compared to the patients taking placebos.
It’s difficult to panic and laugh at the same time. There’s a physiological reason for this. When we panic, we generate all kinds of stress hormones that send SOS signals throughout our body. However, when we laugh, those same hormones are reduced.
In a study done at Loma Linda University in California in the 1980s, Lee Berk, DrPH and his research team assigned five men to an experimental group who viewed a 60-minute humor video and five to a control group, who didn’t. They found that the “mirthful laughter experience” reduced serum levels of cortisol, epinephrine, dihydrophenylacetic acid (dopac), and growth hormone.
Take Deep Breaths
Every relaxation technique that mitigates the stress response and halts our “fight or flight or I’m-dying-get-the-heck-out-of-my-way” reaction is based in deep breathing. I find it miraculous how something as simple as slow abdominal breathing has the power to calm down our entire nervous system. One way it does this is by stimulating our vagus nerve — our BFF in the middle of a panic because it releases a variety of anti-stress enzymes and calming hormones such as acetylcholine, prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin.
Three basic approaches to deep breathing are coherent breathing, resistance breathing, and breath moving. But really, all you need to do is inhale to a count of six and exhale to a count of six, moving the breath from your chest to your diaphragm.
Eat Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate has one of the highest concentrations of magnesium in a food — with one square providing 327 milligrams, or 82 percent of your daily value — and magnesium is an important mineral for calming down the nervous system. According to a 2012 study in the journal Neuropharmacology, magnesium deficiencies induce anxiety, which is why the mineral is known as the original chill pill. Dark chocolate also contains large amounts of tryptophan, an amino acid that works as a precursor to serotonin, and theobromine, another mood-elevating compound. The higher percentage of cocoa the better (aim for at least 85 percent), because sugar can reverse the benefits of chocolate and contribute to your anxiety.
Use anything that can distract you from the fire alarm going off every five minutes in your head—from the distressing thoughts and ruminations. Many people I know use coloring books to divert their attention. I now see them in doctor’s offices and acupuncture centers. A study published in Occupational Therapy International demonstrated that activities such as drawing and other arts and crafts can stimulate the neurological system and enhance well-being. This is partly because they help you stay fully present and they can be meditative. They are especially helpful for people like me who struggle with formal meditation.
You have to be careful with crying, as it has the potential you feel worse. However, I’ve always felt a huge release after a good cry. There’s a biological explanation for this. Tears remove toxins from our body that build up from stress, like the endorphin leucine-enkephalin and prolactin, the hormone that causes aggression. And what’s really fascinating is that emotional tears — those formed in distress or grief — contain more toxic byproducts than tears of irritation (like onion peeling). Crying also lowers manganese levels, which triggers anxiety, nervousness, and aggression. In that way, tears elevate mood.
I like Benedict Carey’s reference to tears as “emotional perspiration” in his New York Times piece, The Muddled Track of All Those Tears. He writes, “They’re considered a release, a psychological tonic, and to many a glimpse of something deeper: the heart’s own sign language, emotional perspiration from the well of common humanity.”