9 strategies to counter anxiety with reflection and relaxation

(photo credit: Environmental Protection Agency)

In school and then while working, I always prided myself on keeping my cool.  But deep down, I probably knew the truth:  I was ridden with anxiety.  To perform, to achieve, to succeed, to out-compete others.  And it all buzzed under some fake manly façade, while underneath my thoughts popped around like ping pong balls in 1980s televised lotteries, jumping into my awareness at random.  I tried to be someone who looked laid back about work, but who secretly worked late nights like a dog whose mind was invaded by humanity’s insanity to run itself in circles instead of knowing when to rest.

Then I found stage fright.  It took me two or three years to overcome when I was performing as a professional saxophonist.  At its worst, I would feel a tightness like a stranglehold around my neck that would leave me unable to inhale deeply enough to play more than two or three measures before I had to come up for air.  And then a friend invited me to join him at a yoga class and I felt embarrassed and humbled upon feeling a searing pain in my hamstrings and lower back when I tried to lean forward and touch my toes.

Over years of slow-motion self-discovery– as tried getting still by meditating regularly, practicing yoga in quiet studios, taking frequent nature walks, and camping at hike-in sites and in the back country – I began to notice the impact of stress on my thoughts and actions:  typing an email to a boss at work, sipping shallow breaths, and soon finding my shoulders rising up towards my ears with tension.  Trying to speak up at a business meeting, again breathing shallow and tense breaths, wondering and dodging at when to jump in, and when I finally said something, feeling like there were cough drops stuck in my throat and everyone was just waiting for me to shut up.  Finding myself daydreaming about the day’s remaining to-do’s and noticing my scalp muscles tingling with discomfort (the occipitofrontalis muscle is involved in raising the eyebrows – ah worry! – among other things).  Hearing that one of my business projects was not well received, that an executive had judged my work harshly, and suddenly feeling pressure and uneasiness in my gut – a mass eruption of butterflies from the anxiety cocoons my wits had been wildly weaving for weeks, perhaps.  Sending an email to a boss who I didn’t enjoy working with, only to see him reply three minutes later with negative feedback – and feeling (or imagining) my heart exporting nervousness to my head and limbs.

With all of these, I forgot about some simple remedies that could have helped, like taking a few joyously deep breaths or putting work down and just walking around.  But with some practice, I had come to learn that these anxious reactions were natural enough– practiced habits, in a sense, for years of my life of being too focused on achievement at the exclusion of other ways of being.  Finally, I had enough self-understanding to say, Hey man, these are natural.  They will pass.

I also noticed over time – and with some feedback from an ergonomics specialist – that I tended to hunch over small laptop screens, or sit with my legs crossed, or stoop over the beckoning rectangular glow of my iPhone.

* * *

In this article I wanted to share some ways that stress has manifested itself physiologically for me and some tools that you can use to become more aware of stress and its effects on your body.

It’s important to accept the mind-body connection – the idea that your state of mind can affect how you feel physically, and vice versa.  If your body is not relaxed, the same is likely for your mind.  For several decades, clinical studies have shown that interventions like relaxation, visualization, and meditation can improve various physical conditions like healing after a heart attack or battling insomnia (review article here).

One surprisingly basic booster for your mental state is to make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating healthful foods, and exercising regularly.  I know that when I’m sleep deprived, my back muscles tend to get tight, and the best therapy is a good night’s sleep.

Two related ways to loosen up are relaxation exercises and journaling about your stress.  The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook, by Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, and Matthew McKay, is a great resource for these.  Pairs nicely with a daily journaling or reflection practice, which gives you a chance to trust and honor yourself every day, no matter how you’re feeling (good starts are Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way or Ira Progoff’s, At a Journal Workshop).

You may also find meditation can help you to become more aware of your inner feelings of anxiety and stress, as well as to calm those feelings.  Though I hesitate to strongly recommend meditation if you are just getting started on the path of self-awareness.  That’s because it can seem overwhelming, in terms of discipline, new mindsets, and self-knowledge that can sometimes be more than you’re ready for.  But like anything that could potentially help you, I’d encourage you to follow your curiosity.  I find Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation very helpful for getting still and peeling away the onion layers of habitual mind reactions.  Before committing to this practice (more to simplify than anything else), I also tried out Zen meditation and predominantly yoga-based approaches like those taught by the Self-Realization Fellowship and in books like Jonathan Novak’s How To Meditate.

What to do when you’re already stressed and just need some quick uppers?  Try these:

  1. Tennis ball massage: take off your shoe and roll a tennis ball slowly up and down the arch.  Use the level of pressure that feels right for you, noticing and focusing in on the tightest areas.  (hat tip, Tignum)
  2. Muscle relaxation exercises (great for bedtime or anytime).  Starting from your head down, pick groups of muscles to contract and hold tense for five or ten seconds, and then relax.  Let the area sag and hang into the floor or your bed – heavy, loose, relaxed – for at least a count to fifteen or twenty.  Repeat in as many groups as you like.  (hat tip, Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook)
  3. Ask someone with ergonomic experience to check out your workplace, or read up online about quick wins (here are two helpful articles from Penn State and Apple).
  4. Give your hands and arms gentle massages.  Just feel around for the tight parts — don’t push super hard at first — and enjoy working out some tension.
  5. Skim a book that elaborates more on strategies for improving how you work, such as Simplify Your Work Life by Elaine St. James.

Readers: let me hear from you (anonymously or not):  in what situations do you tend to get tense, and how does tension manifest?  What insights or practices have been most helpful for you to become more aware of stress or to deal with it?

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