From "fight or flight" to "rest and digest"
July 7, 2017 1:02 PM   Subscribe

How do you interrupt the physical symptoms of anxiety and quickly relax?

I am an anxious person, and the spikes of anxiety sometime create undesirable physical symptoms, affecting my gastrointestinal system. This can lead to a nausea/anxiety spiral where I feel nauseated and then feel anxious about feeling nauseated and thus feel more nauseated, etc.

I'm looking for your best techniques for quickly relaxing the body and mind. Bonus for things that can be done in, say, the confines of an airplane seat.

I would prefer something that doesn't involve alcohol, marijuana, or medications. I have a beta blocker prescription, and benzos aren't really on the table for various reasons. I also take an SSRI.

posted by delight to Health & Fitness (29 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
This may or may not work for you, but I concentrate on my breathing and remind myself, "This is just anxiety. There's nothing real that can harm me." Acknowledging the feeling but also reminding myself that it isn't real is helpful.
posted by christinetheslp at 1:13 PM on July 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Not gonna help on an airplane but if you're home alone, try screaming, at full volume, for as longs as you can on a breath, for about 3-5 breaths.
That sort of re-sets a lot of things...
posted by SaltySalticid at 1:18 PM on July 7, 2017

I have anxiety issues. My therapist taught me some deep breathing exercises to help. Basically you breathe in for like 7 seconds then breathe out for 7. The deep breathing is mimicking how you breathe when you're calm, can kind of trick your brain into thinking everything is okay. It sounds dumb but it does help me when I remember to do it. You do it for like a minute or two at that rate.
posted by FireFountain at 1:20 PM on July 7, 2017 [6 favorites]

My therapist told me to breath deeply focusing on exhaling fully. I find that if I exhale as vigorously as I can, I will naturally start to inhale more deeply as well. I feel calmer within a minute or two.
posted by mai at 1:29 PM on July 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

In addition to my illnesses I get stomach issues and nausea AND anxiety - which gives me the same spiral that you get. When I'm actually feeling sick I take nausea meds (zofran).

Would something like Pepto be acceptable? Anxiety can just actually upset your tummy and pepto is gentle. You can get pills or chewables.

If you don't want ANY meds, then a mix of breathing and light snacks. Crackers or something gentle or sipping on water helps calm my stomach and give it something to do instead of gnawing on itself.
posted by Crystalinne at 1:33 PM on July 7, 2017

Lately it's really helping me to make tight fists and then splay my fingers out as hard and wide as I can and then go back to fists, repeating 4-5 times. I don't know why it works, but it does. It also helps to get me out of bed in the morning when I reeeeally want to keep lying there with my eyes shut.
posted by something something at 1:35 PM on July 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Deep breathing is great, as others have said. One other thing I really like doing is refocusing my mental energy using touch. My therapist recommended I carry something with an interesting texture or feel, like a glassy-feeling rock, or a metal key that's cold to the touch. When I'm feeling those anxious, floaty/disconnected, nauseous feelings, it helps to make me feel grounded. Sounds kinda BS at first, I suppose, but I like it. I use my dad's high school ring, which is a nice combo of cold metal, smooth texture, heavy weight, and personally meaningful :)

Also, cold water run over the inside of your wrists, or, if you have the resources available, mammalian dive reflex.
posted by rachaelfaith at 1:36 PM on July 7, 2017 [7 favorites]

Breathing is the go-to answer here. I do "square breathing" sometimes, where I breathe in for a count of 4, hold for 4, breathe out for 4, and hold for 4, sometimes visualizing drawing a square. This resets some physical stuff and gives my brain something to do as well. Alternate nostril breathing - though it looks really funny - also very much helps me to reset.

You can try doing a few small movements, like making circles with your head, rolling your shoulders up and back, or circling your wrists. This can sometimes interrupt the tension.

If you have the opportunity, it can really help to speak to someone, especially someone familiar and safe. Just a 2 minute phone call can help you feel less isolated in the anxiety spiral.

Mindfulness exercises can help. You might this one: notice 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you touch, 2 things you smell, and 1 you taste. Take a sip of water and feel it in your mouth, feel your muscles move as you swallow, etc. Just getting into your body a bit.

If you're too in your head to focus on breathing you can also play little mindfulness games, like choosing a color and looking for 5 things in your environment that are that color. Basically any mix of light distraction, mindfulness, getting in your body, and breathing.
posted by rabbitbookworm at 1:38 PM on July 7, 2017 [8 favorites]

N-thing breathing.
Any type of focus on the breathing will work, but I swear by this breathing exercise from Dr. Andrew Weill, "4-7-8 Breathing".
I find that if I used to get an anxiety attack, and did this breathing, I was so focused on counting that I kind of forgot that I was also supposed to be having an anxiety attack.

