Anxiety is not just an emotional or cognitive experience but something that is happening on a biological level. Fortunately, there are practical things you can do for managing anxiety in your daily life.
I'll cover what anxiety truly is and 5 simple techniques you can use today to get relief from your anxiety.
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Anxiety: What it really is
Depending on who you ask, anxiety could be a number of things. I have something very specific in mind. But you may have heard that anxiety is
a chemical imbalance
a character defect, like not being strong enough
a hereditary condition
a survival response
the influence of the devil
From the point of view of the neuroscience of the Polyvagal Theory, anxiety is something much more specific and understandable. If you're brand new to the Polyvagal Theory, start with this page of free basic information and resources.
Anxiety is the Emotion. Sympathetic Flight is the biology.
Anxiety is the emotional experience of being stuck in a Polyvagal state of flight. If one can't be safe and connected with themself and others, like in a dangerous situation, then they shift into a mobile state to escape. This is called flight and is a sympathetic response.
If that person cannot act on that impulse to escape, then the impulse remains in their system and is experienced as anxiety. Or nervousness, worrying, anticipation and rumination.
When you experience anxiety, don't you kind of want to leave whatever situation you're in? You probably want to get away, to make space and get to safety. Somewhere predictable and less stimulating.
Getting relief from and managing anxiety
So getting relief from anxiety is not an issue of making it go away. Not exactly. That could be the natural result of my 5 tips, though. Instead, the goal is to utilize your body's natural potential for being in its safety state and/or using the activation of your flight state.
5 tips for relieving anxiety:
Anxiety relief needs to be through practical techniques you can implement quickly and easily when you need to. Things that can be done in your day to day life. Here are my 5 anxiety relievers with a bonus 6th:
create a safer environment
mindful and effective fidgeting
mindful and effective movement
use your breath
validate, normalize and give permission
the basics: rest, diet, exercise
Tip 0: the basics (a bonus but fundamental tip)
First, do the absolute bare-bones basics: eating a good enough diet, getting enough movement in your life and getting enough sleep. There's more (like connecting with others), but I'll just focus on these three.
Do you need to eat a completely healthy diet and never have junk food? I don't think so. Are you not allowed to stay up late and finish binge-watching something? I don't think so. And do you need to be going to the gym daily? I don't think so.
But having structure in your life can allow for predictability. Predictability is a cue of safety and can reduce the potential of existing in a Polyvagal flight state. Getting enough movement provides the possibility of mindfully experiencing cues of safety from your environment, like the chirps of birds or the warmth of sun on a walk.
Okay, now my 5 tips:
Tip 1: Create a safer environment
Your environment (even the one that you are in right now) affects your neuroception of safety or danger. Basically, your senses pick up on stimuli from the environment. These stimuli are sent to your brainstem, where it detects levels of safety or danger. The brainstem then shifts into or out of your safe & social state.
Therefore - increase your potential of existing in a safety state and reducing your flight activation by increasing the cues of safety that you're surrounded by.
I don't need you to overhaul your space, like painting your walls or buying new furniture. What I recommend in Building Safety Anchors is to identify one piece of your home environment to work on. I chose my home office. BSA students have chosen a corner of one room.
Things to do immediately to create a safer environment:
Basically, choose one space to begin with and increase the cues of safety. Here are some simple starting points:
clear up any clutter and crumbs
get the lighting to your liking
organize or tidy up
remove knick-knacks that don't provide you with a sense of calm
add knick-knacks or replace ones to increase feelings of calm
The same goes for your work environment. If you have control over something at your desk or in an office, make use of it! I've added lighting and fake plants to my non-private practice office spaces. Even if you can't buy something new, use the cues in the list above to start brainstorming.
The point here is not to feel happy. The point here is to create a space for yourself that allows you to breathe easier and reduce anxiety.
Tip 2: Use your anxiety with fidgets
If you're in a flight state and feeling anxious, then doesn't it make sense to actually use your body's energy for movement? I'm not recommending that you get up and run. I mean, you can. It's an option, sure. But it can be simpler and less potentially embarrassing. Fidgets!
