Welcome my sister Kelsey back to the blog! Together we are working on a series that covers the many ways in which nutrition, digestive health and mood are related. We hope that you find it helpful. If there are any topics that you would like to see covered, leave us a comment and we will try to add them to our series too!
At the height of my anxiety I found myself drifting away from social events and outings with my closest friends. I was so terrified to leave the comfort of my house because I was afraid that I could possibly get sick. My stomach was acting up a lot and my anxious thoughts were so strong that it was easier for me to retreat. It was difficult because I knew I was missing out on many fun things, and I really did want to go out and enjoy life fully. However when push came to shove, I just could not do as much physically and mentally as I wanted. I began to blame myself for not getting over my anxiety, which only increased it. This was a tiring and exhausting cycle. I didn't realize then that using some very simple relaxation tools could make a big difference for my body and mind.
When stress was high and my anxiety was persistent, it was very challenging to go just about anywhere. I remember one time in particular, I was at the grocery store and all of a sudden my heart began to race, I had shortness of breath, I became dizzy, and I had sharp, crippling stomach pains. I dropped everything and quickly walked to my car.
At that point I knew that something needed to change. I was missing out on too much and simple tasks such as shopping for food were triggering. My stomach was upset all of the time and preventing me from going places. Someone mentioned that it might be helpful to work on breathing and meditation. I had previously heard of these techniques but really did not think they were suited for me.
Let me tell you something: I was so wrong. Learning meditation was life changing. I laugh to this day because I still can’t believe how much it helped me. I began to practice meditation and breathing twice a day and eventually worked on finding other things to help me relax. These have been some of the most important tools in relieving my anxieties and resolving my digestive issues.
How Do Relaxation Tools Work?
Put simply, relaxation tools help to rewire the nervous system. When anxiety and chronic worry have taken over, the body kicks into a chronic "stress response." This is an activation of the sympathetic nervous system, or what some people call "flight or fight." In the wild, this would be useful for dodging predators, surviving natural disasters or coping with other acutely dangerous situations. However, when the sympathetic nervous system is over-stimulated for days on end, as is the case with anxiety, the changes in the body are significant. These can include symptoms like a racing heart, low immunity, appetite changes, problems regulating blood sugar and digestive upset, as we have been talking about.
By taking intervals of just a few minutes throughout the day to relax in some way, we are retraining the nervous system and encouraging it to turn-off this stress response. It takes some practice and persistence, but eventually these little windows of relief will create lasting change. When a healthier nervous system baseline is achieved suddenly stressors that were agitating before are far easier to handle.
It is also important to note that nutrient dense foods support these changes in the nervous system as well. Healthy fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals are the building blocks for hormones, neurotransmitters and nerve cells. Without adequate levels of these nutrients, it is difficult for the body to change nervous system patterns and wire-in more positive connections. Thus, to get the most out of your relaxation practice, consuming a balanced, traditional diet is key. To learn more about some of the main nutrients that influence emotional well-being see our original post from this series.
10 Relaxation Tools That Can Be Done in Under 5 Minutes
I understand that life can become hectic and it is very difficult to take time for ourselves. However I urge you to try. For all you techies out there, it can be as easy as downloading an app on your smartphone that reminds you to take mindful moments throughout the day. It could be taking a walk outside or watching a funny Youtube video that makes you laugh. Whatever it is, do your mind and body a favor and give one of these techniques a shot. Practice it everyday for one week, and see if it helps to shift your thoughts and moods. You may find, like I did, that it also works to improve your digestion.
Here is a list of some of my favorite ways to experience what I call "relaxation on-the-go." Feel free to add your ideas at the end too!
1. Practice deep breathing. I will be posting my favorite beginner's technique next week!
2. Do progressive muscle relaxation. This is when you tighten certain groups of muscles intentionally and then let them go. Sometimes we don't know how much tension we are holding until we increase it and then relax completely.
4. Zentangle. This is a form of "doodling" that I find very calming. Learn more about it here.
5. Stand outside. Natural sunlight and fresh air are proven to help regulate mood.
7. Use visualization. Close your eyes and think about your favorite place. Maybe it is a mountain top or sandy beach, or a cozy room in your house. Try to remember as many details about the place as possible and picture yourself there.
8. Download a mindfulness meditation. There are many websites now offering audio clips of guided meditations that can be used for free whenever you need them. Do a search to find ones that you like and save them to your computer or phone.
9. Take a photo. Find something beautiful in your surroundings and take a picture with your camera or phone.
10. Practice gratitude. Studies have found that this is one of the most soothing emotions for the brain. Jot down a quick list of 5 things you are thankful for.