How to deal with anxiety that's held in the body
December 8, 2017 8:30 AM   Subscribe

I hold anxiety in my body. Sometimes I feel anxious and it's in my body and my mind, sometimes I don't think I'm anxious but my body still tenses as if I were (maybe I am.) Logic and thought-exercises like CBT (and talk therapy) have certainly been helpful for my anxiety in certain ways but seem to have a limited ability to help with this aspect. Looking for other/likely more physical strategies and perspectives.

I know the US is a mess right now but this is sort of a chronic/lifetime thing for me vs a reaction to the constant background stress of the country falling apart or whatever.

I already use or have tried and been somewhat helped by:
-being in a warm environment (being cold makes my muscles tense and makes me feel more anxious)
-weighted blanket
-hot tubs
-cuddling (possibly the most helpful)
-trying to get enough sleep
-avoiding simple carbs/smoothing them out with some fat & protein
-using an exfoliating cloth in the shower

-SSRIs don't seem to have been very helpful. Buspar is maybe helpful.

I realize this is a pretty big arsenal of things but it hasn't done enough so I'm looking for more/better ideas or even just good things to read about this.
posted by needs more cowbell to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
For me I have found the only way to get myself "unwound" and to not be a ball of tense muscle is really really vigorous exercise multiple times a week. Especially at the end of the day, going to bed completely exhausted with nothing on your mind but the need for sleep does wonders.
For me this looks like either hot yoga, trail running or kickboxing. But really any exercise that pushes you hard enough that you can "leave your day at the door" may be a big help. I did a lot of easy/low-key workouts for a long time but they never brought me much peace, personally. I have to be at my edge to get anywhere.

I'd also recommend dedicating a few hours a day to a no-screens rule. I'm trying to do this because I literally clench my jaw, neck, and hands when I'm watching or reading the news, and while it's nice to be aware, I've realised I gotta put my own wellbeing first and my brain does a good enough job scaring me without any outside help. This has actually been harder than the working out 5 days a week thing. But having some time without a constant stream of stressful information has been great.
posted by InkDrinker at 8:47 AM on December 8, 2017 [6 favorites]

InkDrinker speaks truth on both counts. Vigorous exercise is the do-this answer; and screens are the avoid-that answer.

Exercise: I'm not talking about walking or swimming. I'm talking run til you feel like you might puke, lift til your muscles are trembling. If no gym then try a home weights workout. The effect is lasting throughout the day and, bonus, will also make you sleep beautifully.

And absolutely stay off the screens as much as possible in your leisure time. The Internet being what it is means you can't avoid horrible stuff being beamed at you even if you thought you were just looking up recipes.

Seriously. This works. Good luck.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:53 AM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yes to exercise, but I've really found that having a purpose to the movement helps a ton. If you have access to low or no cost dance classes, or even ytvideos, a buddy and a big mirror to check your form, it really directs your energy in a different way than "I need to go for a run now because I'm stressed"
Improvement happens pretty quickly so you get the burst of success feelings, you end up focusing on your body movement without brainspace to worry about everything else, and there is an end result of doing something cool and maybe beautiful that your body couldn't do all the benefits of a normal stress reducing workout!
posted by zinful at 8:58 AM on December 8, 2017

Certain types of cannabis are pretty great at tackling this on their own, but certain types of cannabis coupled with mild-to-medium levels of physical activity can be phenomenal at this. I've found that 1:1 ratios of CBD to THC, even in really, really small doses do the trick without being balls-out stoned or anything. Clearly YMMV depending on your states labeling laws and level of prohibition.
posted by furnace.heart at 9:03 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

posted by fairmettle at 9:12 AM on December 8, 2017

Stretching and deep breathing exercises help me a great deal. I don't have a program to recommend, since my program is put together out of exercises I've learned after a lifetime of theater and music training. However, if you go to YouTube and search for stretching and deep breathing for relaxation, stretching and breathing warmups, or similar terms, I'm sure you'll find many useful videos. They don't require a lot of space, and you can do as much or as little as you have time for, so it's pretty easy to fit them in whenever and wherever you have a few free minutes.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:43 AM on December 8, 2017

I have this exact same problem -- even when I'm not actively going through an anxiety spiral in my brain, my body can be in a near-constant state of being ready to fight or flee.

Meditation wasn't on your list. Fitting in 10 minutes a day for a guided mindfulness meditation really helps me. I can tell a difference when I slack off of it.

The other thing that really helps me when my body is really tense is visualizing the tension and anxiety literally flowing out of me. I go for a walk and picture anxiety dripping off my fingertips like drops of water. It sounds a little woo, I guess, but it really helps me.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:44 AM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

You have lots of good suggestions already, but another one that's been really good for me is scents. Having a few bottles of essential oils that really grab me helps me get back into my body in a gentle and centering way. My favorites are: lime, clove, rosemary, lavender, sweet orange. But go shove your sniffer in some essential oil testers at a natural food store or grocery and see if any grab you by the brain stem and make you go, "ahhh".
posted by spindrifter at 10:00 AM on December 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

I would consider trying a session floating in an isolation tank, if there is a place near you that has them. I tried it for the first time a few months ago and it was one of the most physically and mentally relaxing things I've experienced. YMMV of course, but I think it's worth a try, especially if you can find a good deal on Groupon or whatever.
posted by Gymnopedist at 10:08 AM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm the same way as you and I agree with the above about vigourous exercise. I can feel the different in my general disposition when I don't get enough. I cycle for transportation and so cycling doesn't really fit this for me unless I go a really far distance; it has to be something that challenges my body in a different way than daily, so I run.

Meditation wasn't on your list. Fitting in 10 minutes a day for a guided mindfulness meditation really helps me. I can tell a difference when I slack off of it.

Seconding this. It gives you a chance to mindfully relax your muscles. My particular problem area is my jaw and 10 minutes of meditation a day gives me a chance to keep an eye on that and to practice relaxing my jaw (it's hard!).
posted by urbanlenny at 10:45 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

I’m also the same, and will add my vote to meditation and small doses of cbd/cbd-heavy strains. Look into Yin yoga, too.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 10:51 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

A few other things that work for me: walking briskly without carrying anything, not even a purse, and hands not in pockets (warm gloves in winter, then). Going someplace is fine but not necessary. Head up looking at everything. I think this is both a very very gentle shoulder stretch and an anti-screens exercise for eyes and mind.

Falling asleep listening to murmury things recorded to help people fall asleep; there are YouTube videos, and an Andrew Johnson app, and lots of ASMR things. (Current favorite is someone reading _The Wind in the Willows_ very very quietly.)
posted by clew at 11:20 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

- meditation

- strenuous exercise

- or long walks

- be out under the sky at day or night

- reject and avoid the deviltrous screens as Fun Machines, they add to this in pernicious ways
posted by nixon's meatloaf at 11:36 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Progressive muscle relaxation is a common recommendation in CBT and a common practice in yoga classes, so you may already be doing it. If not: It's awesome! I also carry stress and anxiety in my body and I find it incredibly helpful. It is very simple, its benefits are studied and well-documented, and there are about nine million YouTube videos that will walk you through the technique.
posted by xylothek at 12:09 PM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

Belly breathing (random howto)
posted by rhizome at 1:19 PM on December 8, 2017

Hooping can be very relaxing and you have to pay attention to what you're doing or you'll get whacked by the hoop; I'm doing karate twice a week and you have to focus on your kata or sparring partner, or whatever's going on in class (also if I can't sleep I'll start visualizing the moves of my newest katas in my head and that usually knocks me out ).

What's also been good for me is barbell weight exercises, squats, deadlifts, etc. There's something about moving heavy things that is very therapeutic.
posted by mogget at 2:22 PM on December 8, 2017

Medicinally, propranolol, a beta blocker, is used for physical anxiety (some signifiers include sweating, tenseness, etc). I’d read up on it and try it— unless you have too low blood pressure, there’s basically no side effects. It’s a very “not scary” medicine. I was prescribed it for the physical anxiety that manifests with adrenaline for PTSD, but people even use it for job interview jitters, public speaking performances... it’s pretty much THE go to medicine for body anxiety. I found SSRIs are more useful for the chronic thoughts of anxiety. I’m trying neurontin atm, look into that too.

Someone mentioned progressive muscle relaxation:

I would google image and google search “distress tolerance skills”, which are key to DBT. DBT is used to control reactions to emotions, some of which are bodily.

