Simple techniques for relief from fear and anxiety

Practices you can incorporate throughout your day to help with resilience and good rest.

Practices you can incorporate throughout your day to help with resilience and good rest

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

During times of crisis, fear and anxiety abound. We may perceive that we have no control over a situation and that the outcome is uncertain or inevitable. We may feel overwhelmed, isolated, powerless and helpless all at the same time. 

The initial physiological reaction to stress is often the "fight or flight" response. Sensing an apparently imminent threat, the body engages the sympathetic nervous system, and releases adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream to get you out of the woods and to safety. But what if we can't immediately get out of the woods to resolve our experience of stress or fear? 

Our internal narrative may tell us that there's no way out, and we may ruminate on the fact that the outcome is uncertain and that the threat still remains. Heart palpitations, racing thoughts, "freezing," sweating and dizziness can occur. Over prolonged periods, stress, fear and anxiety can cause disturbed sleep patterns, mental confusion, poor digestion, headaches and more poor health outcomes. 

While circumstances may be particularly unpredictable and stressful today with the novel coronavirus pandemic, we can still support our health and wellbeing by focusing on what's within our control. 

Many use meditation and breathing exercises to combat stress. Mindfulness practices and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques can also help alleviate anxiety. Scheduling these helpful tactics throughout our day can create manageable routines, which may further reduce anxiety and improve our sleep, too. 

Here are some simple practices that can help you navigate anxiety and fear each day, and achieve a sense of calm, better health and good-quality rest. Please note: If you have a preexisting health condition, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor before introducing new therapies into your regime, even subtle breathing techniques like those described below.

Morning pursed-lip breathing 

Pursed-lip breathing — which involves inhaling through the nose and exhaling for twice as long through the mouth — can induce deep relaxation. 

Long exhalation, in particular, activates the parasympathetic nervous system through the stimulation of the vagus nerve, improving rest and digestion — functions that sustain our health, immunity and vitality.

The practice:

Relax the face, the jaw and the shoulders.

Soften the eyes and close them, if you feel comfortable doing so.

Inhale slowly and gently for a count of three through the nose. 

Purse the lips gently. 

Exhale for a count of six through the mouth. The exhalation through the mouth should be slow and long, as though you're cooling off a hot cup of tea.

Repeat, inhaling through the nose for a count of three and exhaling through pursed lips for a count of six.

With every exhalation, notice as the body begins to relax.

Continue for 12 rounds.

Once you become comfortable with this practice, you can incrementally increase the count of the inhale and the exhale, with the exhalation always lasting twice as long as the inhalation.  

Mid-day magnesium intake

Your sleep cycle and sleep quality are intimately connected to your body's natural circadian rhythms, and magnesium has been found to help the body maintain them. 

If you're having difficulty with rest and sleep, try adding a few magnesium-rich foods to your meals, such as green leafy vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes. 

Afternoon aromatherapy

Our sense of smell is connected to our limbic system, which is involved in emotional processing — including how we respond to anxiety. For many, specific aromas can produce a desired change in mood, such as relaxation response. Studies have observed a reduction in anxiety with the aid of essential oils such as lavender and bergamot, and that these oils, as well as chamomile, appear to have a sedative effect.

Aromas are also employed in CBT to draw our attention to the five senses and ground us in the moment, the feel of our palms rubbing together and the smell of the fragrance returning our mind to a relaxed state. 

To try it at home, simply choose your favourite scent of natural, pure essential oil and add three to five drops to a diffuser, then let it vaporize throughout your space. At nighttime, you can add a few drops of essential oil to a warm bath or create a scented foot soak. Be mindful that certain oils can irritate the skin, so it's a good idea to perform a patch test in advance. 

Autosuggestion during stressful moments

Autosuggestion is a psychological technique we can use to influence our emotions and behaviour. Positive statements are used to overcome and replace negative thoughts, with individuals adopting a positive attitude of "I am, I can and I will" to develop courage, confidence and self-control. Any time your mind starts to race, you can take a moment, breathe and implement positive, reassuring self-talk. 

 The practice:

Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. 

Take a moment to connect to the breath.

Remember that all you need to do is attend to what is happening right now, and that in this moment, you are OK.

Place the palms down on the chest or abdomen for reassurance and a feeling of grounding.

Breathe in slowly and breathe out. 

Repeat out loud:

"I am calm. I am present." 
Breathe in slowly and breathe out.

"I am calm, I am relaxed."
Breathe in slowly and breathe out.

"I am safe. I am calm. I am relaxed." 
Breathe in slowly and breathe out.

Repeat as needed. You may also choose personal positive phrases to say to yourself. 

End-of-day breathing and meditation

Sleep is an essential part of our resilience. Consistent, good-quality sleep improves our mood,  strengthens our ability to cope with stress and anxiety, and is a key part of maintaining our physical and mental health. 

Mindfulness, meditation and breathing practices can all activate the relaxation response, allowing the body to feel at ease and prepare for deep rest. Cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness practices suggest observing and acknowledging feelings or experiences — naming, and attending to them — in order to let go of what's occurred during the day. 

Here are two practices you can try introducing into your end-of-day routine.

Abdominal diaphragmatic breathing practice

Diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to help reduce anxiety, depression and stress. This technique emphasizes deep breathing into the abdomen to induce a state of deep relaxation.  

The practice:

While lying down before sleep, relax the face, shoulders and neck. 

Gently close the eyes.

Place the right palm on the stomach and the left palm on the chest.

Inhale deeply and slowly through the nose for a long count of six, feeling the abdomen expand. The chest should not rise. 

Exhale through the mouth for a long count of six, feeling the abdomen pull in toward the spine. The lips should be relaxed, not pursed. 

Repeat for 12 rounds.

Once you become comfortable with this practice, you can incrementally increase the count of the inhale and the exhale, with the exhalation always lasting twice as long as the inhalation.  

Sleep meditation practice

To move into sleep, continue the abdominal breathing, keeping the right palm down on the stomach and the left palm on the chest.

The practice:

Begin to rewind the day, starting with lying down in your present position. Unwind each memory of the day in reverse until the morning when you first awoke. While you observe the day, notice any unresolved thoughts or feelings. Don't linger on any thought, simply witness and continue to watch. 

Notice with full attention whatever arises. If any emotions arise, internally state, "I am not that," and carry on. If any thought arises, internally state, "I am not that," and continue to breathe and relax. 

If you see fear, acknowledge the fear and state: "I am not that." This acknowledgement can help to calm the racing thoughts that tend to surface before sleep. Give your emotions and thoughts time and space to be acknowledged so that you don't feel overwhelmed by them all at once. If you attend to them and name them without judgment, they will settle. 

Visualize yourself somewhere safe, somewhere happy, somewhere you feel relaxed, then internally state: "It is time to sleep. I am calm and I am safe." Continue breathing into the abdomen and relax. 

Nicole Mahabir is the founder and director of JAI Wellness, a platform for health education, mindful living and wellbeing. 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.

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