Having done so many baby behavior and toddler behavior trainings around the country, I know that many of you are working hard to help families who need your support more than ever. Being caretakers of so many others, you might lose track of taking care of yourself, but in challenging times, it’s even more important that you make self-care a priority. As we learn every time we fly on an airplane, “in case of emergency, it’s important for you to adjust your own mask first before you help others.” Right now, we’re all feeling anxiety and it’s hard to help others when your own anxiety is making it hard for you to think.
Throughout my life, I’ve had to learn a lot about anxiety, personally as well as professionally. Given the world we’re in right now, I want to share some of what I know about anxiety with you, the helpers, because some of you are feeling anxious and probably all of you are working with anxious families.
The Experience of Anxiety
Some of us are very familiar with feeling anxious and for others, it’s a relatively rare experience. With news coming at us 24-hours per day, we are being bombarded by messages that fill us with fear. Fear is the emotion that helps us cope with danger, by preparing our minds and bodies to fight, escape, or to freeze. In the short term, that means that the emotional parts of our brains send rapid signals to the body that danger is near, so we can sharpen our awareness and provide oxygen and nutrients to our muscles. This signaling can happen so fast, that the parts of our brain that help us manage our emotions, including the experience of fear, cannot keep up. Our hearts start to pound, our breathing gets faster, and our brains become fixed on whatever sound, sight, or feeling has made us fearful. We may feel out of control and an overwhelming desire to escape. When we do get away or the danger has passed, our brains and bodies can quickly return to normal. At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. But these days, the feeling of danger doesn’t stop. Whether we are reacting to the news of the day or having old feelings triggered by what’s happening around us, the heightened awareness and the feelings of dread go on and on, leaving you to feel uneasy and uncomfortable. That lingering feeling is what most people call anxiety. Anxiety can make our daily lives difficult to manage.
How does anxiety affect us?
When we are anxious, stress hormones and neurotransmitters rise rapidly. The emotional parts of the brain will they tell the rest of the brain to pay attention to the source of the anxiety, and nothing else. Even though nothing may be happening to us at the moment, we can have a hard time focusing on work, processing new information, remembering, learning, and putting things in the right order. Not great for getting your job done! The best way to get refocused is to interrupt the signals from the emotional brain so the rest of the brain to retake control. Even short interruptions of these signals several times per day can be enough to help.
What steps can we take to interrupt our emotional brain and reduce anxiety?
To start, while your emotional brain is rushing to tell you that you are facing immediate danger, it can help to recognize anxiety as a physical experience in your brain and body. Because the feelings of anxiety are physical, you can, with practice, reduce your response. In the short term, you can use tricks to tell your emotional brain to calm down, like slowing down your breathing, standing and stretching, relaxing your jaw, and smiling.
In the long term, exercise can make a big difference. Activity can reduce the stress hormones and give your muscles a way to burn off the nervous energy. You can go for a walk or run, dance to a fun video, do yoga, dancing, or Tai chi. Even 20 or 30 minutes of any physical activity that you enjoy can really help. Mindfulness exercises can be a great tool too but because some of us “freeze” under stress, some people feel even MORE anxious when they are trying to sit still. For those who freeze when stressed, moving is a better plan. It can help to find movements that you have to focus on like learning a dance step, holding a difficult yoga pose, or practicing a perfect baseball swing. If you don’t already know your own best tools, you’ll want to try out different ways to control your emotional brain.
While it can help in the worst moments to know your best tools to control your emotional brain, reducing the body’s response day after day will take practice, practice, and more practice. You may have to practice using your tools for several days in a row before you feel better and weeks before you feel you have control. The good news is that once you feel you have control, you’ll find you get anxious less often.
Reducing anxiety isn’t easy, especially these days. You may wonder where you’ll find the time to practice using your tools but I’m going to argue that it has to be a priority or your emotional brain could take over and make it harder for you to help others. You can invite your family to participate, or at least give you the 10-15 minutes you need a couple of times of day. Remember to adjust your own mask first. It will be worth it. Stay well.