We’ve been helping people with the physical symptoms of anxiety for many years. Physical pain and anxiety go hand in hand. Anxiety, especially if we have anxiety about a particular condition or body part, needs to be addressed to give us more confidence to get over the condition. This is what we do day in day out.
But what if we told you anxiety is an entirely physical condition?! As in, the physical sensations we experience with anxiety – shortness of breath, churning of our stomachs, feeling light-headed or dizzy, feeling restless, irregular heartbeat, sweating – are merely reflective of a nervous system that has been on high alert for too long. Rather than any specific underlying mental condition. Liberating hey? If we focus on the physical, we address the mental. Of course the converse is also true. See our previous Mindbody article.
These are the ideas of the polyvagal theory which while not accepted science is gaining much weight and also backs up our experience. It also ties in with friend of the clinic and local life coach, Paul Sheppard. We’ve combined with his expertise here to give you our run down on just what anxiety is from a physical perspective and what you can do to help yourself.
Paul is a big believer of this work as it cured his anxiety issues. Hopefully it will help yours too, and if you don’t have anxiety please do carry on reading as these principles are great for improving overall wellbeing, reducing pain and avoiding future anxiety. Or sharing with someone how is anxious.
How Is Anxiety Reflected Physically?
Every emotion has a facial expression and a posture to match. Actors know this. Computers can now even read our emotions. Most of us simply look at people’s faces for information about how people are feeling. Muscle geeks like myself look further to body language for evidence of what people are really thinking. We call it body reading.
These physical representations of emotional states become habitual. If you put in a muscle in a short tight position it thinks it should stay there. This then starts to pull us into these postures… almost like the tight muscles are keeping us in these emotional states we’re actually ready to move on from. And we get stuck.
Our most spectacular work happens when people have moved on emotionally. We come along, release a few muscles well-chosen muscles and we look like amazing therapists as their pain disappears, their mood lifts and their nervous system calms.
These stored emotions and memories can be anything. Anxiety, depression or even trauma. If people have moved on emotionally we can catch their body up to where they are emotionally.
That’s why with the majority of our clients we look at the psychological side of things, as well as the physical, to ensure our clients are doing all that they can to make a full recovery.
What Are The Anxiety Muscles?
They can be anywhere, but there are some muscles that are more likely to hold emotion than others. Basically any muscles that pulls us into a foetal position.
When we are not happy we all tend back to this foetal position. Is it the desire to go back to the womb and feel protected? Is it the desire to cover up what’s going on inside? Or is it simply the struggle to stand up to our emotions and gravity? Who knows. But it is what we all do.
We commonly hold our anxiety in our diaphragms, six pack (rectus abdominus), hip flexors (psoas and iliacus), neck muscles (sternocleidomastoid and upper trapezius) and muscles that pull the shoulders inwards (pectorals and latissimus dorsi).
The trapezius and sternocleidomastoid are particularly interesting as they are the only skeletal muscles that are directly controlled by our brains via what’s called a cranial nerve. As such we find they are a direct barometer of the state of our nervous systems. Which is why so many people say they hold their stress in their shoulders. We all do.
There’s a large overlap with polyvagal theory at this point. If you’d like to read more about polyvagal theory. This book is a relatively easy read or listen.
Where a person’s physical symptoms of their anxiety manifest themselves can be anywhere, although it is commonly in the knees. That’s why in our crib sheet of how to avoid knee pain you’ll see lots of opening out exercises.
This is also why we feel so good after yoga session. It opens us out. We feel more upright. Our mood and our body feels lighter. We have reduced the physical representations of our stressed state.
The long and short of it is when we release muscles that hold us in a tense anxious state we feel less anxious and more relaxed. This works in all kinds of relaxation massage of course. But when we’re more specific in the muscles we choose to release, usually at the front of the body rather than the back, we find we get a more profound long lasting response.
How To Maintain Your Anxiety!
Polyvagal theory states anxiety is simply a state of our nervous system. As is depression. Our nervous systems generally likes to be kept in the way that they have become accustomed. To the point that subconsciously the decisions we make will keep our nervous systems in the level of arousal that we’re used to.
This is why it’s hard to change. Here’s our top 10 ways that our nervous system might be maintaining our anxiety:
- Treat anxiety only as a mental condition.
- Stay on edge and keep shallow breathing – this will make us feel more sensitive which basically means more pain. This is why we work on breathing with so many of our clients.
