That thudding feeling in your chest. That tightening. The spiralling worries. Anxiety can be debilitating. It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. To begin with I just thought it was how I was made and that I'd have to live with it, but over time I've researched natural strategies to manage my anxiety and now I feel like I'm in control of it. I don't let it hold me back any longer.
And it's not just me. Anxiety disorders are growing increasingly common in both adults and children here in New Zealand. Approximately 1 in 4 New Zealanders will have their life affected by an anxiety disorder at some stage. Also, at any given time, it's estimated that 15% of the population will be affected.
With it being Mental Health Week 2021, I thought it would be a good time to share my top 10 tips for managing anxiety - naturally. These are my personal strategies but I hope they work for you too.
I meditate every day, first thing in the morning and then again later in the afternoon or early evening. It's been a game changer for me and if I get busy and skip a few days I really notice the difference. I follow a practice called Ziva. You can do an online programme but Ziva's founder Emily Fletcher has also written a book that walks you through the steps. The book doens't give you an individual mantra but it is a low cost introduction to her practice.
As part of the Ziva process, every session starts with a few moments of mindfulness followed by meditation.
After that you practise gratitude by voicing three things that make you feel grateful. Emily Fletcher describes gratitude as a ‘natural antidepressant’. I like it because it makes you focus on the positive things in your life. The scientific explanation is that feelings of gratitude cause our brains to release dopamine and serotonin. These are the neurotransmitters that regulate our emotions. Basically they make us feel good.
A gratitude journal is also a great way to keep a record of your gratitude practice. Nicky from Awesome Inc makes a great range of journals.
The final part of the Ziva programme is Manifestation. Emily Fletcher describes manifesting as 'consciously creating a life you love'. It's a process where you get intentional about what you want your life to look like. You take the time to imagine these dreams are your current reality. The best way I can describe it as you imagine yourself in a situation that is yet to happen – where you add as much detail as you possibly can - how you will feel, how you will move, what you will say, what you’ll be wearing, who you’ll be with, what the outcome will be.
If I'm feeling anxious about something that is coming up (say an important meeting or public speaking) I'll manifest the event in as much detail as possible so that when it actually happens, my brain and body are prepared for it.
Breathing and Anxiety Whistle
Have you ever been in a stressful situation and found yourself breathing rapidly with your heart pounding in your chest? Not to mention the dreaded stress sweats?? This ‘fight or flight’ reaction that goes back to our caveman ancestors. When faced with a woolly mammoth, our sympathetic nervous system would flood the body with adrenaline in order to push blood to our arms and legs in order to run away from the danger. While we don’t have any woolly mammoths to contend with, there are so many stresses in modern day life that our bodies can move into this sympathetic mode multiple times a day.
In order to move the body back to a resting ‘parasympathetic’ mode, simple breathing exercises are really helpful.
Try this 4-7-8 breath exercise, also known as Relaxation Breath:
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose for a count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound for a count of eight.
- All of this is one breath.
- Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
This is a really great strategy for kids that are anxious.
I also have an Anxiety Whistle that I wear as a necklace every day. This breath tool is a really great reminder to breathe in a way that supports your body. I got mine from a NZ company called Soulful Moments.
Green space every day! The Japanese call it Shinrin-Yoku (or forest bathing) and scientists in Japan have proved that spending time in the forest has a positive and calming effect on our bodies and minds.
We live in Hawke's Bay, close to Te Mata Peak so I do my best to get my fill of forest bathing every day.
Daily Exercise is another deal breaker for me. Our dog Charlie needs a lot of exercise so I'm out with him every day. I fit in a couple of Pump classes and a pilates class too and this helps to make me feel strong mentally as well as physically. I swear this makes a huge difference to my mood and how I'm feeling about life. Check out this podcast with Michael Mosley where he looks at the importance of morning walks.
There is a huge body of research out there that links our moods to the foods we're eating. On a personal level, if I'm eating lots of veggies, drinking lots of water, eating probiotic foods and drinks like kombucha, sauerkraut and taking a probiotic, then I feel way more positive than if I'm eating convenience foods and making do with snacks rather than meals.
Acupuncture/Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
Acupuncture and TCM have been practiced for thousands of years. I love going for acupuncture treatments. The needles are so small you hardly even feel them going into your skin. It's the most relaxing thing and seems to reset my body/mind whenever I go for a treatment.
No matter how great I'm feeling, over time I've learned that there will always be certain things that trigger my anxiety. By listening to my body and looking out for the symptoms, I've learned to recognise and even anticipate the situations that will be hard for me. Using a combination of breathing and positive thinking and manifesting (and a great deodorant, wink wink), I've got a tool box of techniques to cope when I get the heart palpitations and stress sweats.
And last but not least, spending time in the sunshine makes a big difference to my mood. Exposure to sunlight is thought to increase the brain's release of the hormone serotonin that I mentioned above. Serotonin is associated with boosting mood and helping a person feel calm and focussed.