How to manage everyday anxiety in public spaces

Experts share practical strategies for when you really need them

Nicole Mahabir · CBC Life · September 26

When anxiety arises, it can be difficult to cope with daily activities and simple tasks. Our mind and body can move past the threshold perception of feeling safe, which puts us into a state of fear and makes us feel overwhelmed or as though our life is out of control.

Whether it’s a high stress meeting, new job, future fears, past memories, dealing with a difficult experience or thinking of all of the responsibilities at hand, you can take yourself out of the state of anxiety and learn how induce a relaxation response  by practicing a few techniques to navigate through. Complimentary therapeutic practices of relaxation and mindful interventionscan be utilized to decrease anxiety and induce prolonged states of rest and repose. These tools can also help you to observe your situation with a realistic and positive outlook and cultivate problem-solving skills and interventions that are within your control.

For reducing anxiety while it’s happening, we invited a few experts to share simple practices they recommend. These practices can also be used as a preventive measure for anxiety because each technique works directly to calm the nervous system. Dr. Ana Bodnar and Dr. Pradeep Kumar share their best quick and simple solutions to help manage and diminish anxiety that could otherwise be debilitating. Plus, I will share one of my favorite relaxation practices with you as a final exercise.

Dr. Ana Bodnar is a clinical psychologist, yoga and meditation teacher. Along with her clinical practice she also teaches within the arena of mindfulness and psychotherapy at the University of Toronto. Bodnar explains that when we are experiencing anxiety, our breath becomes unregulated, short and shallow. To gently counter this state, we can use practical tools to change the rhythm of the breath to bring us back to homeostasis. Here, she offers a few mindful interventions that create an effect of composure and relaxation. Whether you are in a meeting or on the bus, sitting in a restaurant or at home, these simple tools can be practiced anywhere with ease and little distraction.

Dr. Bodnar describes that regulating the breath with a slow count is one of the most helpful and effective interventions for anxiety. She goes on to specify that a body scan, sensory input and realistic self-talk are also effective interventions that decrease anxiety while it is being experienced.

Here are the steps for each technique.

The box breath

Begin by becoming aware of your breath. Slowly and gently begin to lengthen and deepen your breath. Breathe into the abdomen, feeling the belly expanding outward.

After a few deep and slow breaths, you will begin to count with the breath to regulate its length and equilibrate the inhale and exhale.

Inhale through the nose with a long, slow count of 2. Exhale through the nose, with a long, slow count of 2.

Repeat the long, slow count of 2 for the inhale and the exhale until you feel the body and mind begin to relax and that your breathing has become a gentle, equalized pattern, when the inhalation and exhalation ratio is the same. This is also known as sama vritti (equal ratio breathing) in the practice of yoga.

The body scan

The practice of focusing on your senses and body can draw your mind to the present moment and help stabilize anxiety by connecting to what is happening right in front of you instead of focusing on the anxiety itself. It also assists to move the mind out of the thinking process and into the sensing process, offering visceral reality as a foundation to concentrate on.

The body scan should start from the ground up, this will help to anchor your senses instead of feeling like they are slipping away with a spinning mind. When practiced with a long deep inhalation and exhalation of equal ratio (sama vritti), this practice becomes most effective.

Focus on your breath.

Begin sensing the ground under your feet.

Recite internally, I am aware that my feet are the ground.

Feel your toes on the ground.

Recite internally, I am aware that my toes are on the ground.

Slowly begin to observe your surroundings.

Feel the texture of your clothing. Feel your calves and your thighs. Feel yourself sitting down.

Recite internally, I am aware of the chair supporting me.

Feel the tips of your fingers.

Recite internally, I am aware of the tips of my fingers.

Feel your back and neck relaxed. Feel the breath slowly moving into the abdomen and the chest.

Recite internally, I am aware of my breath.

Notice the sensation of the breath in the nostrils.

Recite internally, I am aware of the sensation of my breath.

Notice the saliva in your mouth.

Recite internally, I am aware of the saliva in my mouth.

Notice your body temperature.

Recite internally, I am aware of my body temperature.

Look around and slowly notice what you are seeing, notice what you are hearing. Soften your eyes and focus on the breath.

Repeat this practice focusing on your felt sensory awareness, and breathe with slow, long inhalation and exhalation. If you need to scan the body again, begin at the feet and work your way up the body.