- Keep chasing happiness for rewards outside of ourselves – in hormonal terms these are dopamine hits. Things which make us momentarily feel good about ourselves but in the long term makes no difference whatsoever. Drink, drugs, casual sex, food, shopping, drinking tea / coffee, chasing exotic holidays.
- Continue to believe that all of our thoughts are true – our mind wanders all the time. It can wander to some amazing and beautiful places. It can also wander to some fairly gruesome and dark places. Thinking of the worst possible thing that can happen. Such behaviour is there to protect us, but we need to remember that these darkest fears are just assessing danger and are unlikely to become reality.
- Continue to remove ourselves from uncomfortable situations.
- Keep pressing the f**kit button! – Continuing to use our avoidance behaviour and thinking we can start again on Monday. I’ll stop drinking after the weekend. I’ll start my diet on Monday etc.
- Continue to feel guilty that we’re not doing as much as everyone else.
- Continue the ‘what if’ mentality – What if I look silly? What if I bump into my ex-partner? What if I can’t cope with out beer?
- If you can’t be perfect, procrastinate.
- Never take risks and continue on auto pilot – it’s safer that way right? Things are less likely to go wrong. Perhaps. But life is less likely to be full and your brain less able to adapt to new and different experiences. Including living in a less anxious state.
How To Reduce Your Anxiety
We need to make changes in order to reduce our anxiety levels. We need to change the state of our nervous system. The longer we can stay in a more relaxed state the easier it becomes to maintain it. Not only this but it becomes easier to notice when we are getting wound up and take action to unwind ourselves.
If we put in practice the following ideas over time our anxiety levels drop. I guess we could say wait for us to heal, much like we would for any muscle or ligament. Generally speaking we need to treat ourselves with greater compassion and kindness and focus our efforts on better self-care.
One final point before we get to the good stuff is patience. We need to focus on the process not the result. If we go at these things trying to ‘fix’ ourselves we’ll probably overdo it, get bored when it doesn’t work and then give up. Any changes we make need to sustainable. Slow and steady rather all or nothing.
Relaxation Breathing To Reduce Anxiety
When our nervous system calms we are simply less anxious. We are also less sensitive to pain. This immediately affects our mood and wellbeing. Breathing is a great way to achieve this. I talk about this in detail in our previous article Does Relaxation Breathing Really Ease Pain? If you haven’t got time to read it the answer is YES!
Relaxation breathing has traditionally had some very hippy connotations. But have you seen a stressed out hippy? Ok granted it might be drug induced but we can achieve this state with just breathing. There is an increasing body of research backing up the importance of relaxation breathing.
This piece of research looks at how breathing improves our attention and reduces our cortisol levels – you can read reduction in cortisol, as reduction in stress as it’s a key stress hormone. Another discusses the positive impact on stress of deep breathing. If you’d like an excellent overview of the whole world of breathing I can’t recommend James Nestor’s book Breath highly enough. It’s a very easy and enjoyable read whilst being incredibly informative and inspiring.
As an aside when we’re more relaxed we produce less inflammation making our injuries better too. I was just about to say nothing bad to say about breathing but there are a couple of points to note.
Firstly, many of us who have had led hectic lives will struggle to switch off. If this is you stick with it. It does get easier. Start with a couple of minutes and don’t beat yourself up if your mind wanders and you struggle to focus only on your breath.
Secondly, if you’ve had some significant trauma in the past as your mind slows things can come up for you. If this is you make sure you try relaxation breathing at first with the eyes open. If anything too scary from the past does comes up you may be in need of some more in depth therapy. EMDR might be a good place to start.
Meditate With Your Eyes Open
We all know about the positive impact of meditation on calming our nervous systems. Many of our clients use it to aid their recovery and help prevent future injury. Many of us struggle to stayed focused during meditation. Or if you’re anything like me you’ll just pass out after 5 minutes and wake up 2 hours later!
It’s the focus that’s key to successful and beneficial meditation. If we meditate with our eyes open it helps keep us focused and not drop off. We can also try to count the number of out breaths before our mind wanders off. It won’t be a big number for most of us. Don’t beat yourself up however low your number. Use it instead to give yourself an idea of how you’re doing relative to your previous performance. Overall this will get better with time, but some days will inevitably be better than others.
Less Multitasking And Over Stimulation Of Your Nervous System
If we’re multitasking it means we’re doing more than one thing badly. To do things well it has to have our complete focus. My wife really appreciates it when I cite this as the reason for ignoring her whilst I’m watching the TV. I’m not ignoring her I’m just watching the TV really well!
