It is estimated that over 40 million adults in the United States have anxiety disorders. Many children and teens also struggle with managing stress and anxiety on a daily basis. Anxiety is a completely normal reaction to stress. We all experience anxiety from time to time. It is there to protect us from dangerous situations. Anxiety becomes a problem when it is debilitating and occurs when we are not in immediate danger. Too much uncontrolled anxiety can also lead to panic attacks or behaviors that might put us at even more risk. So, what can we do to manage anxiety?
One of the best ways to challenge the anxiety response is by using deep, paced breathing. When we inhale a deep breath, our fight-flight-freeze system activates. This process engages our sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Our brain believes that we must be in danger from something in the environment because we are taking in more oxygen than normal. Stress hormones of cortisol and adrenaline are quickly released, the heart starts beating fast, pupils dilate, and airways open up preparing us to “fight” or “flight” (run away) from the danger. Depending on the trigger, some of us may actually “freeze” in place, not knowing what to do. When we exhale, very slowly, at least 6-7 seconds, our body initiates the opposing force referred to as the parasympathetic nervous system, which effectively puts a halt to the stress response; here our brain recognizes that we are in control of our breathing again, and the threat in the environment must be gone.
A second effective approach to managing anxiety is laughing. Find some opportunities to laugh every day. Laughing brings in a lot of oxygen-rich air, boosts our body’s natural painkillers called endorphins, and improves our immune system. While the onset of laughter increases our SNS, the calm down effect soothes our nervous system making us feel happy and relaxed. If you have trouble laughing daily, try smiling more and see how you feel.
Spending time outdoors around trees has also shown to be an effective way to manage anxiety. The Japanese culture has spent millions of dollars studying the effect of trees, and the essential oils they emit on human physiology. Sometimes called “forest bathing,” the idea here is to find times throughout your day to be around trees and enjoy the added benefits of lower blood pressure, decreased SNS activity, and decreased stress hormones.
A final way to help manage anxiety is by improving your sleep hygiene. Poor sleep quality and quantity creates stress on our body. A study from UC Berkeley suggests that you are “far more likely to develop a full-on anxiety disorder if you do not get enough sleep regularly.” The vital human growth hormone (HGH) is released during sleep. Studies show that HGH directly opposes cortisol. The bottom line: improve your sleep to naturally regulate anxiety.