Everybody has to experience anxiety-inducing days at some point in their life. This might be the first day of a new job, meeting the in-laws, having a difficult conversation or when big changes take place such as moving house. For me, the anxiety seems to start when the date of an event is finalised, I feel my fight, flight or freeze response kick in as the situation begins to feel a lot more real, and the nerves seem to worsen as the date or time approaches.
In a previous post I spoke about polyvagal theory and activating the vagus nerve. Not to repeat myself, but when the vagus nerve is activated, your body stays in a rest and digest mode. When you are in a rest and digest state, it’s not possible to be in flight, fight or freeze mode at the same time, so learning how you can work with your vagus nerve is a really powerful tool to help you keep your cool. Here are a few tips I have gathered from research and personal experience that will hopefully help you prepare and approach the day as your best self:
Practice deep breathing (five minutes will do)
The breath is the most powerful tool for many things in life. But for keeping calm, it is the holy grail. If you can spend an hour the night before doing some meditation (there’s plenty freely available on youtube), that’s great. If you’ve left it a bit late, the breathing app is a great free tool to help you control your breathing. It was founded by a yoga guru called Eddie Stern, who first introduced me to the concept of the vagus nerve and polyvagal theory. It’s a very simple app, where you select the time you have (between 1 and 30 minutes) and the breathing rhythm you want to stick to, and it uses a ball to help you visualise when to breath in, and when to breath out. It also plays music at the same time, so if you want to close your eyes and follow the beat of the music then you can. I’ve found this more beneficial than normal meditation, as by watching the visual, you are given something to concentrate on which helps stop your mind from wandering. If you can do five minutes of this just before the stressful event starts, maybe in the car park or on the train, I guarantee you will feel much better.
Finish your morning shower with a cold blast
Did you know that Tony Robbins has a freezing, built-in plunge pool that he uses every morning to wake himself up? Not only does cold water reset your muscles and reduce inflammation, but it activates the vagus nerve keeping you mentally cool. I personally couldn’t handle a full shower in cold water, but even if you can do 30 seconds at the end, you’ll feel your body become alive.
Yoga movement with chanting
Yoga is so powerful for so many reasons, and if you can incorporate your breath at the same time that’s a double whammy. A recent technique I have been using is chanting whilst performing yoga moves, this chanting again activates the vagus nerve and keeps you calm. If you’re not already familiar with yoga, I would recommend finding a very short sequence like the one above and saying the vowels (A, E, I, O, U) out loud with each movement, and repeat this as many times as is necessary. Alternatively, if you already have a familiar yoga practice, try incorporating the chanting at the same time. This will naturally sync up your breath with the movement and should feel make you feel good pretty quickly!
Watch a comedy the night before
This was a technique I learnt from a hypnobirthing course to help mothers-to-be relax their bodies quickly between contractions. When you laugh, you release endorphins throughout the body, helping to reduce stress and pain and helping you feel happier. I find Kevin Hart hilarious, alongside Michael McIntyre and Peter Kay. If you’re short of ideas, youtube is a good place to start.
Do something kind for somebody
An act of kindness is a great way to increase your serotonin and dopamine levels, whilst also releasing endorphins. Donating to a charity, making a loved one a meal, buying a homeless person a coffee or sending somebody a thoughtful text can be enough to trigger a happiness response. This can also help remind you that although the upcoming event may be anxiety-inducing, there are so many other things happening in the world at the same time, and this is just a small part of it.
Reduce the caffeine and sugar
Caffeine and sugar are both stimulants, they can give you a wonderful high followed by a severe dip. The dip depends on your individual physiology, some people are more sensitive to these than others. Caffeine is known to activate your fight, flight or freeze response that will make you more susceptible to anxiety. On the day of the anxiety-inducing event, it is best to stick with the normal level of caffeine you are used to consuming. If you have one coffee or tea in the morning, stick with the level that makes you feel normal. As you also don’t want to feel withdrawal symptoms by avoiding it that day. Sugar causes havoc with your blood sugar levels that can send you on an emotional roller coaster. It’s best to opt for a breakfast with a good level of healthy fat to keep you going throughout the morning, such as avocado, eggs or nut butters.
Have a cuddle with a loved one or pet
Eckart Tolle, the spiritual teacher often mentions the benefits of pets, and how they have the ability to stop your thought processes and bring you into the present moment. Cuddling or touching a loved one (including a furry friend) has the ability to release oxytocin in the body, also known as the love hormone. This is a powerful way to de-stress the body and bring about feelings of love and comfort. So don’t forget to give your four-legged friend or loved one a hug before you leave the house!
Give yourself a foot massage
Reflexology or foot massage is a way of activating the vagus nerve. Fortunately, this is something you can do at home to yourself (but it may be more enjoyable if you can find somebody willing to do it for you!). Reflexology is believed to have originated from Ancient Egypt and is based on the concept that the feet connect to all parts of the body. Just by sitting in a cross-legged pose and massaging all areas of the feet, your toes, the soles and sides, you should instantly feel a bit more relaxed, even better if you can incorporate your breath at the same time.
Gargling is another commonly used technique to activate the vagus nerve and put the body into a rest and digest state. If you can do this daily, it will help build up vagus nerve activity. A good way to do this is to use mouthwash and incorporate it into your daily brushing routine. Not only will this help you feel more relaxed, but it should help keep your breath fresh too.
Hopefully these techniques will give you a good foundation to start your anxiety-inducing day in the right way. If you do find yourself struggling, the best thing you can do is to come back to the breath and remember a profound phrase of Eckhart Tolle’s, ‘this too shall pass‘.