Television is a really great way to overstimulate yourself and wind up our nervous system. Current research suggests we need at least two hours away from screens before sleeping. Sleep hygiene is another great way to help clam the nervous system I speak about this and even more ways than in this article of how to achieve that in our Top 24 Wellbeing Tips.
Eat Well To Reduce Anxiety
Eat well feel well. We all know that right? But do we know why? Have you heard of serotonin? The so called happy hormone that adds to our sense of wellbeing. 93% of the bodies serotonin is produced in our guts. Happy gut, happy life!
Speaking of serotonin of course exercise is great for such things. But not too much. We all know how good we feel after exercise thanks in part to the serotonin. This can become addictive and we can over rely on exercise to regulate our mood.
We need to be a bit Goldilocks when it comes to exercise. Not too much, not too little, but just the right amount. What is the right amount for us all varies greatly and will change over the course of our life.
Your Thoughts Are Not Dangerous
If we treat a thought as dangerous we can develop obsessions. Over fixating on something that we fear happening is a great way to over stimulate our nervous systems and keep us on edge all the time. A thought is just a thought. It’s up to us what we do with it. We can sit comfortably with it and let it evolve into something else. Or we can hang onto them and fixate and worry. It’s our choice.
Please excuse the gross over simplification there. If you want to get more comfortable sitting with your thoughts, feelings and emotions without being scared by them I strongly recommend The Language Of Emotions. There’s a whole chapter on anxiety.
Don’t Fight Your Anxiety
How do we keep ourselves constantly overstimulated? Fight. It’s not called ‘fight of flight’ for nothing! If we ‘fight’ our anxiety we’re more likely to keep our anxiety in place rather than move through it. We’ll also be more inclined to reach for out nearest dopamine hit. Whichever poison that may be.
We need to try, and least, to stay calm. Accept where we are, put the changes in place that we need to make and trust that we will heal. Basically we need to be kind to ourselves rather than fight ourselves. Or put another way, not beat ourselves up.
Don’t Fear The Unknown
When we’re anxious we tend to withdraw from life. Our friends. Our family. Our work. Anything and everything. For fear of what might happen. The less we do the less adaptable our brain becomes. Situations that previously we would have waltzed through become daunting. I’m not suggesting aversion therapy here but gentle exposure to increasingly challenging situations can help.
We should always look to get out there and do what we can. If we start to look after ourselves properly we might be surprised just how quickly we get comfortable doing things we would have never previously dreamed of. This is Brighton people there’s lots you can do to challenge / shock yourself!
Are You Living To Your Core Values?
Anxiety wants us to criticise ourselves to keep us in that hyper vigilant physical state. We tend to go against ourselves when we are not sticking to our true values as a person. We begin to internally attack ourselves.
Many of us may not know what our true values are. There are many ways to work out what they are. Most of these methods start with a big list which you then whittle down. That’s how I found mine. There’s an approach here for helping you to finding out what your core values are so you can start living to them. Aligned to your true self if you will.
How To Cure Your Anxiety
So where does the physical and emotional start and end. It’s best we look at them as one big circle feeding into each other. For example, a physical problem like IBS can create negative thoughts and feelings. Equally IBS can be a symptom of a hyper-vigilant nervous system. It’s all a cycle and it has to be interrupted somewhere. Whether we use physical or emotional work to change things doesn’t really matter. It’s the fact that we’re trying to change.
This makes sense of how we’ve managed to help so many people who suffer from anxiety by primarily focusing on the physical side of things with our hands on approach to help people more awareness of their own body and as such less anxious. It’s always easier when our clients have moved on emotionally already or are ready to start that process. We then just work to catch their body up to where their head is. Moving on physically helps us to move on emotionally. Moving on emotionally helps us to move on physically.
You may be able to do this all by yourself. You may need some help physically or some emotional help, or both. Personally I go through a cyclical pattern of focusing on one or the other. That works for me. But each of our approaches to improving wellbeing will be different.
We just need to be consistent and keep going. Anxiety is not something that happens to us, it is something that we all maintain. We are all capable of becoming less anxious simply by calming our nervous system. What that means to you we need to figure out. We hope this article has given you plenty of ideas to make a start or add to what you’re already doing.
Go help yourself!
If you’d like to discuss more personally how emotions affect our physicality and how we might be able to help you move out of anxious state or help with any injuries then fill out the form here and we’ll give you a call.