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Women with increased levels of anxiety and nervous tension often need to develop more effective ways of dealing with day to day stresses the minor everyday pressures that women with a healthy emotional balance handle easily but that can be overwhelming for women whose anxiety responses are easily triggered. Such stress can include riding in an elevator, being in crowds, going to the dentist, or any situation, place, or person that sparks a woman's emotional charge. Often these charged issues evoke anxiety, fear, or upset feelings. Moreover, significant lifestyle changes death of a loved one, divorce, job loss, financial problems, major changes in personal relationships can be almost impossible to handle when a woman is already feeling anxious and tense. Being unable to cope with stress effectively can also damage a woman's self esteem and self confidence. A woman with anxiety episodes may feel a decreasing sense of self-worth as her ability to handle her usual range of activities diminishes. Life stresses themselves don't necessarily change, so how a woman copes with them can really make the difference.
How Stress Affects the Body
Your emotional and physical reactions to stress are partly determined by the sensitivity of your sympathetic nervous system. This system produces the fight or flight reaction in response to stress and excitement, speeding up and heightening the pulse rate, respiration, muscle tension, glandular function, and circulation of the blood. If you have recurrent anxiety symptoms, either major or minor lifestyle and emotional upsets may cause an overreaction of your sympathetic system. If you have an especially stressful life, your sympathetic nervous system may always be poised to react to a crisis, putting you in a state of constant tension. In this mode, you tend to react to small stresses the same way you would react to real emergencies. The energy that accumulates in the body to meet this "emergency" must be discharged in order to bring your body back into balance. Repeated episodes of the fight or flight reaction deplete your energy reserves and, if they continue, cause a downward spiral that can lead to emotional burnout and eventually complete exhaustion. You can break this spiral only by learning to manage stress in a way that protects and even increases your energy level.
Techniques for Relaxation
Many patients have asked me about techniques for coping more effectively with stress. Although I send some women for counseling or psychotherapy when symptoms are severe, most are looking for practical ways to manage stress on their own. They want to take responsibility for handling their own problems observing their inadequate methods of dealing with stress, learning new techniques to improve their habits, and then practicing these techniques on a regular basis.
I have included relaxation and stress reduction exercises in many of my patient programs. The feedback has been very positive; many patients report an increased sense of well being from these self help techniques. They also note an improvement in their physical health. This chapter includes fourteen stress reduction exercises for women with anxiety. They will take you through a series of specific steps to help alleviate your symptoms. The exercises will teach you the following helpful techniques: focusing and meditation, grounding techniques (how to feel more centered), exercises that help you to relax and release muscle tension, erasure techniques (how to erase old programs), healing the inner child, visualizations, and affirmations. These techniques will help you cope with stress more efficiently, make your thoughts more calm and peaceful, and help you learn to relax, while you build self esteem and self confidence. Try them all; then decide which ones produce the greatest benefits for you. Practice these on a regular basis.
Quieting the Mind and Body
Women with recurring symptoms of anxiety and nervous tension are usually barraged by a constant stream of negative "self-talk." Throughout the day your conscious mind may be inundated with thoughts, feelings, and fantasies that trigger feelings of upset. Many of these thoughts replay unresolved issues of health, finances, or personal and work relationships. This relentless mental replay of unresolved issues can reinforce the anxiety symptoms and be exhausting. It is important to know how to shut off the constant inner dialogue and quiet the mind.
The first two exercises require you to sit quietly and engage in a simple repetitive activity. By emptying your mind, you give yourself a rest. Meditation allows you to create a state of deep relaxation, which is very healing to the entire body. Metabolism slows, as do physiological functions such as heart rate and blood pressure. Muscle tension decreases. Brain wave patterns shift from the fast beta waves that occur during a normal active day to the slower alpha waves, which appear just before falling asleep or in times of deep relaxation. If you practice these exercises regularly, they can help relieve anxiety by resting your mind and turning off upsetting thoughts.
Exercise 1: Focusing
Select a small personal object that you like a great deal. It might be a jeweled pin or a simple flower from your garden. Focus all your attention on this object as you inhale and exhale slowly and deeply for one to two minutes. While you are doing this exercise, try not to let any other thoughts or feelings enter your mind. If they do, just return your attention to the object. At the end of this exercise you will probably feel more peaceful and calmer. Any tension or nervousness that you were feeling upon starting the exercise should be diminished.
