Perhaps you have exercise in your life already. If so, notice what your body feels like during, immediately after, and hours after your workout. Do you feel more regulated? Or do you feel keyed up or shut down? For years I ran 5-6 miles six days a week and when I wasn’t doing that I was involved in other high intensity workouts like contact kick-boxing and high intensity group fitness classes. While I had fun doing those things in the moment, when I think back now I realize how they fueled my anxiety. Over the years I shifted my approach to exercise. I still enjoy an occasional trail run or perhaps even a climb up The Incline. However, the majority of my exercise is focused on low to moderate intensity with a longer stretching portion (yoga practice) at the end. As a result, I now find myself feeling more regulated. Instead of my exercise keying me up, it helps me regulate more overall. Note that not everyone likes the “E” word, so instead of trying to add exercise if you are turned off or overwhelmed by that word, perhaps think about how you can incorporate more movement into your day. What type of movement brings you joy? Is it a hike? Maybe standing barefoot in the grass while swaying side to side? Perhaps dancing around the house as you clean? Whatever it is, perhaps try to engage in it in a way that helps you feel more regulated before, during, immediately after, and hours later.
Getting enough, solid sleep is crucial to helping our system regulate. On average, adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night. If you are struggling to get this, it can be useful to reflect on barriers and trying to address them. You may also consider working on sleep hygiene. Some things to consider include:
- Use your bed only for sleep an intimate activities (no reading either!)
- Limit caffeine, consuming no caffeine after 12:00 p.m. (i.e., ten hours prior to bedtime)
- Create a regular sleep schedule, waking and going to sleep approximately the same time daily (within at least an hour)
- Turn off all screens (phones, tablets/kindles/iPads, computers, television, etc.) at least one hour prior to bed and engage in calming activities
- Keep your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet
- Follow a bedtime routine
- Exercise/Move daily, but not within two hours of going to bed
- Avoid eating, particularly large meals, two hours prior to bed
- Get sunshine (our sleep-wake cycle is closely related to our circadian rhythms, exposure to natural light helps regulate these cycles)
If we are constantly moving, overwhelmed by our schedules that are “busy, busy, busy”, we will not be able to regulate ourselves effectively over time. Thus, we need to take time to sit, relax, and be still, taking time to read, journal, reflect, pray (if that’s your thing), meditate, and be in nature (this could be a patch of grass or by a tree if you are in the city). In my experience, even though watching television, Netflix, or YouTube seems like downtime, in reality, I rarely feel refreshed and regulated from the experience. Instead, taking time to read, write, reflect, and meditate tend to do it for me. Also, never underestimate of the power of a nice walk in the woods, around the lake, or even around the block.
Eat Mindfully for Nourishment
I am not a nutritionist or Registered Dietitian. As such, it is out of scope for me to share details about how to eat. What I can share is my observations. In my body, I have more energy when I eat more natural foods (versus processed foods). If I eat when I am not hungry (assuming I have been eating regularly), I feel full and lethargic and my digestion is stalled. If I do not eat when I am hungry, I feel light headed, my anxiety increases, and my cognitions are off. If I do not allow myself one sweet treat a day, I overindulge as I feel deprived. I feel like crap if I do not have balance in my diet including vegetables, fruits, quality whole grains, and protein in a reasonable amount (not the intensely high amounts we tend to get in our country). I tend to feel more energetic, less lethargic, and have better digestion when I eat home-prepared meals versus eating out. Lastly, I tend to feel most nourished when I tune into my bodily experience and sense what I really need. All of this being said, I am one person. This is what I notice in my body through my experience. I cannot necessarily tell anyone else how to eat for themselves. What I can suggest is finding a way to make peace with the fact that you are worthy of nourishment. You are worthy of foods that help you feel satisfied and energetic. That doesn’t mean one can’t choose foods that result in others feelings. Perhaps it means that we find ways to love our bodies by nourishing them more often than not. P.S. Believing we are worthy of nourishment may be a practice. It may be something we shift towards over time.
For years, I exercised (albeit too intensely for my mental health), ate healthy, got eight hours of good sleep per night, meditated, and had time outside. I even had some down time. Those things tremendously helped reduce my anxiety. And yet, the one piece that was missing for me was yoga practice. I know that yoga is not for everyone, so if you have really tried it out and it wasn’t a fit for you, I get it. And I found that nothing reduced my anxiety more than my regular yoga practice (in addition to the other things I was doing). There are so many ways to access yoga in these times of technology. You can find classes online, free on YouTube (be mindful of the quality there) or subscriptions through Gaiam, YogaGlo, and Yoga Download, to name a few. You can find a studio to attend in person or even try out classes at the gym. Another exciting piece is that there are so many styles of yoga which is great because we have such varying needs. Some are very active while some are slower moving. Some focus on alignment while others add heat. Some are meditative and very still. Some share the deeper spiritual parts of yoga practice while others are more secular. I even teach Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga which is an adjunct treatment for complex trauma. Yoga is everywhere. Perhaps try it out, maybe experimenting with a few different options - locations, styles, teachers - to find if there is a practice out there for you.
Healing Underlying Issues
Sometimes we have underlying issues fueling or exacerbating our anxiety. This could be past trauma or some type of other unresolved issue. If we are using effective coping skills and taking care of ourselves, but still notice intense anxiety (without obvious present moment stressors), it is possible unresolved issues from the past may be a piece of it. If our trauma memories are still haunting us, it can be useful to seek the help of a licensed psychotherapist to help us get unstuck. There are a number of ways to resolve past trauma including EMDR, Internal Family Systems (IFS), Sensorimotor Processing, and Somatic Experiencing. Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga can also help us move through the body memories, increase a sense of agency, and help us reconnect with our body. As we take steps to resolve our past trauma, we may notice our anxiety and other symptoms diminish.
Wow! That’s a lot of stuff, but surely not an exhaustive list. I hope you find some pieces of it useful and that you are able to disregard what doesn’t resonate right now. We all find our own way to regulation and my hope for you is that this gives you some ideas of what to try. Peace!