I also found that EFT, or "tapping" helped a great deal, but that might be another story for another day, because you might feel self-conscious tapping your fingers around your face, chest and under your arm.
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 1:50 PM on July 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

So, I've found that breathing can make me feel more anxious. Maybe I'm trying to breathe too deeply right out of the gate? Does your body eventually get used to it?
posted by delight at 1:53 PM on July 7, 2017

Are you breathing from your diaphragm? Taking deep breaths into your upper chest may heighten your anxiety, yes. Also, I recommend focusing on the exhale more than the inhale. When I'm extra anxious I sometimes pile breaths on top of each other without totally exhaling them, which leads to tightness and pain in my chest. The counting is at least half of the trick with breathing, because it gives your mind something other than anxiety to focus on.
posted by rabbitbookworm at 1:58 PM on July 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

The only kind of breathing that calms me is the square breathing described above by rabbitbookworm--I agree it's probably the counting aspect that helps. And yes, check to see whether you are inhaling and exhaling with equal depth.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:11 PM on July 7, 2017

+1 for breathing from your diaphragm -- if you google "belly breathing," that's the kind of breathing you want -- if you breathe into your chest, it can actually exacerbate anxiety symptoms. Belly breathing directly stimulates your vagus nerve, which triggers "rest and digest".

In an airplane situation, i've also found that ice can really help break you out of an anxiety spiral -- on one long turbulent flight, i ended up putting it down my bra, behind my ears, pretty much anywhere that would shock my system and break the spiral.
posted by ukdanae at 2:14 PM on July 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think nausea brings its own inherent physical spike of anxiety -- your body wants you to be alert and ready to bolt to the bathroom. I agree it's worth trying an approach where you also do something to address the nausea. Sometimes for me a hard sugary candy works wonders in minutes.
posted by mrmurbles at 2:25 PM on July 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

One of the most important aspects of these breathing exercises is the long slow exhale. Taking deep breaths in but exhaling rapidly is a kind of hyperventilation -- you'll excrete carbon dioxide too fast, which reduces the concentration of bicarbonate ions in your blood, which makes your blood less acidic, which interferes with other parts of your body's biochemistry and makes you feel sick in various ways.

This is called respiratory alkalosis, and it's the root cause of many of the physical symptoms of anxiety.

So definitely do the breathing exercises, but make sure you spend as much time or more on the hold-and-exhale parts as you do on the deep-breath-in parts.
posted by a mirror and an encyclopedia at 2:27 PM on July 7, 2017 [7 favorites]

You'd have to preload it if you're on a plane, but I've had great success with this gif for breathing. There's a whole genre of them if you don't like that one, but the concept is the same: match your breathing to the rhythm of the gif, and then you don't have to worry about going at the right tempo or counting or anything but the breath and the vaguely pleasant shapes. You might have to do it for several minutes sometimes, but I've seen people stop panic attacks by breathing with the gif. Keep it open in a tab on your phone so it's always ready, or just google for "breathing gifs."
posted by lilac girl at 2:44 PM on July 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

Taking a shower, or if that fails, even just washing or rinsing your face and hands with cool water might help. On a plane you can tell the flight attendant you're feeling queasy and ask if they could bring you an alcohol wipe or a cool damp cloth. Run it over your wrists and face.

Food and drink: try eating a banana. It's easy on the digestive system, plus it's supposed to have calming effects. Not sure how well the latter is proven, scientifically speaking, but it's can't hurt. If you have access to a teapot, this is a great time to break it out and make yourself some (decaf) ginger tea to sip slowly while doing absolutely nothing else. Pouring tea can't be rushed, which I find really calming, and ginger is good for nausea.

I find reading a familiar novel in the form of a physical book, and deliberately avoiding screens for a while, helps me calm my mind and my breathing follows. Good luck!
posted by prewar lemonade at 2:51 PM on July 7, 2017

1. Breathe through your nose only, not your mouth. You can't really hyperventilate through your nose.

2. If an aspect of your anxiety is that you feel like you can't breathe, suck on a cough drop with menthol, which makes it feel like you're breathing in more and cooler air.

3. Drink water for the same effect.

These three things are my immediate go-to method for feeling calmer when I feel a panic attack or major anxiety coming on.
posted by limeonaire at 4:10 PM on July 7, 2017

When you're anxious your body tenses and you may not even be aware of exactly where it is tensing. Deliberately tensing and then relaxing your muscles starting from your toes and moving muscle group by muscle group up to your face can help bring awareness to the tension and relax it.
posted by Waiting for Pierce Inverarity at 4:16 PM on July 7, 2017

I get nausea related to anxiety, so I can totally relate to your problem. Most of the time, what helps me the most is sitting upright with some herbal tea. In general, staying hydrated helps, as does having saltines to munch on. Dehydration or hunger can make nausea worse, and when you're already feeling queasy, it can be hard to want to get any liquid or food. Tea (such as chamomile or ginger) is warm and pretty soothing, and saltines are small enough that you can just have one at a time if necessary.

