Self-soothing strategies to help break a chain of anxious thoughts quickly
2 experts share techniques that might work for you on the spot
It's an unprecedented time in our lives, and many of us are dealing with feelings of great uncertainty about our individual futures and the future of our world. We're learning to adjust to new schedules, and seeking ways to handle a deluge of new information and cope with life changes.
Anxiousness may arise as a normal reaction to this, and when our challenges feel overwhelming, chains of anxious thoughts can lead us to feeling hopeless and negative. Anxiety can also manifest in the body.
To help address anxiety when it arises, we invited two experts, Dr. Ana Bodnar, a registered clinical psychologist, and yoga and meditation teacher, and Pradeep Kumar, a former physician who teaches integrative mind/body medicine and meditation courses, to share simple and effective practices that can neutralize anxiousness and soothe in the moment.
"Rumination, in the form of repetitive thoughts, is often aligned with anxiety," says Bodnar. "Anxiety has a cyclical pattern that, if not interrupted, will run its course." Here are some techniques to interrupt anxious thoughts.
Bodnar describes positive self-talk as an intervention that can bring the mind back to reality in a safe and caring way. "A simple way to reduce anxiety is to use your internal voice to address what is happening and to acknowledge that there is an end within reach," she says.
Kumar says that we can even interrupt anxious thought patterns while we stay present in a conversation. "[Self-talk] breaks the anxiety cycle and helps you to release the rumination of the thoughts you are holding on to, allowing you to stay present and focused."
Bodnar suggests reciting these positive phrases:
"Even if I am feeling anxiety right now, it will pass."
"Even if this feels uncomfortable right now, it will come to an end soon."
"I can cope; I have been through difficult situations before."
"I am more than my anxiety; it is a state that will pass."
If an experience starts to become overwhelming, it could also be appropriate to remove yourself from the situation, if possible, until you can bring yourself back into a state of comfort and ease, says Bodnar.
It's also important to recognize that anxiety is different from having a panic attack. "A panic attack can be an intense experience that may require counsel for appropriate care and treatment," Bodnar says.
The body scan
The body scan helps move the mind out of the thinking process and into the sensing process, says Bodnar, offering reality as a foundation to concentrate on. "The practice of focusing on your senses and body can draw your mind to the present moment and help stabilize anxiety by connecting [you] to what is happening right in front of you, instead of focusing on the anxiety itself."
The body scan should start from the ground up. "This will help to anchor your senses," she says, when you feel as if "they are slipping away with a spinning mind." When practiced with a long, deep inhalation and exhalation of equal ratio (known as "sama vritti" in the practice of yoga), this practice becomes most effective.
Focus on your breath.
Begin sensing the ground under your feet.
Recite internally, I am aware that my feet are the ground.
Feel your toes on the ground.
Recite internally, I am aware that my toes are on the ground.
Slowly begin to observe your surroundings.
Feel the texture of your clothing. Feel your calves and your thighs. Feel yourself sitting down.
Recite internally, I am aware of the chair supporting me.
Feel the tips of your fingers.
Recite internally, I am aware of the tips of my fingers.
Feel your back and neck relaxed. Feel the breath slowly moving into the abdomen and the chest.
Recite internally, I am aware of my breath.
Notice the sensation of the breath in the nostrils.
Recite internally, I am aware of the sensation of my breath.
Notice the saliva in your mouth.
Recite internally, I am aware of the saliva in my mouth.
Notice your body temperature.
Recite internally, I am aware of my body temperature.
Look around and slowly notice what you are seeing. Notice what you are hearing. Soften your eyes and focus on the breath.
Practice, focusing on your sensory awareness, and breathe with slow, long inhalations and exhalations. If you need to scan the body again, begin at the feet and work your way up the body.
The repetition of a mantra allows the mind to focus on one sound and can interrupt anxious thought patterns. "Repeating short, positive phrases, mantra or humming activates the relaxation response, as in meditation," says Kumar.
He mentions that if you practice a faith, prayer could be an option here as a focused intention of positive thought. However, "mantra [repetition], in particular, stimulates the vagus nerve, which … helps to reduce the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, enabling a person to better deal with the stress and anxiety. Mantra practice also helps to bypass the amygdala activation in the brain, which is responsible for the fear and anger response, in turn, reducing anxiety."
Mindfulness consists of gently becoming aware of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and environment through a compassionate and observational lens. It has long been used to reduce stress and anxiety, and to cultivate focus and clarity. Cognitive behavioural therapy interventions, for instance, often encourage being mindful of one's senses to address anxiety.
