Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari
Six Surprising Scientific Ways to Ease Anxiety
It’s no secret that 2020 has been a tougher year than ever on the nation’s mental health.
Isolation, financial concern and the stream of negative news are just a few of the things taking their toll. The number of young people with anxiety nearly doubled in the first lockdown according to a study by the University of Bristol and depression in adults has doubled since the outbreak began, as reported by the ONS.
If this resonates with you, please know that you are not alone and that professional support is available to you. The good news are that there are also many quick and simple things you can do to help ease the symptoms, like the six ideas below - some of which might surprise you!
Before you begin this method, make a note of how stressed or anxious you feel on a scale of one to ten (one being the least stressed and ten being the most).
Cross your arms as though you’re hugging yourself, and then gently tap your hands on your arms, alternating between each one. Tap 25 times in total and take a deep breath. Take stock of where you are now on the scale - is the number lower than it was before? If not, you might like to do it again or as many times as you need to until your stress level has decreased. (Credit: Gina Ross).
This method works by connecting the left and right side of your brain and engaging the cortex - the area of the brain that is responsible for information processing, logic and problem solving. The crossing of your hands, alongside the tapping and counting, slows down the autonomic nervous system which allows the body to calm down.
Out loud, in your head, to music, a capella, loudly, quietly, children’s songs, pop music - whatever you enjoy! Singing in any form can have a therapeutic effect for anxiety.
Singing activates different parts of the brain to the part that is home to anxiety, and so we can’t sing and be anxious at the same time. This integration of different parts of the brain helps with a sense of self regulation and calmness.
Singing needs melodic shape and that requires the creative side of the brain (right hemisphere). In fact, singing is good for us because it uses both hemispheres of the brain, although leaning more towards the right side.
In addition to this, several studies have shown that singing releases endorphins and oxytocin - hormones which are known for relieving anxiety and stress and are linked to feelings of trust and bonding. It can help reduce feelings of loneliness, leaving people feeling relaxed and connected.
What’s even better - the benefits of singing regularly have shown to be cumulative. People who sing have reduced levels of cortisol, indicating lower stress levels.
3. Frankincense essential oil
Frankincense essential oil is created from the aromatic resin of the Boswellia tree. Among its many beneficial properties, it has the ability to ease the symptoms of anxiety and depression. It has the power to influence the autonomic nervous system’s reaction to stress in a way that allows your body and brain to relax.
So, if you are feeling anxious or stressed, try putting 2 or 3 drops in between your hands (there is no need for more as it has a very strong aroma), rubbing them together and holding them to your face - and then take four deep breaths from your nose. You can also put a couple of drops on your pyjamas, in the bath, or even just shake your hands around your home so you will have the aroma all around you.
If you’re feeling stressed or anxious, one of the least effective things you can do is to sit still. When our stress or anxiety is triggered, our nervous system has the tendency to contract, but opening up your body, your energy and your hands can help this.
Dance however you like - alone, with your partner, energetically or slowly - however you like to move, as long as you move all your whole body not just your hands or legs. Dance without a mirror so your body and soul moves you rather than your consciousness.
If you can combine it with singing, even better! And if dancing isn’t your thing, then any other kind of movement is good - running, walking, cycling or circuits.
5. Pat a pet
Spending time with your pet, whether it’s simply stroking them, taking them for a walk or playing games with them can have a relaxing and calming effect, which works on more than one level.
Pets are a source of happiness, joy and unconditional love - which helps in itself - but petting them can also draw your focus and awareness to your sense of touch. Be mindful of how your pet’s fur feels against your skin - is it soft, fluffy, warm? This focus draws your thoughts into the here and now and has been proven to have a relaxing and mediative effect.
Furthermore, it offers us a grounding experience - in the same way that connecting with nature lowers stress levels, connecting with another living being can benefit us greatly.
Counting, doing sums or multiplication is another great way to take attention away from the limbic system of the brain (where anxiety lives) to the cortex (the cognitive area of the brain).
Wherever you are, choose perhaps a colour, a texture (e.g. wood, glass) or a shape and count 10 items of that category that you can see around you. For example, If you choose the colour green, find and count 10 green things around you.
Alternatively you could choose two numbers above ten and multiply them together. Anything that requires thought and concentration in maths and problem solving will help in this way. By activating the cortex, you integrate different parts of you brain, increase neuro connection, that in turn supports your calmness and wellbeing.
When we feel overwhelmed or anxious, it is like the brain hijacks the connection with the cortex. Therefore many of the tips here are to integrate connections between different parts of the brain that we know to be related to a sense of resilience, calmness and grounding.
Please note that these are not a replacement of any talking therapeutic processing (psychotherapy, counselling or psychological) that will address the core of your feelings, but as an accompaniment and more immediate support when needed. Remember to seek professional advice from a GP or therapist if you are struggling.
This article was written by couples therapist and parental advisor Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari. With a doctorate in Psychology, Dr Ben-Ari has worked in the field for over 20 years and runs a private clinic in Hampstead, London. She is also an author, speaker, therapist supervisor and has been the Chair of Imago UK since 2013.