I'm A Neuroscientist: These Are The Habits I Swear By To Ease Everyday Anxiety
We know some anxiety is essential—evolutionarily, that nervous energy is meant to protect you from potential predators—but in this day and age, anxiety tends to feel less than protective, sometimes even debilitating. What changed? Well, according to neuroscientist and author of Good Anxiety Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D., the problem is that the volume of everyday anxiety has reached sky-high limits, so we're unable to concentrate on what those feelings are actually trying to say.
That said, to bring back that protective purpose and make your anxiety work for you, Suzuki says you need to learn how to reduce the volume. "To try and get back to that protective, productive element of anxiety, we first need to learn how to turn it down," she shares on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast.
You might not be able to mute anxiety entirely (nor do you want to!), but Suzuki offers some tips to muffle the noise:
Take a deep breath.
Sounds simple, but that's exactly what makes it worth your while, says Suzuki. See, anxiety activates the fight-or-flight portion of your nervous system; when you engage in deep and rhythmic breathing, you activate the vagus nerve and turn on your parasympathetic nervous system—which, in turn, can pump the brakes on anxiety.
"Breathe slowly in, hold, breathe slowly out," advises Suzuki. "That helps activate that de-stressing part of your nervous system." (A solid exercise, but you can find other breathwork techniques for anxiety here.) It's that easy, and you can utilize the practice anywhere you please.
"I love it because it works even in the middle of an anxiety-provoking conversation," Suzuki continues. "Nobody can tell you're doing it, and it's a wonderful way to calm yourself down."
Move your body.
Another simple trick that has a significant effect: physical activity. We've discussed it once or twice before: Exercise gets your heart pumping, which helps deliver more oxygen to your brain, and multiple studies1 have found that a well-oxygenated brain can help manage anxiety and depression2. "Every time you move your body, you are releasing dopamine, serotonin,3 [and] adrenaline in your brain," Suzuki explains. "It's like giving your brain a bubble bath of fantastic neurochemicals that make you feel better."
While some good ol' cardio is well and good, Suzuki says even just standing up and walking around when you feel anxious can do the trick. "Studies show that even a single bout of exercise4—going out for a walk, walking around your dining room table, walking up and down the stairs—can decrease anxiety and depression levels," she notes.
So for another more immediate way to turn the volume down on anxiety: Simply stand up and walk around. "Maybe you can't take a walk in the middle of an anxiety-provoking conversation, but you can walk to that conversation, get yourself nice and calm, and get all those good neurotransmitters going so that you go in with a non-anxious attitude," she adds.
Alas, turning the volume down on anxiety is not enough. You can't just bury these feelings and wish them away—rather, Suzuki says to dissect them. "The next step after turning down the volume is to tune in to those uncomfortable emotions that anxiety brings," she explains. After all, breathwork and exercise (while helpful in the moment) might not be enough to completely banish your anxiety.
Turning down the volume does make the process easier (you can't think clearly when anxiety is too loud), but the key is to get curious about those anxious thoughts: "Learn what those emotions are telling you," says Suzuki. "What wisdom do they have? What are they telling you about your values that maybe you didn't recognize because you were too busy trying to just get rid of them?" She adds, "There's a lot of value and information in those uncomfortable emotions."
In other words, a little mindfulness can go a long way: Getting to the root of these feelings and deciphering what they're trying to tell you is ultimately the key to breaking free of them in the first place. "We have this beautiful cavalcade of human emotions—they're all useful for something," Suzuki says. "That's another very powerful way anxiety can be good, to teach you about yourself."
We're not going to tell you that overcoming anxiety is easy—it takes time, no doubt, but it's crucial to turn the volume down before you dive into the work. That way, says Suzuki, you can harness the power of your anxiety and finally use it as a force for good.
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.