Positive and realistic self-talk

Anxiety can induce the feeling of being out of control, and one can get lost in the experience of feeling anxiety. Dr. Bodnar shares that, “When anxiety begins to increase, it is important to become present with what is happening and to envision a positive outcome, that there is an end to the anxiety and although it is uncomfortable, it will pass.” Positive self-talk is an intervention that can bring the mind back to reality in a safe and caring way. A simple way to reduce anxiety is to use your internal voice to address what is happening and to acknowledge that there is an end within reach.

Some positive and realistic self-talk phrases are:

“Even if I am feeling anxiety right now, it will pass.”

“Even if this feels uncomfortable right now, it will come to an end soon.”

“Reassuring positive self-talk helps the person to not get lost in the experience of anxiety,” Dr. Bodnar explains. If the experience starts to become overwhelming she mentions that, “It could also be appropriate to remove oneself from your meeting or public space to gain some privacy in a bathroom or private area until you can bring yourself back into a state of comfort and ease.”

It’s also important to recognize that anxiety is different from having a panic attack. A panic attack can be an intense experience that may require counsel for appropriate care and treatment.

For more from Dr. Bodnar, visit www.anabodnar.com.

So Hum breathing

Dr. Kumar is a graduate from the Mind Body Medical Institute at Harvard University, and is a pediatrician from India. After teaching acupuncture at McMaster University in Ontario, he developed a series of professional programs for mind-body medicine and meditation working closely with interventions for anxiety, stress and fear. He currently teaches meditation, nada yoga (the yoga of sound), kundalini yoga and mind-body medicine in Canada and various international locations including Ecuador and India.

Dr. Kumar describes that combining the breath with internal phrases or specific sounds and mantra can bring the mind to a point of focused concentration, clarity and relaxation. For the So Hum breathing practice, he emphasizes that deep breathing in combination with inaudible sounds has a profound relaxation effect. He indicates that, “Breathing deeply stimulates the nerves in the nostrils, which activates the opposite hemispheres of the brain and brings hemispheric synchronization and balanced functioning of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.” Deep breathing also helps to retain carbon dioxide in the body and dilates blood vessels in the brain, inducing a hibernation like state along with the increased secretion of endorphins and other neuro-chemicals to calm down the body and mind. Plus, it assists with the absorption of the nitric oxide gas molecules in the body to dilate the blood vessels which helps in reducing the blood pressure which calms down the body and mind.

Dr. Kumar indicates that sound, specifically mantra, brings a relaxation response to the body and the brain. Mantra stimulates the vagus nerve which supplies the tympanic membrane and ear canal and helps to reduce the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, enabling a person to better deal with the stress and anxiety. He mentions that mantra practice also helps to bypass the amygdala activation in the brain which is responsible for the fear and anger response, in turn reducing anxiety.

For this practice we will use an inaudible mantra known as So Hum. So Hum means “that I AM” in the ancient language of Sanskrit. The word mantra, translated from Sanskrit means to free the mind or to rescue/protect the mind, specifically from continuous thought processes. For this practice, you will not be speaking out loud but rather gently inhaling and exhaling with a soft focus on the words So Hum as you breathe through the mouth.

So Hum

Bring your focus to the breath at the level of the nostrils. Feel the cool sensation of air as it moves in and out of the nostrils with inhalation and exhalation. If the mind wanders acknowledge it, let go and bring your gentle focus again to the nostrils.

After a few regular breaths begin to make the breath slow and deep but gentle and inaudible. Continue with this slow and deep breathing for about 2 minutes.

Slowly and deeply inhale the with the inaudible sound SO through the mouth and exhale HUM with deep exhalation through the mouth.

Continue for 2-3 minutes until the breath pattern becomes regular and even.

For more about Dr. Kumar (Jivasu) visit: www.naturalitypath.com.

Exhalation through the mouth

One of the most effective practices that I have experienced when teaching interventions for anxiety as well as prevention, is a slow and gentle exhalation through the mouth. Shifting your awareness to the breath is always key to draw focus away from the anxiety and towards equilibrating the breath. It also increases your awareness of what is happening, allows you to acknowledge the anxiety and helps you to see that you have the ability to change your state. Exhaling through the mouth has the capacity to decrease anxiety and bring you back to a mental and emotional state of focus, relaxation and peace.

This simple technique can be practiced subtly anywhere. The exhalation should be an inaudible release, almost like an uplifting, silent sigh that allows you to feel settled and released from worry. For this practice you will in inhale for a long count of one and exhale for a long count of two. The breath will be smooth and slow.

Draw your awareness to your breath.

Deeply inhale steadily through the nose for a long, count of 1.

Deeply exhale slowly through the mouth for a long count of 2.

Repeat until the anxiety begins to dissipate.

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