Nausea, cold sweats, shivering, heart palpitations, sleeplessness, dizziness. These symptoms may sound like the flu, but they’re actually the very real and potentially debilitating physical signs of anxiety. Studies have long shown that our minds and bodies are intimately connected, and it’s possible to feel the physical symptoms of anxiety long before its emotional toll kicks in. Fortunately, there are ways to manage the physical discomfort that anxiety can bring and reduce its psychological impact.
We asked Elizabeth Wiener, an educator who lives with depression and anxiety, and Lisa Brookman, a clinical psychotherapist based in Montreal, for their unique perspectives on how to deal. Together, they form WiseWomenCanada.com.
Elizabeth says… Exercise is key
When I was 24, I visited my family doctor because of chronic nausea, dizziness, headaches, insomnia and a persistent feeling of impending doom. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and sought treatment from a psychologist who provided me with tools to manage my racing thoughts. But for me, the physical effects I experienced were intolerable, and I was desperate for relief. With professional guidance and practice, I’ve learned it’s possible to control and ease the physical discomfort of anxiety.
1. One of my favourite tools is exercise. A brisk walk, a run, a spin class or a yoga practice will produce endorphins and deplete cortisol, both of which temper those unpleasant physical sensations. I’ve made it a habit to move my body at least once a day.
2. When I’m particularly anxious, my breathing becomes rapid and shallow, which only exacerbates my panicky feelings. To deal with this, I inhale and exhale deeply a few times, focusing on my breath. This calms me enough to practice 4-7-8 breathing: Inhale deeply for a count of four, hold for a count of seven and slowly exhale for a count of eight. After a few cycles, you’ll feel more grounded and prepared to use some of your other anxiety-fighting tools. You might also want to try an app to help manage your anxiety and remind you to take regular breathers.
3. One of the worst effects of my anxiety is on my digestive system. Nausea and diarrhea often occur before I even realize that my anxiety is getting out of control. To combat this, I avoid trigger foods, like caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and refined carbohydrates. This also helps prevent the racing heart that often accompanies heightened anxiety. And don’t miss these 10 things every psychologist wishes you’d do.
Lisa says… Learn to reframe negative thoughts
Cognitive behavioural therapy has long been acknowledged as the gold standard in treating anxiety. It helps people to reframe their negative thoughts and provides coping skills for when those thoughts arise. My goal is to help my clients with their anxious thoughts and the difficult physical sensations that accompany anxiety (once they’ve seen their family doctor to rule out any possible underlying medical condition). Some strategies I like to use are:
1. Distress tolerance, which is a component of dialectical behaviour therapy, comprises several helpful coping techniques for dealing with the physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety. One of these encourages clients to accept their sensations without judgment (i.e. avoiding statements such as “I shouldn’t be feeling this way”) and to avoid resisting them. Accepting present feelings, no matter how uncomfortable, is the first step to dealing with and managing them.
2. Relaxation techniques are particularly useful in easing the physical discomforts of anxiety. One of these, progressive muscle relaxation, involves clenching and tensing various body parts, and then gradually releasing the constriction. Starting at the feet and gradually working up the body, PMR is a very effective tool in managing the muscle tension, accelerated heart rate and shortness of breath that often accompany heightened anxiety.
3. Distraction is an underrated tool for managing physical anxiety. I advise my clients to engage in a calming activity like reading, listening to relaxing music, or talking to a close friend, when their symptoms feel overwhelming.
Next, check out the 13 things psychologists wish you knew about happiness.
Together, Elizabeth and Lisa form WiseWomenCanada.com