This morning, I woke up with an upset stomach. As a result, I became quite anxious. I worried about all of the possible reasons why I felt the way I did, and initially, I was unconscious of how I was making my physical sensations worse.
As a result of regularly practicing noticing what's happening in my body and mind and my goal of shifting to a more rational or wise state of mind when I become emotionally dysregulated, I realized that in order to begin to feel better, I needed to notice what was happening in my body.
In doing so, I noticed that I was holding an incredible amount of tension in my abdominal area (tightening it out of a fear response), tensing my shoulders, and breathing in a shallow way. (It is AMAZING what you will notice that you had no awareness of before when you deliberately set out to do this. Try it next time you're feeling upset.)
The amazing thing about the inter-connectedness between mind and body is that simply beginning to notice our physical experience, (although it may initially have the opposite effect) can begin to calm us down. As we become aware of how we may be contributing to our body sending distress signals to the mind that "something is wrong" through holding unnecessary tension or breathing rapidly, we can adjust these issues to send new messages to the brain.
We can reassure our brain and nervous system that we are not in any real danger. We can release the tension in our bodies either by simply becoming aware of them and letting go or by doing something a little bit more in-depth, like a guided meditation. Muscle tension and release exercises work wonderfully for this, too. Here are some that I recommend.
The easiest and one of the most effective go-to tools that I've found is adjusting the breath. Become mindful of your breathing pattern, then deliberately, kindly, and gently begin to slow it down. As you hyperventilate less, messages get sent to the brain that say that it's okay to calm down.
I also recommend self-soothing through self-talk. Reminding myself that "No mood or feeling is permanent" and that "this too shall pass" significantly helped reduce my feelings of anxiety.
I effectively used these skills this morning. How do I know? I'm feeling quite better and did not make matters worse by acting in any way that I would later regret. I took care of myself and began to identify what might be at the root of the episode this morning. As Dr. Marsha Linehan says, everything is caused.
I am going through a lot of change right now with the transition of this blog, finals at school, a new book in progress, and issues in my personal life. I woke up this morning feeling some guilt and shame over some feelings and thoughts I've recently had - very human thoughts, but because I experienced the fear and shame, I believe this had a profound impact on how my stomach felt this morning. I am also graduating after THREE years from DBT group tomorrow. I am excited about the accomplishment and feel that it is the right time, but I still have some sadness, especially around leaving a group of women with whom I have grown quite connected in connection with learning and practicing the skills over the years.
So, which came first - the chicken or the egg? Did I have a little stomach bug or upset and then get anxious, or was I anxious first and then had gastrointestinal symptoms as a result of the anxiety? It's hard to say what caused what, and at this point, (and even in the throw of the intensity of the symptoms) it doesn't matter.
What matters is empowering ourselves by taking the control that is available to us through skillful response.
Can you relate to the experience of anxiety? What skills do you practice to help you cope effectively and not make matters worse? What are the challenges?
As always, your comments are welcomed and encouraged.
Thanks for reading.
PS If you want to learn more about the science of the mind body connection when it comes to anxiety and how we can intervene in the process, check out this post: