Anxiety can drain a lot of energy, making it hard to keep doing what we want to or to feel connected to others. What’s worse is that it can pull us into feeling like it might never change. It can take different forms, ranging from nervous and worried thoughts, to self-doubts and feeling not good enough, to a frantic and restless sense of needing to do more, or to a purely physical experience of becoming dizzy or tight in the chest or throat. However we experience it, anxiety is a phenomenon that involves both mind and body.
I want to share a few exercises here for helping get some relief from anxiety, that you could do for yourself. They use a body-based approach, and might sound a little silly, but just try them and see if they shift anything for you.
1. Body Opposites: Place
Anxiety can seem to happen all in your head, but it often comes with particular physical experiences: pain or tightness in the chest, shallow breathing, restless or tingly sensations in your limbs, or a sense of being spaced out or in a foggy cloud. These experiences are usually uncomfortable and disturbing, and are often even the source of more anxious thoughts.
Start by turning your attention inside, and notice what you can sense in your body. Focus on the uncomfortable or negative sensation for a few seconds, and notice where in your body you sense it the most. Try to give a very physical description to it, e.g., tight, tense, heavy, empty.
Now scan around your body for where is the *least* like that: a little bit less tense, a bit less heavy. Take your time. It could be anywhere. Maybe your feet or hands. It doesn’t matter. What you’re going to do is to focus on that place for a couple of minutes, as if you’re really curious about it. As if you’re giving that place a chance to take up some space with whatever sensation is there. It doesn’t mean we’re ignoring the uncomfortable place; we’re just shifting the focus for a little bit.
After a couple of minutes, check in again with how you feel. What did it do to focus on that place? Did anything about your breathing change, or the way you sense yourself as a whole?
2. Body Opposites: Image
This step follows on from the last one. Return to the uncomfortable or negative sensation for a few seconds. It’s probably quite easy to recall how it feels, but if it doesn’t come straight back, then think of a situation that makes you anxious for a few seconds, and then check in again with how your body feels. This time, try to give an image to the sensation. Let your imagination jump to whatever pops up first.
If you’ve been sitting down until now, stand up at this point. Now ask your imagination to tell you what would be the opposite of this image. It absolutely does not have to make rational sense. Perhaps the opposite of feeling wrapped in chains is the image of a radiant lighthouse.
Focus on this image for a few minutes. You don’t have to try and achieve anything, or force anything to change. There’s no way of doing it well. Like before, try to just be curious about what might happen if you focus on this image. Be really specific about it. Explore it. After a couple of minutes, again check in with your body and if there are any different sensations now to before. Focus on those for a minute.
Often advice to do with anxiety focuses on relaxing, but for anyone who’s experienced anxiety this usually feels pretty impossible. I like to start with activating first, and let the relaxation come later. Anxiety is like being charged up for action with nowhere to put the energy. If we bring consciousness to this sense of being charged up, we can start to do something about it and take control of our sensations. Focus on where you can feel tension in your body. Often it’s more towards our center line. Now we’re going to intentionally create and release tension in our limbs, shifting attention to our extremities, which are places that are useful to tap into in order to regain a sense of our bodies as strong and able places.
First, focus on your shoulders, arms and hands. Over 10-20 seconds, gradually tense them up til they’re fully charged, ending with your hands in fists. Watch them as you do it. Then for about 30 seconds, let them relax again, as if you wound up a spring or coil, and now you’re letting it unwind. Do this three times. Notice if this had any effect on your breathing or your body sensations.
Second, focus on your legs. Again, gradually tense your legs and buttocks, imagining you’re pushing against the ground, or the chair if you’re sitting down. Then gradually let go. Again, do it three times in total, and check in again with your whole body afterwards.
4. Breathe Big
There’s a lot of advice to do deep diaphragmatic breathing to calm down anxiety. But as with the last point, my approach is to use activation as a way to get to that sense of grounded calm. Anxiety can feel like being full of restless energy but at the same time frozen in place or stuck, which is a horrible feeling. We’re going to combine movement with breathing to encourage the nervous system to rebalance itself, using breathing both to gain energy and to release it.
First, stand up, and with your arms stretched out towards the ground, palms down, you’re going to bend your knees til you’re halfway to the ground. Then inhale as you gradually stand up and bring your arms up, straight in front of you, til they’re above your head. Let the arms be soft at the elbows and wrists, a bit like water. Pause a moment at the top, and then exhale as you let your arms softly sink down and you dip deep into your knees. Your palms face down on the way down too, so that it’s like stroking an enormous tiger in front of you. As you get to the bottom of the breath, imagine you’re sending any energy you don’t want back down into the ground. Do five or six breaths.
Second, we’re going to expand the movement to the sides. This time your legs stay straight, but relaxed at the knees. With palms facing down, move your hands forwards away from your hips to the front, and let your hips glide to the back, tail bone curled under and back rounded, as if you open up the space between hands and hips. Then lift your arms up above your head, and gradually straighten up, as if a wave rolls gently through your back. Then bring them down your arms out to your sides, palms facing away, so they describe a big circle around you. Inhale on the way up, exhale on the way down. Imagine as you breath in you draw in energy, and as you breath out you create a protective field around you to the sides. Do another five or six breaths like this.
Now let’s switch the direction. As you inhale you’re going to bring the arms wide out to the sides, and describe the circle by going upwards. Palms face up, as if you’re scooping up water or energy. Then pause a moment at the top, and bring your arms down with your palms facing in towards you, as if you let that watery energy wash over your face and body, as if it cleanses you like a giant waterfall. Do five or six breaths with this movement.
Now check in with how you feel in your body after this breathing. Did anything change at all? Focus on that. If you like these breathing exercises and want more, check out Lee Holden’s nice qi gong video on activating your energy.
5. Walk in Green Places
Walking can have a very calming effect, and even more so when you’re among green, and when you can manage to focus a bit more on yourself and your surroundings than on your thoughts. Berlin is a very green city. Try slipping a ten-to-twenty minute walk into your daily routine, and walk somewhere where you can look at some trees. Maybe it means getting off the U-Bahn a stop or two early on the way somewhere, or walking the last bit of your bike journey. Or just a morning stroll around the block and back home again. Try to leave enough time so that you’re not in a rush and can walk a little slower than normal.
Look at the leaves on the trees, the patterns made by the light and shade, and the twisting shapes of the branches. At the same time, you could also focus your attention on sensing your body, especially your feet on the ground, and your legs moving at your hips. Maybe you can land a little softer than normal. See if you can relax your lower back and pelvic/hip area a bit, as if your legs could swing more easily in their sockets, or as if you’d let your tail bone drop down so that it’s painting a line on the floor underneath you. Walking like this can feel a bit like a lower back massage sometimes! And if you get curious about walking meditation, have a read of how Thich Nah Hanh describes it.