And then lastly, mindfulness. Paying attention to where the anxiety lies (your shoulders, jaw, elbows etc). Actively and consciously relaxing those areas. Giving your attention to the feelings, watching them, and watching them pass.
posted by flying_trapeze at 2:31 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

I found CBD tincture to work very well for physical anxiety.
posted by vivzan at 6:03 PM on December 8, 2017

There's a really specific mindfulness exercise called the "body scan" where you slowly move your awareness through different parts of the body that might be helpful (see, e.g.).

It may also be worth doing some mindfulness-style reframing, as in, trying to notice the tension and "investigate" it, treating it as "oh that's just this particular feeling I'm having right now and who knows why I'm feeling it" -- as opposed to labeling it as anxiety and something to be avoided. Getting stressed out by noticing that you're stressed out can be a vicious cycle, and this type of "mind hack" or whatever can help interrupt it and take the edge off. Might at least be a technique worth adding to your arsenal.
posted by en forme de poire at 6:06 PM on December 8, 2017

A martial arts practice has helped me the most. But it took a while to get there and I also run and do yoga. I mostly just want to encourage you to keep going it does make a huge difference when you find what works for you. Hang in there
posted by warriorqueen at 6:14 PM on December 8, 2017

Progressive muscle relaxation seems perfect for your situation, perhaps with a body scan after to identify any lingering tension or pain.
posted by epj at 7:55 PM on December 8, 2017

I mention this as a possible enrichment to yoga/meditation/exercise things: the cadence you breathe in can be used to influence the fight-or-flight response. This article explains how; I stumbled across it trying to overcome a huge obstacle to reigniting my yoga practice.

Also, these are supplements that have induced a body-level release of tension in my experience: magnesium citrate, valerian, kava kava (not all at the same time! I'd try some "CALM" magnesium citrate powder in a small dose at bedtime, ramping up to the amount you can comfortably take without inducing loose poops.) Best.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 10:35 PM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

Mindfulness and Guided meditation is all the rage now. Meh. Go Zen meditation. Sit kneeling, or if not, lotus style crossed legs, or if not in a chair. Hands on top of each other thumbs touching pretend there's an egg under your armpits. Pretend you're a puppet and there's a string at the top of your head pulling you up. Your only concern is "breathing in", "breathing out", just regular slowly, over and over. If you think about something else, just go back to "breathing in", "breathing out". Eventually you're just "breathing", and "breathing". You're every creature and plant and mineral, just sitting quietly doing nothing but breathing. Then you for a moment forget about even breathing and you just are. Do this for five or ten or thirty or whatnot... the idea is practice not mastery. Practice leads to getting closer to there faster. You can get closer to that point where every moment you can get closer to that moment being nothing but that moment that is nothing but existing now.

The posture stuff is a crutch of sorts. Folding the legs and twining the arms makes them sorta disappear because unless you really try, you can't even tell that you have left and right limbs or that you even have limbs. The up-straight string from the head thingy is balancing the spine so your front/back left/right muscles don't have to do anything.

Sitting quietly doing nothing. People make it too complicated with Mindfulness and Guided, Buddha had tried them all and ended up... siting quietly and doing nothing.
posted by zengargoyle at 11:23 PM on December 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks all. I'm going to try to do guided progressive muscle relaxations & body scans, for starters. I did that years ago and found it helpful though I never did it very regularly and honestly got derailed when I lost track of the one specific mp3 file I'd been using and liked (which is silly - I know I can find a dozen others by googling). I've tried various other kinds of meditation with varying levels of regularity over the years and have never felt overwhelming benefits but I've also found it hard to stick to the routines. I think meditation-like-activities that involve thinking about my body (beyond just focusing on breath) are the best choice in that realm for now.

I tried propranolol many years ago when I suggested it to a psychiatrist based on internet research, but I might not have given it a fair shot because the psychiatrist seemed skeptical and hadn't heard of that use. He was a resident rather than an experienced clinician though. I have an appointment with a different psychiatrist coming up and I'll ask her about that/similar things.

My ability to do very vigorous exercise is limited by an injury I had earlier this year, unfortunately, which I think has brought this to a sharper peak (it's very much been a lifelong thing but it's worse now), and running has generally felt weird on my knees and feet (which are in bad shape) even though it makes the rest of me feel good.

Oddly, I don't have ANY trouble falling asleep unless there's some unusual situation. (I have insomnia but it's the waking up too early kind.) Small blessings, I guess.
posted by needs more cowbell at 7:57 AM on December 14, 2017

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