ANXIETY’S ACCELERATOR PEDAL
When we feel threatened a part of our body called the sympathetic nervous system activates. What we perceive as anxiety and stress is actually the result of this activation.
Anxiety can become a consistent problem if this threat-response is triggered too often. In fact, in anxiety disorders and chronic stress the sympathetic nervous system very rarely or never gets to relax.
This overexcitation usually happens because our brains have become hyperfocused on threats and danger. What this means is that we are more prone toward reacting with fear and anxiety, even when the situation doesn’t warrant it. It could also be that we never learned how to effectively cope with anxiety and stress.
The truth in anxiety is that our default action is to step on the accelerator. Personally I love to overthink, but I know it’s very bad for my anxiety. The only way to get around this is to make an active effort trying not to aggrevate anxiety.
Luckily anxiety also has a brake pedal, and it’s extremely important we learn how to use it when anxiety is ramping up.
A NATURAL BRAKING MECHANISM
Anxiety’s natural braking mechanism is called the parasympathetic nervous system.
This part of our nervous system is typically affiliated with “rest and digest”. To me this sound a whole lot more relaxing than its counterpart’s infamous “fight or flight”.
But claiming that everything the parasympathetic does for us is rest and digest would be an understatement. It’s also responible for returning us to a calm state after we’ve felt anxious or stressed.
This is an important piece of information for at least one reason. It tells us that anxiety is not some unstoppable force, in fact it’s inherently stoppable. Anxiety comes with a braking system.
Maybe you’re thinking, and rightly so, “what difference does that makes if we have no control over said braking system?” It’s a fair question, but the thing is that we have just that!
We might not be able to turn off anxiety directly, but we can certainly choose to activate the brakes.
THE VAGUS NERVE AND OUR BRAKES
When the parasympathetic communicates with the body it does so primarily through the vagus nerve.
The thing to note is that this is a two-way communication. The brain can tell our body to relax, but equally, the body can also tell the brain to relax.
By stimulating the vagus nerve we can send a strong signal that ends up calming the brain. The result is a very quick decrease in anxiety.
VAGUS NERVE STIMULATION
The easiest way to stimulate the vagus nerve is through relaxation techniques. It’s really no wonder relaxation has so many positive effects.
One technique stands out as especially effective however, namely abdominal breathing. For a long time I wasn’t sure what made it work, I just knew it did. But now I feel like I can justify my praises somewhat.
Abdominal breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system through vagus nerve simulation.
You can try abdominal breathing right now if you want. All you have to do is sit up straight, close your eyes and take five slow and deep breaths. The best results come from making the exhale about about twice as long as the inhale.
Like any skill, abdominal breathing takes some practice before it is mastered. It can even be uncomfortable in the beginning.
You can also try meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, or yoga. All of these relaxation techniques will stimulate the vagus nerve and activate the parasympathetic.
Have you tried any of these techniques before? Let me know your experiences in the comments below.