I do have a prescription for Zofran, and it has helped a lot, especially when I was going through an especially bad period of anxiety and related nausea. It's not addictive like a benzo is, so as far as medication goes, it may be a good option. That said, I avoid taking it as much as possible so I don't rely on it, even though my doctor says I shouldn't worry about that (I think the last time I took Zofran was probably six months ago, and I get anxiety-nausea several times a week).

Ultimately, I think different people manage this sort of thing in different ways. It may take a little experimentation to find what works best for you, but you'll find something that helps.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 5:20 PM on July 7, 2017

Breathing made me more anxious and I realized it was because I was timing breaths to heartbeats which made me superaware of every fluctuation in my heart rate. I fixed it by breathing to external cues (not counting) or doing something external like feeling your skin/ribcage expand and contract to get the focus outside of my chest.
posted by platypus of the universe at 5:42 PM on July 7, 2017

What helps me is to drown out surrounding sounds and do something that is kind of mindless but fun and engaging enough to be distracting. So, listening to a white noise loop through over the ear headphones, and doing something like online window shopping, playing a game, crossword puzzle, or sudoku, or something like that.
posted by day late at 6:10 PM on July 7, 2017

If I need to quickly redirect my brain, I do a short version of a sort of meditation/breathing called a"body scan." Airplane seats are one of the places this is most helpful for me, actually. Unlike a "clear your mind" sort of meditation or "count your breaths" sort of deep breathing, a body scan requires you to keep your mind pretty firmly on focusing on different parts of your body in a certain order, and I find that very helpful. Having a specific consuming task to focus my brain on pulls it away from whatever has it currently in a tizzy.

There are a ton of different ways to do body scans, some of which involve specific ways to breathe and others don't, and they come in all kinds of different lengths from a minute to an hour. If you search YouTube for that term you'll find a bunch, maybe play some 5-10 minute ones for yourself and try to find one where the narrator/music/whatever is soothing for you? (You can do it without guidance too, but I'd recommend letting someone talk you through it a few times first.) If you can find something that seems helpful to you, I would bookmark that and try following along with the guided body scan sometime when you're anxious to see if it helps you any.

YMMV, for sure, but I have Plane Fear that not even benzos totally solve, and learning to walk myself through a body scan for 5 minutes or so during takeoff and landing has been a lifesaver.
posted by Stacey at 6:49 PM on July 7, 2017

Eating a bit of fatty, salty food can help for certain types of anxiety-based nausea. For some people the feeling of a empty stomach can cause anxiety, which leads to nausea, which leads to extra nausea because you're focused on your empty tummy now.
posted by SakuraK at 7:47 PM on July 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Regarding breathing, I've found it works best for me when I've already been doing something on a regular basis that involves deep breathing and leaves me with a relaxed body (for example yoga). If I've been doing it regularly, my body seems to get a sort of muscle memory of how it feels to be relaxed and breathing that way can invoke it pretty easily.

When I'm out of practice, though, it gets a lot harder and I can't always get my body to remember how to relax. So my advice would be to find some relaxing activity to practice on a regular basis to the point where you can start to relax pretty automatically.

On a different note, if I can afford it then escapism and distraction can be very useful - things like listening to very involving music and possibly singing along (which forces a kind of breathing), or alternately using music that I associate with relaxation or tiredness, or listening to or watching something that consistently makes me laugh a lot. You can build up a pile of tried-and-true things to listen to in case of panic.
posted by trig at 11:37 PM on July 7, 2017

I've found that the quickest way for me to reset after an anxiety attack is to play a mindless video game like Don't Starve.
posted by Jacqueline at 4:59 AM on July 8, 2017

Seconding the above recommendations to focus on the exhale if you are doing breathing exercises. What works for
me is to exhale slowly and fully until you feel like all the air has left your lungs. The inhale is more like allowing your lungs to fill back up naturally, and not a forced inhale.

I sometimes use a 4-7-8 breathing exercise. (I first found this as a recommendation to help fall asleep; it works great for that too.)
posted by gennessee at 9:37 AM on July 8, 2017

Woooooah, I was just thinking about posting a very similar question! I have this issue as well (health and anxiety intertwined) and was just on an airplane today. Some of the answers above are great. I sometimes tell myself "You're okay" or "You're totally fine", which is oddly calming. Drinking water helps me too, if you have some available. Lots of luck to you- I feel you so hard on this.
posted by sucre at 11:40 AM on July 8, 2017

breathing BUT...don't work at controlling your breathing in any way. observe your breathing. special attention on the out breath.
posted by j_curiouser at 1:15 PM on July 8, 2017

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