One of the best ways, in my experience, to manage anxiety is through biofeedback exercises. I have been a highly anxious and sensitive person as you likely know if you’ve been reading here for a bit. I don’t think there’s a cure for anxiety; I really believe it’s just how I’m wired. But actively managing anxiety and working on healthy coping mechanisms can making living with anxiety totally a doable. There is so much outside of what I can control, but with these strategies, I can control (to a certain extent) how I react.
(This is coming from a personal experience, I’m obviously not a doctor of any kind.)
There are times when I can pinpoint exactly what set my “panic button” off and there are other times when it seemingly comes out of nowhere, like the button is just poorly wired. Because I’m so used to contributing a racing heart to anxiety, my brain can read a racing heart as feeling anxious instead of realizing it’s from, I don’t know, going for a run. Logically, I know it’s from running… but there’s just something off (that’s the best way I can describe it) and the racing heart can make me feel anxious. If you’ve experienced anxiety, maybe you understand what I’m saying. It’s weird! And often makes no sense! (It’s also why one of the worst things you can say to someone panicking is “relax”– it’s like, yes, if I could relax I would.) Over the years I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s just something I have to deal with and, while it doesn’t define who I am, it is a part of what makes me me.
My mom used to use “biofeedback” with me all the time. I actually thought for a while it was her own made up word because I had only ever heard her say it. But it’s a thing! And not only is it a thing, it’s a highly effective thing, especially the more you practice it. I use these specific techniques for anxiety, but you can find ways to use biofeedback for a myriad of ailments. It’s worth looking into. Again, it’s not a cure, but it’s a management tool. Very succinctly: “Biofeedback is a self‐regulation technique through which patients learn to voluntarily control what were once thought to be involuntary body processes.” (source) Specifically for me, it’s a way to lower my heart rate, manage my blood pressure, and manage my adrenaline flow. If you were to go to a biofeedback clinic, you’d be hooked up to machines measuring your body’s response, but I fully believe you can do this at home without needing to be hooked to a machine. (Though I’ve used my Apple Watch to track heart rate changes during/after a panic attack and the data is super interesting, ha.)
There are a ton of ways you can practice techniques with biofeedback, but here is what works best for me. I think it’s worth noting that it can feel weird at first… so if you feel silly, don’t worry, you’re doing it right. The worst of my anxiety is usually triggered by something control related, so I especially like that with biofeedback practices, you are taking control of your body’s response. Even the small act of doing something can help alleviate a little bit of the mental stress because I’m actively trying to regain control instead of just letting my brain/body go.
ALTERNATE NOSTRIL BREATHING: This is the weirdest one but I find it to be the most effective. I love it for a lot of reasons and once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature. It can look weird if you’re doing it in public, but I’ve done it on an airplane before and no one batted an eye 🤷🏻♀️ Take your pointer finger and thumb on your dominant hand and make an “L” (like loser as if whatever), your thumb will go on one side of your nose and your pointer finger on the other. Push your thumb against one nostril so it closes, breathe in as much as you can through your open nostril, hold that breath and simultaneously release your thumb and plug your other nostril (the one you just breathed through) with your pointer finger. Release the breath fully through the thumb-side nostril. Breathe back up through the thumb side, hold, switch fingers, and release from the pointer finger side. Here’s a video demonstration (I use my pointer finger but it’s the same idea!).
4-7-8 BREATHING: This is also a breathing exercise, but you can do this one a little more discreetly. The official way to do it is to breathe in for four seconds, hold the breath for seven seconds, and release the breath for eight seconds. I had a therapist have me do 5-5-5 (in for five, hold for five and out for five) so I’ve stuck with that personally.
PROGRESSIVE MUSCLE RELAXATION: I do this every single night to fall asleep. You start in your toes and slowly work your way up your body relaxing every part. I really have to focus to get muscle groups to relax but the moment the tension releases, it feels so good. So I go: toes, feet, ankles, calves, knees, thighs, etc. Right up to my forehead! I find that the best way for me to get my muscles to release and relax is to take a breath in and on the exhale picture the body part relaxing. It takes practice!!
HAND OVER HEART: I don’t know what the technical term for this is or even if it’s an official technique, but it works for me! I do this laying down completely flat or sitting up with a straight back. I put one hand on my heart so I can feel the thumping of my heartbeat…. then I put my other hand on my belly. The key is to try to breathe deeply into your diaphragm so your chest stays level and your stomach is what moves out with the breath. I count the breaths doing this one for the breath in, two for the breath out, three for in, four for out, up to ten and then I reset and do it again. With your hand on your heart, you should start to feel your heart rate decrease which is of course reassuring when you’re feeling panicky and I like that your hand rests on your heart like a little personal support system.