While walking down the puddle strewn sidewalk under gunmetal grey skies today, I wondered if spring would ever start. I find myself at this place each February as I anxiously await the arrival of bright colored primroses at the corner store. Soon, the tulips will force their way up from their slumber and decorate my garden. The hyacinths will bring with them their soft fragrance. Best of all the lengthening of the daylight acts as a wonderful indication that spring will surely show its presence soon.
Spring is a guaranteed activity that happens each year on March 21st. Living in the northwest, the spring rains may be very reminiscent of the winter rains, but it is a harbinger of the glorious summer a short three or four months away.
Yet, there are anxieties in life that do not disappear just because the calendar has changed seasons. Sometimes it seems that life stops because of the anxiety, and facing each new day is difficult. It’s great to know that anxiety doesn’t need to control how you interact with the world.
Learning calming skills can help reduce your anxiety levels and provide a way to begin its management. Here are two simple techniques that can provide some relief from anxiety:
Diaphragm breathing- Place your hand on your diaphragm (this would be your stomach area), breath in through your nose as you count to 5, hold the breath for a count of 4, and slowly release it as you count to 5. You know you are using your diaphragm when you stomach expands and your hand moves. Repeat for 5 or 6 breaths and practice this 2-3 times a day when you aren’t stressed. You are teaching your mind to manage your brain. Then when you start to feel stressed, bring this tool out to help calm yourself.
Progressive muscle relaxation- So many times people with anxiety have extremely tense bodies and don’t even know it. Helping yourself understand what your body feels like when it’s not tense provides you the ability to notice when you are tense so you can purposefully relax your body. This exercise may take you up to 15 minutes and is best done where you can sit comfortably in a quiet space. The goal is to tighten a muscle group till you can feel the tension and hold it there for about 5 seconds, but don’t tighten it so much you cause pain, and then completely relax that muscle for about 15 seconds. To start: Squeeze your foot with toes curled downward, next squeeze the lower leg and calf, and finish the leg by tightening the upper leg, lower leg, and foot all at once. (Repeat on other leg) Move to the one arm and clench a fist, then finish the arm by tightening your entire arm while clenching your fist. (Repeat on other arm) The body portion has individual sections that are done independently. Start by clenching your buttocks together. Next, tighten your stomach. Continue up the body by taking a deep breath to expand your chest. Follow this by shrugging your shoulders as high as possible. Move to your face and open your mouth as wide as possible. Then squeeze your eyes closed. Finally, finish this section by raising your eyebrows towards your forehead. While these directions were written with you starting at your feet, you can always begin with your eyebrows and work your way down your body. People have found it helpful to have someone else reading the directions in a soothing voice for them, or record yourself and play it back. This exercise is intended to help you progressively move up your body as you tighten and relax each muscle set. This will also help you enjoy discovering what a non-tense body feels like. At first it may seem strange, but don’t give up, keep practicing so you can respond when your body starts to tense up.
However, during certain times and situations these breathing and relaxation techniques might not be enough for your anxiety. Do you find yourself struggling to turn off your brain, do you have a difficult time making decisions, does the worry seem to be constant, are you frequently on edge or restless, or do experience the inability to concentrate? This is an indication that it might be time to speak to a therapist about your anxiety.
Julie Hjelm, MA, LMFTA