You Can’t Be Anxious AND Relaxed at the Same Time

During COVID-19, so many of us have been anxiety-ridden. Our children, too. We have experienced anxiety surrounding our health status,  the future of work, learning at school and navigating life as we once thought we knew it. I know for certain that I am one of the many people whose heads have been spinning around in the midst of the uncertainty at this time. Trying to adapt, recover and respond to stress in healthy ways.

With social distancing and the wearing of masks and gloves, being social beings has operationally morphed into unfamiliar territory for which we have little personal reference. If the rules have changed, what are the new rules of engagement? How do we maintain or, for young people especially, establish meaningful relationships with others? Everyone seems to be on edge.

With social distancing, we have to practically yell at one another to have conversations. With masks covering our faces, which can disguise the visual cues that we use to decipher communication or decode verbal messages, how are we sure about what people really mean or feel when speaking to us? How are we supposed to go to work, if still employed at this time, and leave our children at home alone all day, when most childcare facilities are shut down?

The anxiety can be quite intense. How do the bills get paid, so that the electricity and the gas stays on? What about the mortgage or rent, car payments….groceries? Stimulus payments have been temporary band-aids, lasting but a few months during this pandemic health crisis. We have all been surviving in our own common, but uniquely stressful situations. These myriad of concerns all intersect with one another, and can work us down to our ‘very last nerve’.

Then, when someone notices your stress, you are told that “you should relax”Have a drink.” That approach can backfire, become problematic, and produce even greater stress, if it becomes our automatic ‘go-to’, as a means of daily coping or escaping the ‘noise’. blck girl

Relaxation can sound like a luxury, but it is a necessary state of being. It is unhealthy to spend most of our waking hours in a constant state of hyper-arousal. On edge, body tense. The impact on the physical body, triggers our brain to operate in what is called, our ‘fight or flight’ response mechanism. It is our body’s way of responding to ‘anxiety’- those external factors[like stress] that disrupt our internal balance[‘homeostasis]. In 1956, Hans Selye described three stages in this stress response, as the General Adaptation Syndrome. The stages are: alarm, resistance and then exhaustion. Think about it and the way we feel when we are stressed. When we do emerge from it, we are exhausted-spent.

So, how do we disrupt anxiety? Behavioral breathing techniques is one way.

Behavioral breathing techniques can reduce stress and focus our attention on the present. Not the external factors that cause our stress. Rather, the enhancement of our ability to focus attention on ourselves, our internal processes. Even before you can feel gratitude or count your blessings, you have to be present first. Relaxed, without distraction.

As an alternative to your fight or flight response, activate your relaxation response. Reciprocal inhibition tells us that we can’t be anxious and relaxed at the same time.

When we are anxious, you notice that you will breathe through your chest, thus allowing less oxygen in the bloodstream to circulate our body and  into the brain. The key is to breathe from the diaphragm– deep and slow breathing from your belly.  The diaphragm is the largest muscle separating the lungs from many other internal organs, and makes the lungs contract and expand.

Combining diaphragmatic breathing with other relaxation techniques, like mindful relaxation, we can become less anxious. It is at that point of relaxation and full presence, in the moment, that we can begin to make more sense of this ever-changing world. We can then mindfully tackle the uncertainties and put things into perspective. In fact, once relaxed, we can count our blessings and feel and express gratitude.

photo of woman laying on ground

The most basic way to do mindful breathing is simply to focus your attention on your breath, the inhale and exhale. You can do this while standing, but ideally you’ll be sitting or even lying in a comfortable position. Your eyes may be open or closed, but you may find it easier to maintain your focus if you close your eyes. It can help to set aside a designated time for this exercise, but it can also help to practice it when you’re feeling particularly stressed or anxious. Experts believe a regular practice of mindful breathing can make it easier to do it in difficult situations.

Sometimes, especially when trying to calm yourself in a stressful moment, it might help to start by taking an exaggerated breath: a deep inhale through your nostrils (3 seconds), hold your breath (2 seconds), and a long exhale through your mouth (4 seconds). Otherwise, simply observe each breath without trying to adjust it; it may help to focus on the rise and fall of your chest or the sensation through your nostrils. As you do so, you may find that your mind wanders, distracted by thoughts or bodily sensations. That’s OK. Just notice that this is happening and gently bring your attention back to your breath.

Try doing this:

  1. Find a relaxed, comfortable position. You could be seated on a chair or on the floor on a cushion. Keep your back upright, but not too tight. Hands resting wherever they’re comfortable. Tongue on the roof of your mouth or wherever it’s comfortable.
  2. Notice and relax your body. Try to notice the shape of your body, its weight. Let yourself relax and become curious about your body seated here—the sensations it experiences, the touch, the connection with the floor or the chair. Relax any areas of tightness or tension. Just breathe.
  3. Tune into your breath. Feel the natural flow of breath—in, out. You don’t need to do anything to your breath. Not long, not short, just natural. Notice where you feel your breath in your body. It might be in your abdomen. It may be in your chest or throat or in your nostrils. See if you can feel the sensations of breath, one breath at a time. When one breath ends, the next breath begins.
  4. Now as you do this, you might notice that your mind may start to wander. You may start thinking about other things. If this happens, it is not a problem. It’s very natural. Just notice that your mind has wandered. You can say “thinking” or “wandering” in your head softly. And then gently redirect your attention right back to the breathing.
  5. Stay here for five to seven minutes. Notice your breath, in silence. From time to time, you’ll get lost in thought, then return to your breath.
  6. After a few minutes, once again notice your body, your whole body, seated here. Let yourself relax even more deeply and then offer yourself some appreciation for doing this practice today.

This can be your much needed “Calgon, take me away!” break each day; to be totally present, mindfully relaxed, focused on you and your well-being. Make it a daily habit! Once again, you can’t be anxious and relaxed at the same time!

Try it and tell me what you think.


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