Experiment from curiosity with fidgets
I recommend experimenting with various fidgets, but choose one or two that spark something within you. Just a general sense of "liking" it. It doesn't need to cause you happiness. It will probably be more of a feeling of relief. Or maybe soothing. Or even calm. That's what we're looking for. Something you can mindfully utilize, maybe even discreetly. It might be a fidget that you carry around in your pocket and squeeze during a meeting or at a pot-luck.
Fidgeting with curiosity can help to relieve the anxious feelings of your flight state. But you need to actually mindfully do so. Experience the fidget with as much mindfulness as you can.
Further learning on fidgets: I actually wrote an entire blog on fidgets that you can read here, including some recommended ones. My Unstucking Defensive States students have access to an exclusive video on how I and my clients use my fidgets from my private practice office.
Tip 3: Use your anxiety with movement
But hey, you might need more than fidgets. Maybe you need to get up and move. This is where a bigger type of movement might come in handy.
Relieve anxiety with mindful movement
There is no one right way to move to relieve anxiety. You will need to experiment within your movement potential from curiosity. Here's a few simple and practical options:
take a walk mindfully
flex and release your muscles mindfully
run or bike
All of these are bigger muscle movements that can help to release some flight energy in your system. As with fidgeting, do so mindfully. That means you need to actually allow yourself to be curious and experience what it's like to use your muscles.
So get up and move. When you do so, actually notice and experience what it's like for your muscles to move. Like if you're going out on a walk, experience your foot pushing off of the ground and your calf flexing, your knee bending and so on. One thing connects to another. Just notice these mini moments.
On top of this, mindfully notice your breath and what passive safety cues are in your environment. I recommend just noticing one thing at a time and soaking it in as best you can.
Tip 4: Using your breath
There's lots of breath work recommendations out there. I don't like to give a specific regimen for breathing.
It seems like your body is able to know how to breathe and what it needs in the moment. So one option is to just let it breathe the way that it already knows it needs to. But - you guessed it - allow it to do so mindfully. When you do, it gives your body permission to breathe the way it already knows how to and allows for self-regulation. This can allow some Polyvagal ladder climbing to happen naturally.
The other option with your breath is to be more directive of it.
Breathe while extending your exhale technique
When someone has more anxiety in their body, it may help to slow their exhale and activate the body's natural potential for calm through extending the exhale. Here's how to do so:
Take in a breath mindfully and into your belly if you can, but this isn't necessary. I recommend doing so through your nose if you can, buy also not necessary.
Pause ever so briefly, if comfortable.
Breathe out through your mouth like you're blowing out a birthday candle, but way slower. Basically, extend your exhale longer than you normally would and longer than your inhale.
Repeat. I like to trust that my body knows how and when to take the next inhale, so I don't rush it.
I think it's totally okay to breathe in the way your body wants to breathe in. If that's into your chest, that's fine. Just allow it mindfully, then extend your exhale. That's the key to this.
When you breathe out, it activates the parasympathetic system of your safety state. So extending the exhale allows the safety state to be present a bit longer. Let yourself settle into it as your body relaxes.
This simple breathing technique can be done anywhere, shouldn't be a big deal that other people notice.
Tip 5: Validate, Normalize, Give Permission
How about some top-down state regulation? I think going top-down is usually difficult, even though cognitive reframes tend to be where therapists and advice-givers go. Like if you just change the way you think, then it'll make you feel better.
But as you know, when you're anxious, it's probably very difficult to direct your thoughts where you want them to go. So just changing your thoughts is not a magic pill. Especially the deeper you get into anxiety. But there are a few potential cognitions that can be helpful.
3 thoughts to lower anxiety
These are three mind to body thoughts you can use to reduce your anxiety when the anxiety is manageable. The three cognitions are:
validation of your anxiety emotion
normalization of your anxiety context
giving permission for the anxiety to exist
Tip 5a: Validate your anxiety.
"Validating" just means acknowledging that the anxiety is real and is happening. Not judging it, not dismissing it. Not minimizing it. Just saying, "Okay, I am feeling anxiety. It's real." That's it. Just like if a friend were talking about their own anxiety and you validated it by saying, "Sounds like anxiety to me!"
Tip 5b: Normalize your anxiety.
"Normalizing" means making sense of your anxiety within the context of the moment and/or of your life. Basically answering this question - "Does your anxiety make sense?"
