Stress Management San Francisco and San Mateo
Calming the Nervous System:
Tips for Anxiety, Depression and Anger Management
Scientific research on the brain tells us that the more you experience a mental/ emotional state, the more likely you are to experience that state. This is one of the reasons why people who do not seek treatment for Depression and Anxiety, tend to get worse over time. On a neurological level, the more often the brain fires in a certain pattern, the better it gets at firing that way. That is why when we practice something we getter better at it.
The following analogy will help you understand this. If a person goes hiking through the woods once a month, and takes the same path each time, it will be a quite a while before that path becomes “well worn”, easy to spot, and easy to follow. If that same person walks that same path ten times a day, the path will be very visible. In fact, if the person begins to take a new path, it may take several months for grass, and trees to begin to grow on that trail. It is harder to hike through an area where no one has hiked before.
What this means for you is the following: If you have spent years getting upset and angry, you have worn a very “well worn path”. You have been practicing this state and teaching your brain how to become upset quickly and easily. This is particularly true for dealing with anxiety.
Perhaps you have heard of fight/flight or freeze syndrome. When we think we are in danger, the body experiences a wave of biochemical responses. The adrenal glands release adrenaline, the heart begins to pound, blood pressure rises, and a host of other processes begin. We move into a state where we become primed for safety and survival. We become ready to run away, attack or play dead. The more you go into the fight/flight/freeze response, the “better” you are at going into it. Over time, it is as if your brain begins to think that you are living in a state of constant danger, and so, it must always be ready to keep you out of mortal peril.
In order to make progress with your anger, it is essential that you start practicing a different neurological response. You need to start teaching the brain and the body how to calm itself. This is much like teaching the body a new physical activity. You are literally wiring in and strengthening new neural connections in the brain.
The most efficient way to calm the body and the brain is by bringing your attention to the breath.
The following practices will help you learn the practice of “calming your brain down”.
Choose one or more and begin small practice periods, several times per day.
- Track and label your breath in the following way. When inhaling, mentally say to yourself “in” or “inhaling”. When exhaling say “out” or “exhaling”. In the space between the breaths, label that “pausing”. If thoughts pop up, just gently return to labeling the movement of the breath.
- Count inhalations and exhalations. Once you get to four, start again.
- Take a “check in” pause, and use your attention to scan the body and mind
I recommend doing these practices when you are not in your most challenging circumstances. Just like beginning any work out routine, it is important to start where you are, so that you can build strength over time. Regularity is important too, so you may wish to schedule “mini practice pauses” throughout your day. By practicing these skills now, they will be well honed when you really need them badly.
Some people decide to take two minute practice periods every hour. Others decide to use other opportunities to practice. Waiting in line at a market, waiting for a bus, or sitting in a lobby can all provide you with time to practice calming your body and mind. If you begin to look, you can probably find all sorts of opportunities for these practice sessions.