Life can be a rollercoaster ride of emotions, and for many of us, anxiety can be a constant passenger. Whether it’s a fluttering feeling in your chest or racing thoughts that refuse to be silenced, anxiety can be incredibly challenging to manage. Yet, there’s a potent and scientifically proven way to navigate this journey—by regulating your nervous system. In this blog, we’ll explore what the nervous system is, how it influences our anxiety, and practical, human-centered techniques to achieve serenity within the storm.
Imagine your nervous system as the operations manager of the body. The peripheral nervous system, in particular, is working in the background all the time, so you don’t have to think about taking a breath, or making your heart beat, or digesting your food- and you can focus on the other important parts of your life.
To embark on this journey towards anxiety management, it’s essential to understand the delicate balance between what’s called the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems within the peripheral nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is your body’s “fight or flight” response system. When danger looms, it prepares you for action by increasing your heart rate, opening up your airways, and redirecting blood to your muscles. In the throes of chronic anxiety, the SNS can become overly enthusiastic, causing unnecessary stress responses even when there are no actual dangers around you.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is your calming companion, initiating “rest and digest” functions. It promotes relaxation, slows your heart rate, and enhances digestion. Activating your PNS can be the antidote to an overactive SNS.
So, how do we become aware of these always-on systems that we never think about?
How do we start to gain more control over our own nervous systems to better manage our anxiety?
1. Breathe. Deeply, and regularly. Practice deep breathing techniques, like the soothing belly breath or the tranquil 4-7-8 method (4 second inhale, 7 second hold, 8 second exhale). Your breath will be your lifeline to activate the PNS and silence the relentless chatter of the SNS.
2. Introduce mindfulness and meditation into your life. It’s not about silencing thoughts, but noticing them, embracing them, and bringing ourselves back to the present moment. You can even be mindful of your nervous system, going inwards and asking your body, “What danger and safety cues are you perceiving right now?”.
3. Release the physical grip of anxiety through progressive muscle relaxation exercises. Go through each muscle group in your body, squeezing for 3 seconds as tight as you can, and then relaxing. You’ll notice that those muscles are more relaxed than they were before.
4. Engage in regular physical activity. Exercise isn’t just about the body; it’s a tonic for your mind and nervous system, reducing stress and boosting overall well-being. Cardio, in particular, will help lower your resting heart rate and therefore strengthen your PNS.
5. Prioritize sleep hygiene. Sleep is your nervous system’s restoration chamber. A lack of sleep can amplify anxiety, so create a bedtime routine that is relaxing and reasonable for your busy schedule. A good night’s sleep will make you much less prone to anxiety.
6. Eat a balanced diet filled with whole foods. Too much caffeine and sugar can trigger the SNS, so try to eat plenty of protein, healthy fats and carbs, fruits, vegetables, and don’t deny yourself the occasional sweet treat for joy!
7. Identify and manage sources of chronic stress in your life, be it at work, school, home, or in your community. Set boundaries, seek support, and consider making actual life changes to lighten your load.
If anxiety is persistent and interferes with your day-to-day functioning, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional. Whether it be talk therapy or medication, seeking mental healthcare can be transformative for many people. These things can help bring your nervous system to a place where the aforementioned coping skills come to you more easily and work more effectively.
As you embark on this journey to regulate your nervous system and cope with anxiety, remember that you are not alone. This voyage is as personal as it is collective, and finding your unique rhythm is part of the process. Be kind to yourself, embrace the moments of stillness, and seek support when needed. With patience and practice in regulating your nervous system, you can uncover new ways to find ease every day.