If you suffer from anxiety, it might sometimes feel like your brain has turned on you and your body is torturing you. Anxiety can flood any one of us with nervous thoughts and uncomfortable feelings.
The nervous system is programmed to keep us safe by sending us into “fight-or-flight” mode any time we are faced with a threat. This powerful response to threat is a means of survival and can help give our bodies the energy, focus, or strength they need to escape danger. Anxiety comes from a primitive part of our brain that was designed to help us survive a much more primitive world. Once upon a time, this activation would have been incredibly useful if you found yourself, for example, running from a tiger or fighting off a mountain lion.
But in today’s world, this evolutionary mechanism leaves our brains very sensitive to perceived threats of any kind, even when those threats cannot actually harm us. Any number of common stressors can activate an intense stress response. Work deadlines, child tantrums, and curious mothers-in-law are all examples of everyday triggers that might flip our nervous systems into a state of anxious activation. So how can we help keep ourselves calm in a world that is constantly inundating us with news, notifications, and demands?
I’ve put together five daily check-in points to help you notice and attend to potential anxiety triggers. While it takes effort to remain calm throughout the day, it’s easier to stay ahead of your anxiety than it is to combat it once it’s crept up or taken over. Follow these steps to keep your mind calm and your nervous system regulated.
First thing: Pace yourself
As tempting as hitting the snooze button for the third time might seem in the moment, you might be setting yourself up for a surge of anxiety later. Wake up with enough time to move through your morning routine comfortably. When we feel rushed, it confuses our brain into thinking that we might be in trouble or in threat, leaving us at risk for nervous system activation. Starting your day at a gentle pace helps establish a sense of calm and a feeling of control.
Mid-morning: Perform a body scan
The primitive brain communicates to us through the body. You may feel anxiety as tightness in your chest or throat, the tension in your jaw or shoulders, or jitteriness in your arms or legs. Before too much of your day has gone by, take a mid-morning pause to perform a body scan. Close your eyes and allow your awareness to move from the top of your head down to the tips of your toes. Along the way, take time to give soft attention to any areas of your body where you notice tightness, tension, fluttering, pain, or any other notable sensation. The simple act of connecting to these feelings in your body helps regulate your nervous system.
Lunchtime: Switch your scenery
Midday is a great time to refresh your mind and body by changing your surroundings. If you spend your days studying at a school desk or sitting at a computer screen, spend a few minutes of your lunch break moving around outside. If you spend your days working on your feet or chasing your kids around, find a few minutes midday to sit in stillness. This change of scenery will help you better separate from the stress of your workload so that you can clear your mind and calm your body.
After work/school: Take time to transition
We all know the excitement of that final school bell ringing or the stroke of 5:00 p.m. on the clock, but rushing from work to play can actually be a jarring transition for our nervous systems. Instead of gunning it to happy hour or diving straight into dinner prep, take ten minutes to help your brain shift into relaxation mode. This is a perfect time to integrate meditation into your daily flow. Here’s a guided mindfulness meditation that can help you get started.
Before bed: Cultivate a positive practice
As we wind down at night, our primitive brains often wander away to concerns about the past or worries about the future. You may find yourself reviewing the day you just finished, judging certain things you said or did. Or you may find yourself running through the day you will have tomorrow, worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. This type of ruminative thinking can lead to increases in anxiety and difficulty sleeping. To neutralize these negative thoughts, practice generating some positivity before bed. Ask yourself, “What are three things I feel good about right now?” Maybe you feel good about the presentation you gave at work, the connected conversation you had with your friend over lunch, or the Pad Thai you had for dinner. Whatever the answer may be, the act of asking yourself this endorphin-inducing question can help combat those late-night racing thoughts. Over time, cultivating gratitude in this way can teach your brain to respond to stress with mental flexibility and resilience.