"Connecting to our senses is very grounding, and can quickly break the anxiety cycle and bring us back to our own centre," Bodnar says. She points out that mindfulness can be applied to any situation: walking, listening to others, preparing a meal. It's about being focused and truly engaging in whatever activity that we are involved in. For example, "eat mindfully," Bodnar says. "[Become] aware of the smell, colour [and] texture, and then taste the food. Eat slowly and savour the food."
"Deep breathing helps to retain carbon dioxide in the body and dilates blood vessels in the brain, inducing a hibernation-like state along with the increased secretion of endorphins and other neuro-chemicals to calm down the body and mind," Kumar explains. "Plus, it assists with the absorption of the nitric oxide gas molecules in the body to dilate the blood vessels, which helps in reducing the blood pressure."
Here are a few self-soothing breathing practices that can be used anywhere, at any time.
Slow, deep breathing
For this practice, Kumar says, simply breathe in and out slowly.
You may breathe in for a count of 6 and breathe out for a count of 6.
Repeat this 10 times.
The box breath
Bodnar recommends the box breath, a simple technique that aims to create relaxation by directing the breath using an equal inhalation to exhalation ratio. For this practice, the abdomen will rise as you inhale through the nose and deflate as you exhale through the nose. Do not breathe through the mouth.
Begin by becoming aware of your breath.
Slowly and gently begin to lengthen and deepen your breath.
Breathe into the abdomen, feeling the belly expanding outward.
After a few deep and slow breaths, you will begin to count with the breath to regulate the length of the inhalation and exhalation.
Inhale through the nose with a long, slow count of 2.
Exhale through the nose, with a long, slow count of 2.
Repeat the long, slow count of 2 for the inhale and the exhale until you feel the body and mind begin to relax, and that your breathing has become a gentle, equalized pattern.
"One way to look at anxiety is as energy that is out of balance. Since anxiety can have many physical expressions, physical movement can be very helpful in releasing anxiety," says Bodnar. Movement can include walking outside, working out, a yoga class, a simple stretching exercise, or you can put on your favourite music and dance.
"Physical techniques help more than the mental techniques in acute anxiety because a person can't concentrate on thoughts or emotions," says Kumar. "Simple interventions used to interrupt anxiety can create a shock-like effect in the nervous system to break the existing pattern of a strong emotional state."
Here are some options for movement practices to break the loop of anxiety.
If you're able to access nature while abiding by physical distancing guidelines, it can be a safe haven with many health benefits. "At a time when we are being asked to be more self-reliant, we can turn nature into a place of refuge and grounding," says Bodnar. She notes that this can be as simple as walking around your block and being mindful of the trees, the sky, the birds. "Stopping to really look at a tree and remembering how solid it is, with roots in the Earth, can also be helpful."
"Muscle relaxation first stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and then auto-resets into the parasympathetic nervous system [to create] a state of relaxation," says Kumar. Here, he describes a simple and accessible practice that can be done anywhere and only takes a few minutes:
Make a tight fist and then relax the fist.
Repeat five times.
Close the eyes tightly then relax them.
Repeat five times.
A longer practice is progressive muscle relaxation, which includes tensing and releasing all parts of the body to bring about a state of deep relaxation.
Exhalation with movement
In addition to deep breathing, Kumar describes a way to release anxiety by aligning the breath with an outward movement:
Throw the hands forward with an exhale, as if throwing the anxiety away from you. (This releases the energy of anxiety accumulated in the body.)
Repeat 10 times.
Firmly patting the body
"Sudden stimulation of the nerves breaks the existing thought pattern of anxiety," says Kumar. "The firm sensation of touch [also] increases the blood flow and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system."
He says that you can simply, "open the palms and pat the head, shoulders, chest, belly, thighs and knees." You can also firmly rub the crown, chest and belly 10 times clockwise and 10 times counterclockwise.
Clapping your hands
A quick shift of emotional state can also occur from light pressure combined with an impactful sound. "Clapping stimulates acupuncture points in the palms and refocuses your attention. The body will be suddenly activated, and the sound and touch will break the cycle of thought or any strong emotional state," says Kumar.
Clap your hands 10 times.
Stamping your feet
"Stamping your feet similarly stimulates reflexology points in the feet and grounds the body into a calm state," says Kumar.
Stamp your feet 10 times.
Nicole Mahabir is the founder and director of JAI Wellness, a platform for health education, mindful living and well-being. For the past 10 years, Nicole has led professional IAYT-, YA- and EBNMP-certified programs, teaching nutrition, meditation, Ayurveda, yoga therapy and natural, anti-aging beauty. When she isn't teaching, Nicole creates integrated, sustainable health protocols for her busy clients, and leads corporate and wellness retreats. Follow Nicole on Instagram @jaiwellness or visit her website: jaiwellness.com.