It is exhausting to view the entire world as a potential threat. – Anonymous
Since I came from a stressful background, I was used to keeping my guard up. I remember feeling like a car whose idle had been set too high. I once had a masseuse ask me, mid-massage, “Do these knots have names?” referring to the tension in my muscles. I just thought having shoulders up around my neck, an achy neck, problems with digestion and bouts of insomnia were normal. Thankfully, I was wrong.
Stress and anxiety manifest in our bodies. When I’m tense my shoulders are raised, rigid and achy. When having anxiety or feeling panicky, my heart races, I sweat and a feeling of adrenaline rushes down my spine to my feet like a bolt of lightening. My knees shake and my legs feel weak.
Adrenaline is one of the many physical attributes that help us protect ourselves. The ability to be alert and vigilant in the face of possible danger is also a protective physical ability. However, if we remain on permanent alert when we know we are not in danger or have adrenaline rushing through us when everything around us is calm, we’ve probably got a bit of an anxiety problem.
Keeping my guard up prevented me from physically experiencing the calm, safe environment I had made for myself. My mind and my emotions had been calmer due to the work I did around anxiety in these areas (see Change Your Brain and Feel It To Heal It) but I was unaware that there was a physical element to consistent anxiety that can stay in the body for a long time.
It wasn’t until I learned to relax physically that I realized the amount of time I spent in a guarded position. Keeping my guard up had become my normal state of being. That’s a problem. It’s also exhausting.
In working to combat anxiety, I had assumed that in order to feel physically relaxed, I first had to have calm thoughts and emotions. Instead, I learned that I could calm my body first in order to manifest calm thoughts and emotions. As someone who is generally stuck in my head this was a very attractive concept to me – and one I was willing to explore.
We can retrain our body to keep its guard down when in a safe environment instead of maintaining a state of hypervigilance. The purpose of focusing on the muscle memory in our bodies and retraining it to relax is to allow us to remain calm for longer periods of time when faced with stress and it increases our resilience, enabling us to bounce back more quickly and more easily from a stressful situation.
It is easy for a body used to being guarded to remain guarded. Fortunately, it is also easy for a body used to being relaxed to remain relaxed – even in the midst of stress. Since all good decisions and guidance flow from a place of calm, rather than anxiety, the more you are relaxed, the better path your life will take.
Start with the basics when attuning your body to calm. Make sure you eat the right foods and avoid caffeine, alcohol and other stimulants which can make anxiety worse. Get exercise, which has a myriad of benefits, including physical, mental and emotional.
Make sleep a priority and get as much as you need. Sleep is something over which I am extremely territorial, after spending more than a decade of my life working full-time, attending school full-time and sleeping very little. Getting enough sleep was simply not possible at that time in my life, so ever since then, I refuse to let anything interfere with it. You know how the Incredible Hulk used to say, “You won’t like me when I’m angry?” Let’s just say when someone tries to interfere with my sleep, I can totally relate to where the Hulk was coming from.
Each of us has sacrifices that must be made for our greater life plan. Don’t focus on what you can’t do for your body, focus on what you can do for it. Taking hot bubble baths, naps and massaging your own tired muscles are all free and available methods with which to bring a sense of calm to your body.
I started taking yoga, which provided a wonderfully stretchy and relaxed feeling to my shoulders and legs, where I carry most of my tension. You don’t need to take a class that doesn’t meet with your time or budget commitments, since you can do it in your living room, on your own time.
I started going to the type of therapist that focuses on bodywork and getting in touch with the body’s messages and responding to them in an attentive manner. Once in a while I go to a chiropractor and get twisted into a pretzel to get tension out of my neck and back. Deep breathing from the diaphragm also helps to calm the body. I also like to add a guided audio meditation that directs each part of the body to relax.
Is taking a deep breath going to make your anxiety attack disappear on the spot? Nope. Paying attention to the physical manifestation of your tension over time, and making physical relaxation a part of your over wellness plan, retrains your body to feel that calm is its normal state of being. Over time, your body will be able to get back to that state of relaxation more quickly, even in the midst of stress.