Updated: May 9, 2022
Three of the fastest ways to regulate anxiety are to take control of our breath, our vision and to engage our five senses so we can ‘get out of our heads’ and return to the present moment. These are the three ‘levers’ we can voluntarily ‘pull’ to activate the parasympathetic nervous system - our rest and recovery system. Why? Because they’re always potentially within our conscious control.
Let’s begin with the breath.
It’s true that we can’t control the amount of stress hormone (‘cortisol’ and ‘adrenaline’) released by the adrenal glands, which in turn creates the uncomfortable physical sensations of anxiety, such as heart palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath, tingling, nausea and more.
But we can control the diaphragm, which means we can control our breathing, which allows us to control our heart rate, which in turn means we can voluntarily calm ourselves down.
Studies have shown that a specific technique called the Physiological Sigh is one of the quickest and most effective ways to reduce tension in anxiety prone people. Why? When we sigh, our diaphragm moves upwards, causing blood to flow quicker through the heart. Your brain is alerted that your blood’s flowing quicker through the heart. In response, your brain sends a signal back to your heart instructing it to slow down. So, whenever you want to calm down, you need to lengthen your exhales. Breathe out slowly and more vigorously. This also causes the body to offload carbon dioxide, allowing more oxygen to enter the blood, activating our rest and recovery system.
‘The Physiological Sigh’ (Duration: 25 seconds).
Take a deep breath in. Before you breathe out, take another sip of air in, and then sigh out the air:
Here is a step by step audio demonstration.
Do between 3 and 6 physiological sighs in a row.
Please note it will take between 20-30 seconds to feel calm after doing the exercise.
Similarly, vision and anxiety are linked. When we’re in a state of stress, our vision constricts and narrows. We start focusing on specific objects within our environment, because our brain’s searching for the source of perceived danger. However, if we deliberately soften our gaze by practicing something called panoramic vision or optic flow, we begin to calm down.
Engaging our peripheral vision causes the vagus nerve (a nerve partly responsible for activating our body’s rest and recovery system/parasympathetic nervous system) to send a message to the brain that we’re safe, and so we begin to feel calm. So, if we practice softening our gaze, we can learn to control our level of alertness, which in turn allows us to have some agency over how stressed or calm we feel.
Soften the Gaze with Panoramic Vision/Optic Flow (Duration: 15 seconds)
Start by softening the muscles around your eyes. Squeeze them shut, and then gently open them. As you do, gently touch the area around the sides of your eyes. Notice any object in front of you. Then, while continuing to look at this object in front of you, slowly broaden your gaze and notice more and more objects in your peripheral vision, without looking at them directly. See if you can expand your awareness to notice objects on the very edge of your peripheral vision without looking at them directly. If you’re outside, try gazing at the horizon.
Here is an audio demonstration.
Finally, one of the things that aggravates anxiety is our tendency to be lost in thought. Our minds wander most of our waking lives without realising it. Fascinating research has concluded that: the human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.
Without being aware, most of us are perpetually lost in thought, from the moment we wake, to the moment we sleep. You know how you notice loud music when entering a room, but after a few minutes of conversation you hardly notice it anymore? That’s because you’ve become accustomed to the music. It’s omnipresent, so your brain no longer pays attention to it.
Well, we’ve become incredibly accustomed to our thoughts. They’ve become like white noise in the background of our waking lives, and we hardly notice them anymore. There’s an old saying that ‘the fish is the last to know water.’ So it is with our thoughts. It’s as if we’re perpetually lost in a daydream, jumping from thought to thought with no pause or space between, with no awareness of this. This tendency to be endlessly lost in thought is what’s responsible for most of our emotional suffering in life.
Why is this so? Unfortunately, when our minds wander, they typically wander about things that could go wrong in the future and about what has gone wrong in the past. They’re also incredibly judgmental towards ourselves in the present, often pointing out our flaws and criticising us - as if there’s a really harsh inner narrator telling us how wretched and inadequate we are.
The reason the mind tends to focus on what’s wrong, what’s missing and what could go wrong is because it hasn’t evolved to make you happy. It’s evolved to keep you alive. Well, a good survival strategy would have us obsess about what’s gone wrong in the past and what could go wrong in the future. Unfortunately, this is a terrible strategy for happiness, calm and equanimity.
So, if we leave it up to our minds to wander throughout the day, most of the time it wanders into a pit of negativity, and this makes us feel awful. To cultivate equanimity, we have to train the mind. We have to learn to observe its movement and bring it back to the present moment whenever we can, much like the way we have to train our bodies to enjoy physical health, flexibility and strength.
If our tendency to be lost in past, future or judgmental thinking is what’s responsible for most of our emotional suffering, then the answer is to practice nonjudgmental, present-focused awareness
And this is precisely what mindfulness is: a skill that teaches us to cultivate a special quality of awareness - one characterized by being nonjudgmental and present-focused.
There are two broad categories of Mindfulness practices: formal and informal practice. Formal practice refers to a daily ritual where we sit and practice mindful awareness or meditation. Informal practice involves taking moments throughout the course of our day to mindfully observe our experience in the present moment, without judgement. It involves punctuating our day with moments of clear seeing and awareness, almost like waking up from a daydream. This is a ‘real time’ technique - something you can use in the moment, when it really matters.
A ‘real time’ Mindfulness technique allows you to find stillness even in the most distressing ‘emotional storms.’ To do this, we need to know how to ‘get out of our heads’ and ‘back into our bodies.’ Engaging our physical senses by Anchoring or Grounding ourselves in the present moment is the best way to do this.
Grounding (Duration: 15 seconds)
Listen to this audio for a step by step guide or follow the steps below:
Start by noticing the feeling of the floor beneath your feet. Feel the solidity of the floor. Notice any sensations in the feet, like tingling, numbness, or temperature. Then, bring your awareness to your other senses, starting with your visual field, and identity and name out loud:
5 things you can see: pay close attention to the colours and textures you notice
4 things you can feel….then bring your awareness to 1 of these things and pay close
attention to what it’s like: notice any tingling, pressure, temperature, numbness, comfort or discomfort.
3 things you can hear: listen closely to 3 sounds. Tune in and notice what they’re like. Try to find the words to describe what the sounds are like….
2 things you can smell: can you notice the smell of the air outside? Or your cologne? Or a flower on your desk?
1 thing you can taste: if you can’t taste anything, place a small piece of food, like a sweet, or a mint in your mouth, and pay close attention to the flavors and sensations it creates….
These ‘real time’ Tools - the Physiological Sigh, Panoramic Vision/Optic Flow and Grounding- are three highly effective methods for training our brains to ‘switch on our rest and recovery system/the parasympathetic nervous system and find some stillness and presence in an anxious moment.
Right now, set reminders on your phone to prompt you to practice the Physiological Sigh, Panoramic Vision and Grounding at different intervals throughout your day. Also, use ‘transitional moments’ as a cue to practice: getting up, sitting down, passing through a doorway, driving etc.