The Path to A Less Anxious Mind and Body

I’ve been a therapist for quite a few years now, and I will admit it is only within the last few that I have really gotten skilled at treating anxiety, and anxiety-related problems like insomnia and panic. The big game changer has been the increased focus on somatic, or body-based techniques.

Maybe it was my future therapist-self popping in for a visit from the future, but when I was a young teen, an older friend was feeling very nervous before a school dance and I said, “Take some deep breaths!”. She did and said, “Wow, that actually helps!” No clue where I got that idea (this was the late 1970s and I was maybe 12 or 13 years old ) but I was surprised and pleased that it helped.

When I became a therapist decades later, I knew that breath work was “a thing”, but there was so much else to learn, and to be honest it seemed too simple to be useful. When I tried, it was rejected by my clients, generally along the lines of “I’ve done that, it doesn’t work”. (Spoiler alert – it does! For most people, anyway) And I was too uncertain to insist and practice breathwork and relaxation techniques with my clients. 

Now, I have better learned how to help chronically anxious clients down-regulate their nervous systems, and feel better, with some super-simple practices. Basically, it involves working 3 different approaches together – thoughts, body, and behaviors.

They are inextricably linked, one impacting the other in a continuous loop. We can notice how our thoughts stir or settle our nervous system – think of an argument you had, a disturbing world event, rush hour traffic or whatever and your muscles will tense, heartbeat increase, breathing will change. We’re so used to this we don’t even notice it. Many of us tend to spend a lot of time “in our heads” generating negative feelings and arousing our nervous systems with upsetting memories, imaginary conversations, frightening fantasies. 

We then tend to reinforce the anxiety-generating mental activity with unhelpful behaviors like drinking too much caffeine, watching too much news, scrolling social media compulsively, and drinking, eating, or smoking to cope. The contents of our thoughts, and what we put into our brain through our eyes and ears, has a powerful impact on how we feel. Our bodies respond to all those thoughts and habits with shallow breathing, tense muscles, digestive upset, chronic over-arousal that interrupts our sleep, and so on. 

The good news is that with beginning to notice our thoughts and making choices about what we want to be doing with our brains, practicing somatic techniques like breath work and body scan, and committing to gentle changes in our behaviors, we can make reduce anxiety. And thereby reap a ton of benefits that come with being more settled and peaceful in our nervous systems. 

So for this post, I will cover some cognitive parts of the equation, and follow up in the next post with the impact of certain behaviors on anxiety, and some gems from the world of somatic/body-based practices. 

First off, what is anxiety?

We know it is horrible to experience and seriously impairs our quality of life. My definition is that anxiety is misplaced fear. There are certainly plenty of things to be afraid of in the world. But, if we are having the physical and mental manifestations of that fear, and there is actually nothing to be afraid of in that moment (i.e. we are not going to get hit by a car, attacked by a bear, etc.), this is a counter-productive response. Fear is supposed to keep us safe by recognizing danger and activating our protective responses. But in an anxious response, our minds are misinterpreting things as being threatening when they are not, or at least much less dangerous than we are thinking. 

One of the first things I try to teach my clients that I am treating for anxiety is to take their thoughts less seriously, but to pay more attention to them.

We tend to respond to our thoughts as if they are “true” and need to get into the habit of pausing to consider whether a thought is useful or not. This could look like “Hmmmm, I am thinking about how the person at the front desk at work is going judge me when I walk in this morning, and I notice that I am feeling worried and resentful thinking about it ” or “Oh, I just spent the last few minutes having an imaginary conversation with my partner about some topic I am upset about, but have not actually addressed with them, and now I notice that I am feeling anxious and tense and pissed off at them.”  (Check out my list of “Thinking Mistakes” for more examples of how unhelpful thinking habits cause us trouble). 

Other non-helpful, anxiety-generating mental behaviors include googling medical symptoms on the internet, compulsively checking email or social media, reviewing details of an embarrassing incident over and over, imagining bad things happening to loved ones, and watching frightening or disaster focused news or videos. The old saying goes “you are what you eat” and it is also true that you are what you feed your brain through your eyes and ears. 

Again, it’s helpful to notice your thoughts and observe how your nervous system is impacted by them. We are so used to our thoughts and out thinking habits that we generally don’t notice them. I call this the “goldfish bowl effect” – the goldfish doesn’t notice the water it swims in because it so omnipresent, we in general don’t notice the environment of our thoughts because we are always just living in the middle of them.

Culturally we also have a lot of bias that are we are our thoughts, and our thoughts are super important. Sometimes out thoughts are just nonsense. So, start to observe your thoughts and be curious about them.

And try the experiment of intentionally bringing up a thought or memory that is peaceful, happy, or fun. Revel in the details of that for several moments and then check in with yourself to see if anything has changed in how you feel. My clients are often surprised to discover that it goes both ways – not only can we generate anxiety with our thoughts, we can also reduce anxious feelings simply with our thoughts. It is a great start to making choices about what we want to be doing with our minds to be more peaceful and present.