Of course, it doesn’t take an impending apocalypse to trigger an anxiety disorder. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports 40 million American adults are affected by this common mental illness. And while it’s highly treatable, less than 37% seek help.
I’m one of those people who’s grappled with anxiety my entire adult life. It’s why I started meditating and ultimately became a teacher, as studies show meditation is one of the best ways to beat stress.
I’m also a writer, so I choose my words carefully — notice I said stress. To combat anxiety effectively, you’ll likely also need some “eyes-open” weapons to slay that beast.
Stress vs. Anxiety
While stress and anxiety are related, they’re not the same. Stress is a normal neurological response where the fight-flight-freeze function is triggered by a threatening event (i.e., a rabid dog or ornery client) to keep you safe. Stress chemistry, notably adrenaline and cortisol, activates your sympathetic nervous system to get your heart, lungs, and legs pumping at the expense of “non-essential” systems (i.e., digestion, immunity).
Anxiety is also felt in your body, but it’s actually all in your head. When thoughts continuously activate the stress response, you begin to experience symptoms like exhaustion, muscle tension, headaches, immune suppression, and gastro-intestinal issues — the hallmarks of anxiety.
While our bodies are built to recover from acute stress, they were not built for prolonged stress.
Your brain is wired to keep the stress response rolling. That’s why meditation is so relaxing: it activates your parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”) and gives you the space to differentiate between your thoughts and reality.
That said, habituated emotional responses are stored in your body’s cells, holding the muscle memory of stress. This can still unleash symptoms like muscle tension, racing heartbeat, and headaches, telling your brain you’re not totally safe — even if you regularly meditate.
Time to bring in reinforcements.
Keep Calm and Carry On
There are loads of scientifically proven ways to break the cycle of anxious reaction by continuously engaging your body’s calming systems.
- Take walks
- Practice yoga
- Have fun: dance, laugh, sing
- Do breathing exercises
- Try other Eastern stress-release practices, like acupuncture and reiki massage
- Stimulate your vagus nerve by gargling, taking a cold shower, or laying on your back, nose in the air, and moving your eyes from left to center to right
- Get help from a therapist or other trained practitioner