Anxiety is a reaction to the stressors we experience in our daily lives, often occurring after prolonged exposure to stress or to traumatic events. Anxiety is a warning that something is wrong, part of our threat defense system.
Sarah Peyton in her book, Your Resonant Self writes that anxiety can feel like a “gnawing sense that something is amiss, just under the surface of consciousness. It can feel like a burning, or a jangly electrical current under the skin, often in the chest. Sometimes it comes with a disquiet, tightness, or tension in the belly. It is a low-level sensation-wrapped irritation that is exhausting…”
Some of us don’t even know that we are feeling anxiety because it’s been with us for so long. We may start to get a glimpse of an alternative to anxiety every now and then, and that might lead us to searching for more of this alternative. Here are some ways to tend to anxiety, to help you respond less from fear and more from love:
Tending to yourself via the affiliative system:
The affiliative system, as described by Paul Gilbert, includes tending to ourselves via 1. gentle vocalizations, 2. warmth and 3. soothing touch. These three components are necessary for us, as infants, to feel safe and secure. We can recruit these components and use them as practices in our adult life to help soothe ourselves in times of stress and anxiety.
- listening to your favorite soothing music,
- talking to friends,
- listening to a soothing podcast.
- taking a hot shower,
- sitting in the sun,
- getting under a warm blanket,
- drinking a sooothing hot beverage.
Touch is associated with bonding and relationships so it is a very powerful sense and the one that may be most often recruited within a self-compassion practice. Our skin, as our largest sense organ, allows us to self-soothe through self-initiated touch, which contributes to positive body image (feeling good about our body).
Two kinds of touch receptors
Some touch receptors are close to the surface of our skin and pick up on light touch while others are deeper in our skin registering deep pressure touch. We each have unique preferences and responses to light touch and to deeper pressure touch.
- Light touch includes things like tracing our fingertips across the palm of our hand or up our arm, and the feeling of loose clothing against our skin. The touch receptors close to the surface of our skin that register light touch tell us to “pay attention – something is happening at this place on my body now”.
- Deep pressure touch includes things like giving ourselves a self-hug, squeezing our hands together or wearing form-fitting clothing like exercise gear. The touch receptors that are deep under our skin send messages to our brain that are organizing and grounding – “here I am, here it is, now I feel solid.”
Touch and self-regulation
Understanding your touch preferences helps you to identify the kinds of touch that are soothing. There is no universal soothing kinds of touch – what is soothing for one person might not be for another.
Here are some sensory modulation ideas to explore in helping tend to anxiety:
- Weighted blankets or lap pads,
- Light bedding,
- Fidget items to help focus,
- Rolling a therapy ball across parts of the body,
- Squeezing the hands together,
- Gently rubbing the hands together,
- Squeezing a stress ball,
- Soft fabric hand-sized toy,
- Tagless clothing options (to prevent extra stress for those who are more sensitive to touch),
- Tracing fingers over the face or body,
- Applying gentle pressure to the face or body,
- Patting your pet.
Physical activity produces endorphins (chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers) and improves the ability to sleep (which in turn reduces stress).
Low to moderate intensity movement practices (walking, jogging, swimming, cycling, yoga, stretching, etc) can help you feel energized and healthy. Regular aerobic activity has been shown to:
- decrease overall levels of tension,
- elevate and stabilize mood,
- improve sleep, and
- improve self-esteem.
Even five minutes of aerobic movement can stimulate anti-anxiety effects. If you have been sedentary for a while, give yourself a very gentle period of 1-2 months to become accustomed to physical activity. You can find more tips on movement practices on this page of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s website.
Self-Compassion meditation practices
Taking time for self-compassion practices helps address anxiety. Practices can be:
- formal (on-the-cushion), or
- informal (on-the-go).
One effective way to tend to anxiety is to do some deep breathing for as long as feels comfortable. This can be a mindfulness practice as we settle into the present moment to be aware of our breathing, and it also helps evoke a parasympathetic nervous system response – we breath deeply and slowly when we feel safe, so we can signal to our system that we are safe through deep breathing.
You can find a list of self-compassion meditations and practices to address anxiety here.
Some simple health practices to help address anxiety are:
- Limiting alcohol and caffeine,
- Eating healthfully,
- Getting enough sleep.
Anxiety comes about because we feel unsafe and disconnected. Ways to help us feel safe and connected include being with folks we feel safe and supported around. Here are some suggestions for relational practices:
- Identify your support network, or actively work to build one – this helps you to feel connections that can help address insecure attachment.
- Join a support group of like-minded people – church, meditation group, 12-step program, bushwalking club, photography club, etc.
- Learn about your attachment style and use that information to help you understand how you are in relationships.
Practice and study might be considered two wings of the bird of self-compassion work, so we can enhance our anxiety practices through:
- Learning about and addressing perfectionism,
- Learning about anxiety,
- Learning about our own personal anxiety triggers (bringing awareness to our experience of anxiety and noting down what leads to our anxiety),
- Learning about our legacy anxiety by studying any generational trauma in our bloodline.
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America
- Gilbert, P. and Choden Mindful Compassion
- National Institute of Mental Health
- Peyton, S. Your Resonant Self