Stress and its first cousin anxiety show up in a multitude of ways. You’re probably familiar with many of their disguises: not sleeping, replaying an argument over and over, shoulders so tight it feels like they’re attached to your ears, or the oh-so-dreaded panic attack.
But, the thing is, stress and anxiety can also manifest themselves as more discreet feelings we sometimes dismiss, such as irritability, headaches, a recurring cold (decreased immune system), and burnout—something we’re beginning to see a lot more often. We say to ourselves, “I can’t handle this anymore. I’m melting down. Screw this, I’m out!”
Many studies have shown that anxiety is on the rise globally, but even more in developed countries, and more still within the millennial generation. Why?
Well, we’ve discovered a link between anxiety and our disconnection from people, community, nature, and something larger than ourselves. We live behind screens, surrounded by buildings and cars, and detached from most things that give us time to pause and go inward.
Our brains and bodies use stress as a warning sign. Back when we were hunting and gathering, it was our system’s way of making sure we were aware of danger—from a lack of food, water, rest, or because there was a tiger in the bushes and we needed to run, now! Every one of our system’s responses was created as a way for our species to survive.
Stress itself is not the problem. The problem lies in our self-created triggers, our inability to move through stress, and our tendency to get “stuck” in our emotional thought cycles that then lead to anxiety.
Here’s how we can work through that stress and anxiety:
First, let’s get one thing straight: trying to “control” our stress or anxiety is a futile effort. It’s like telling someone who is in an active panic attack to “breathe.” Asking someone to focus on the one thing they can’t do in that moment only makes the panic worse. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to tackling anxiety, but there are self-health tips we can use to start regaining control.
Let’s start with something simple and yet surprisingly difficult:
Pause, in the present moment. Place one hand on your belly and one on your chest and notice where you are breathing. Is the hand that’s rising and falling the one on your chest, or the one on your belly? Most of us take shallow breaths—into the chest—the majority of the time.
In the mindfulness community, we call that stress breathing. When our system senses danger, we go into fight or flight mode. Our bodies elevate heart rate and respiration and conserve oxygen, assuming a possible need to run.
Simply noticing this pattern, and then switching to slow, through the nose, belly breathing is enough to tell our nervous system we’re safe and there is no need to panic.
For the next week, set a timer on your phone to buzz every hour. When it buzzes, stop and notice how you are breathing, even if you’re in a meeting or driving to work. Then, consciously switch your breathing.
Extra credit if you’re able to notice your breathing during a stressful moment (like when that guy cut you off in traffic). Try switching your breath in that moment…it’s not easy, but with self-awareness and mindful practice you can learn to control your nervous system’s response to situations that don’t actually represent a life or death choice.
After a week of practicing and implementing this breath awareness in your daily life, try carving out time to get outdoors into nature, or to catch up with friends in person. Make solid eye contact with your neighbor as you say good morning, or sit quietly on your bed for 10 minutes before looking at your phone.
Notice your breath in those moments. Feel the difference in your body, in your pace. You have the ability to harness these small moments of stillness, inner peace and connection throughout your day.
Slow down, look up from your phone, and take a breath into your belly. You’ll realize there is no tiger chasing you.
Vanessa Bennett is an Associate Psychotherapist, Mindfulness Coach, Writer, Yogi, and seeker who lives in Los Angeles. Her 10 years working the frantic NYC corporate life caused her own burnout which inspired her to slow down, reconnect to her soul, and change her path to one of helping others find the same reconnection to self. You can find her on her Instagram or her website.