It could be about that specific moment. Like seeing someone from your past you really didn't want to be around again. You may have anxiety when you see them or hear their voice (this feeling is telling you to leave the situation). The anxious feeling makes sense and perhaps should even be acted on.
But maybe you hear the voice of someone that reminds you of that past other person. That person isn't there, but the voice is close enough to trigger the anxiousness that would accompany hearing or seeing that person. This also makes sense based on the larger context of your life.
You could also ask yourself if anyone else with your life context and in this specific situation would likely also feel the same sort of feeling. That's another form of normalization.
Tip 5c: Give your anxiety permission to be.
Since your anxiety makes sense (normal) and is real (valid), the next step is to simply give it permission to be there. I'm not saying you let it be there chaotically and ruminate. Remember, these top-down tips are for when the anxiety is not out of control. It's manageable.
Permission means you recognize the anxiety is there and isn't going anywhere. You simply let it be there while you also do something that helps your to anchor yourself in your Polyvagal state of safety and social engagement.
I like to recommend using a visualization. It might sound like this -
"I see you, anxiety. I can't force you to go away, so I'll stick you in my pocket and let you hang out with me while I [fill in your safety anchor here]."
Bring all the pieces together
These pieces individually can be very helpful. Do the tip(s) that you feel the most hope and potential in. But you can also bring them all together.
Here's how to do so when you notice a tolerable level of anxiety:
beforehand, create a space in your life that is providing passive cues of safety that you can turn to when needed (or just practice being in safety)
when you notice the tolerable anxiety: validate, normalize and give permission
go to your safety environment if needed to reduce environmental overwhelm
mindfully use a fidget or movement or mindfully use your breath
allow the anxious feeling to be present as you also anchor yourself in safety
if you are able to, be a witness to the internal sensations, images, emotions and cognitions (SSIEC)
If anxiety is a bigger problem for you, I recommend my Building Safety Anchors course. The priority of BSA is to strengthen the biological pathways responsible for feeling safety. These pathways are essential to being able to remain grounded in your body and not get caught up in the swirl of anxiety and panic.
Unstucking Defensive States is a great course for actually learning how to feel and self-regulate through anxiety. I don't recommend UDS unless you are able to stay anchored in your safety state through BSA.
Recommended further reading:
Why the Polyvagal Safety State is so Important
To reduce anxiety and the activation of the flight state, you need to increase safety and activation of the safety state. Click below to learn more.
Quotes from this blog:
"Anxiety is the Emotion. Sympatheitc flight is the biology."
"...getting relief from anxiety is not an issue of making it go away. Not exactly. That could be the natural result of my 5 tips though. Instead, the goal is to utilize your body's natural potential for being in its safety state and/or using the activation of your flight state."
"when you're anxious, it's probably very difficult to direct your thoughts where you want them to go. So just changing your thoughts is not a magic pill. Especially the deeper you get into anxiety."
Q: What is anxiety according to the Polyvagal Theory?
A: According to the Polyvagal Theory, anxiety is the emotional experience of being stuck in a state of flight. If one can't feel safe and connected with themselves and others, like in a dangerous situation, then they shift into a mobile state to escape. This is called flight and is a sympathetic response. If that person cannot act on that impulse to escape, then the impulse remains in their system and is experienced as anxiety, nervousness, worrying, anticipation, and rumination.
Q: What are some practical tips to relieve anxiety?
A: There are five practical tips mentioned in this blog to relieve anxiety. Besides basic self-care, create a safer environment to trigger passive cues of safety. Second, create a safer environment by increasing the cues of safety that you're surrounded by. Third, use fidgets to relieve the anxious feelings of your flight state. Fourth, use bigger muscle movements like walking or running to release some flight energy in your system. Fifth, validate, normalize, and give permission to your anxiety to be there while you anchor yourself in safety.
Q: What are the Building Safety Anchors and Unstucking Defensive States courses?
A: Building Safety Anchors (BSA) is a course that strengthens the biological pathways responsible for feeling safety. These pathways are essential to being able to remain grounded in your safety state and not get caught up in the swirl of anxiety and panic. Unstucking Defensive States (UDS) teaches how to feel and self-regulate through anxiety.
Justin wrote the book Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm and receives 150k monthly downloads as the host of the Stuck Not Broken podcast. He specializes in treating trauma and helps individuals get "unstuck" from their defensive states as a therapist and coach.