So, what part of our body is sending out messages? Our vagus nerve. This nerve runs from our brain stem all the way through our abdomen. Its duty is to direct emotional body responses to our environment….most before we even realize it. These responses play out in our behavior. Ideally, we regulate ourselves through proximity, social interaction and reading tones around us. Sounding complicated? Basically we “read the room” and our bodies decide what to do. Worry is a narrative we create often connected to justify why we feel “bad” and not necessarily based on actual data.
We can work to correct any miscues by focusing on our nervous system. An easy first step is through our breathing. Start by exhaling slowly. It tells the body to calm down. You can hum, sing or chew gum too. These will stimulate nerve fibers in our head to open us up to our social center and finding the right response.
Next is thinking. If the message we are getting is not one to warrant panic; we can ask ourselves to think about a positive experience like ‘what puts a smile on our face’ or ‘when was the last time we felt safe’. Thoughts like these shift our state to a more positive framework. Once this shift happens, our physiological system shifts and we can get more control over our body.
Most of us are really bad at worrying. We typically do it as a mechanism to stop something bad from happening. If that thing doesn’t happen, we may think worrying was worth it. And the cycle begins. Chronic worriers focus on beating themselves up for worrying rather than solutions. They have poor “problem solving confidence” and use their mood to determine their behavior. Most worrying occurs during negative moods.
So what can anxiety teach us?
- Let go of rating our moods and listen up.
When we experience a mood, we usually label it good or bad. How about just noticing it? Consider: “Where do I feel it in my body?” “What is it encouraging me to do?” “What else am I feeling?”
- Let go of control.
We often feel like we need to control our emotions…actually just our behavior. Our emotions are just messages from our environment that we are interpreting. Listen to what your body is saying and focus less on solving the challenge. You might get some pretty great feedback that you don’t have to do anything at all.
- Don’t strive for happiness….search for contentment.
We are often told to “be happy”; but our emotions must be allowed to come and go. Happiness is an elated state…think top of the roller coaster. But if every moment was lived at the top of the roller coaster, you would be on a monorail or looking for the next highest coaster. If you use happiness as the template for how you interact with the world, you are likely to be disappointed. Instead ask yourself if you are content with how you feel. This is more likely to be a comfortable and enduring state.
So, the next time you are feeling anxious, check in with your body and save the rating for a new restaurant. Focus on finding contentment and happiness will find you along with all your emotions. And lastly, just breathe.