Our bodies are amazing and capable of so much! It’s easy to recognize when things go physically wrong or when we’re less than happy with how we look, but I hope we also pause to recognize how our bodies are capable and smart.
I work with a lot of clients on concerns about anxiety, anything from mild anxiety to panic attacks, which can literally feel like you are dying. One important aspect of anxiety work is how anxiety works in the body and how through that knowledge we can make changes to better manage how we feel.
Therapists often use an approach called exposure therapy to help clients decrease their anxiety in certain situations. For example, if public speaking causes someone intense anxiety then they would work to lower that anxiety by speaking in public. Probably starting small by giving a speech to one person, then to smaller less-threatening groups, to eventually tackle the person’s biggest fear of speaking to a large audience. This repeated exposure allows the person’s body to feel anxiety and then, with time, allows that anxiety to come down.
Our bodies are pretty smart when it comes to anxiety because we have what I like to think of as built-in reprieve. Our neurons will fire in a specific way when we are faced with something that causes us stress, but they cannot continue to fire forever. This is why we don’t die from intense anxiety, even when it feels like we might. With time our built-in reprieve will give us relief from our anxiety.
Stop Playing it Safe
It is important to note that what we do before our reprieve kicks in matters.
For example, if the person who is afraid to speak in public decides at the very last moment to back out of speaking, they will most likely feel pretty instant relief. But, in this situation they are sending a message to their body that they stayed “safe” because they did not speak, which will most likely make it even harder to give a speech in the future. However, if this same person decides to speak, their anxiety may feel worse at first, and come down slower than the last example, but it will come down! And in that case the message being sent to their body is that you can do terrifying things and your body will learn to adjust.
Exposing yourself to the things that scare you will make you feel stronger in those areas. Your body can be re-trained to respond with less and less anxiety toward the daunting tasks in your life. You just have to give it a chance to show you. And you do that by doing the things that scare you and trusting your body to follow your lead.
Exercise and Anxiety
So, in a stressful situation the best thing we can do is push through the anxiety and re-train our bodies to feel less anxiety. But what can we do before we are in the stressful situation? Somewhere along the way of my training I learned that when we exercise the way we feel often mirrors the feelings of anxiety.
Think about it, when we go on a run we will most likely start to sweat, feel shaky, take quicker more shallow breaths, feel muscle tension, and fatigued. These are some of the same symptoms of anxiety and panic. So if we use what we know about exposure therapy then it makes sense that the more we expose ourselves to those physical feelings, through exercise, the more we are teaching our body that we can feel those uncomfortable symptoms and still be…okay, and even be better for it!
This is one of those times where we can step back and watch our amazing bodies work for us. As we regularly exercise we are training our body to feel more at ease with feelings that feel just like anxiety. And we are able to work on our overall anxiety, even when we are not faced with the things that cause us stress.
Get Up and Try!
The cool thing about doing anxiety work is that we can see results pretty fast. I love watching people face their fears and see real results of lowered anxiety, sometimes in just a matter of weeks or months. It takes commitment, and leaning into uncomfortable feelings, but we were made to face difficult things and our bodies will support us on the journey!
Try it for yourself. Think of something you’ve been avoiding because it causes you anxiety and do it every day for a week. Rate your discomfort on a scale of 1-10 and see how that number changes the more you do it. If the thought of doing this overwhelms you then take the journey with a therapist who can help you pace the work.
If you don’t have any specific fears to work on, but you would like to work on your anxiety levels in general then push yourself to exercise regularly. And when you feel those feelings that mirror anxiety remember to tell yourself that your body knows what it’s doing. With time you can see your progress as your body reacts less and less to those feelings of anxiety.
When it comes to anxiety we can trust our bodies. As we push ourselves we will be able to recognize our bodies working for us. Good luck on your journey. You’ve got this!