Anxiety. Stress. Dread. Feeling so overwhelmed you just want to crawl into bed and stay there forever. These feelings of anxiety are normal. Over 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders according to the National Institute of Mental Health. You push ahead because life demands it. To stay healthy, however, you must find ways to relieve yourself from anxiety-induced inner turmoil. One way to do that is to find a less stressful job and move to a place with less congestion. That is not a realistic option for most of us. Here are a few things you can do to manage and relieve these negative emotions.
1. Take Time to Relax
Relaxation means taking time to de-stress. It can mean a vacation to a place where you can unwind, or participating in a sport or mental activity that you really enjoy, or just watching a funny movie. It can also be as simple as doing a few minutes’ worth of mindful deep breathing. Close your eyes, breathe in for a count of four, breathe out for a count of four. Breathe so deeply that your stomach moves in and out. This requires you to unclench your diaphragm, which signals your body to deactivate the fight-flight reflex and relax. Think of an image that you associate with relaxation, such as your favorite place to vacation, be it a beachside cottage, the woods, or wherever. With a little regular practice, you will be able to relax at will just by conjuring this image.
2. Importance of Massage Therapy
Massage therapy can work wonders for anxiety management, though it is not a substitute for medical treatment. A single massage session can provide welcome relief, but a regular regimen of massage therapy is most effective. Scientific studies are underway to determine exactly how and why massage therapy works so well, and researchers are testing a variety of scientific theories to explain its beneficial effect on mental health.
We already know, however, that chronic stress leads to serious health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Research by the Touch Resource Institute in Miami, Florida, shows that massage therapy resulted in decreased autoimmune problems (e.g., increased pulmonary function in asthma and decreased glucose levels in diabetes), enhanced immune function (e.g., increased natural killer cells in HIV and cancer), and enhanced alertness and performance (e.g., EEG pattern of alertness and better performance on math computations). Many of these effects appear to be mediated by decreased stress hormones. In short, a massage helps you relax, and almost anything to help you relax is a good thing.
Once an experienced massage therapist begins to work on your tight muscles, you begin to relax. Why? The feeling of dread is an emotional manifestation of physical tension. Eliminate the tension and eliminate the anxiety.
Each of our bodies has a brain, a spinal cord, and nerves going out to the skin. When the massage therapist begins to work on you, it stimulates the mechanoreceptors at the sensory nerve endings in your skin. This generates impulses that travel up the nerves, up the spinal cord, and to the brain. There, the brain processes the impulses and generates impulses of its own that travel back down the spinal cord and out into the body, creating physiological changes. Your blood vessels may dilate and your heart and breathing rates change. If your brain likes the input from the massage, your brain turns down the tension.
This is the neuroscience of how the nervous system responds to touch and how the brain monitors the body’s environment. Approximately 1,000 nerve endings per square inch of skin, on average, are responding to temperature, pressure, stretch, vibration, chemical irritants, and other conditions. When the massage therapist touches you, all of those nerve endings are paying attention. Your brain is responding and creating changes, creating the pleasant sensations we experience, slowing our breathing, allowing us to relax and shift out of the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system and into the “rest and digest” parasympathetic state. Your brain allows you to relax, feel refreshed, and relieved of tension.
3. Take Care of Your Body
Eat right, avoid or limit alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, and sugar, exercise, get regular sleep. This is a simple prescription but often difficult to sustain for extended periods of time. Start gradually and ease into it. Think of it as a lifestyle change, not a temporary regimen. Eventually, these things will become habitual and will yield long term benefits in stress and anxiety management.
If your mind races or rambles in a thousand different directions and you have trouble falling asleep, use this self-hypnosis technique. With eyes closed, begin four-count deep-breathing in and out, as described above. Focus on feeling your breath go in through your nostrils and back out. After several deep breaths, imagine you are on the twentieth floor of a hotel in a favorite vacation spot. Picture yourself walking to the elevator and pushing the down button. When the elevator arrives, you enter it and push the button for the ground floor. The door closes and you are alone. You feel the elevator begin its descent. It descends very slowly. You count as the elevator light signals the descending floor numbers… 20….19….18….. If you are still awake when it hits the ground floor, do it over again but begin on a higher floor, maybe the 40th floor.
Soon, you will find your anxiety level moderating. Your healthier lifestyle combined with your massage therapy will lift you into a beneficial upward spiral.