Exercise 2: Meditation
Many women suffering from anxiety episodes often feel ungrounded and disorganized. There is a pervasive sense of "things falling apart." When anxiety episodes occur, it often takes a concentrated effort just to get through the day, accomplishing such basic daily tasks as cooking, housecleaning, taking care of children, or getting to work or school. The next two exercises teach you grounding techniques that will help you feel more centered and focused. Practicing either of these exercises will allow you to organize your energies and proceed more effectively with your daily routine.
Exercise 3: Oak Tree Meditation
Exercise 4: Grounding Cord Meditation
Releasing Muscle Tension
The next three exercises will help you get in touch with your areas of muscle tension and then help you learn to release this tension. This is an important sequence for women with emotional symptoms of anxiety and nervous tension since habitual emotional patterns cause certain muscle groups to tense and tighten. For example, if a person has difficulty in expressing feelings, the neck muscles may be chronically tense. A person with a lot of repressed anger may have chest pain and tight chest muscles. Contracted muscles limit movement and energy flow in the body, since they tend to have decreased blood circulation and oxygenation and accumulate an excess of waste products, such as carbon dioxide and lactic acid. Therefore, muscle tension can be a significant cause of the fatigue that often accompanies chronic stress. The following exercises help release tension and the blocked emotions held in tight muscles.
Exercise 5: Discovering Muscle Tension
Exercise 6: Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Exercise 7: Release of Muscle Tension and Anxiety
Erasing Stress and Tension
Often the situations and beliefs that make us feel anxious and tense look large and insurmountable. We tend to form representations in our mind that empower stress. In these representations, we look tiny and helpless, while the stressors look huge and unsolvable. You can change these mental representations and cut stressors down to size. The next two exercises will help you to gain mastery over stress by learning to shrink it or even erase it with your mind. This places stress in a much more manageable and realistic perspective. These two exercises will also help engender a sense of power and mastery, thereby reducing anxiety and restoring a sense of calm.
Exercise 8: Shrinking Stress
Exercise 9: Erasing Stress
Healing the Inner Child
Many of our anxieties and fears come from our inner child rather than our adult self. Sometimes it is difficult to realize that the emotional upsets we feel are actually feelings left over from childhood fears, traumas, and experiences. When unhealed, they remain with us into adulthood, causing emotional distress over issues that competent "grown up" people feel they should be able to handle. For example, fear of the dark, fear of being unlovable, and fear of rejection often originate in early dysfunctional or unhappy experiences with our parents and siblings. While many of these deep, unresolved emotional issues may require counseling, particularly if they are causing anxiety episodes, there is much that we can do for ourselves to heal childhood wounds. The next exercise helps you to get in touch with your own inner child and facilitates the healing process.
Exercise 10: Healing the Inner Child
The next two exercises use visualization as a therapeutic method to affect the physical and mental processes of the body; both focus on color. Color therapy, as it applies to human health, has a long and distinguished history. In many studies, scientists have exposed subjects to specific colors, either directly through exposure to light therapy, or through changing the color of their environment. Scientific research throughout the world has shown that color therapy can have a profound effect on health and well-being. It can stimulate the endocrine glands, the immune system, and the nervous system, and help to balance the emotions. Visualizing color in a specific part of the body can have a powerful therapeutic effect, too, and can be a good stress management technique for relief of anxiety and nervous tension.
The first exercise uses the color blue, which provides a calming and relaxing effect. For women with anxiety who are carrying a lot of physical and emotional tension, blue lessens the fight or flight response. Blue also calms such physiological functions as pulse rate, breathing, and perspiration, and relaxes the mood. If you experience chronic fatigue and are tense, anxious, or irritable, or carry a lot of muscle tension, the first exercise will be very helpful.
The second exercise uses the color red, which can benefit women who have fatigue due to chronic anxiety and upset. Red stimulates all the endocrine glands, including the pituitary and adrenal glands. It heightens senses such as smell and taste. Emotionally, red is linked to vitality and high energy states. Even though the color red can speed up autonomic nervous system function, women with anxiety-related fatigue can benefit from visualizing this color. I often do the red visualization when I am tired and need a pick me up. You may find that you are attracted to the color in one exercise more than another. Use the exercise with the color that appeals to you the most.
Exercise 11: Tension Release Through Color
Exercise 12: Energizing Through Color
The following two exercises give you healthful affirmations that are very useful for women with anxiety. As described earlier, anxiety symptoms are due to a complex interplay between the mind and body. Your state of emotional and physical health is determined in part by the thousands of mental messages you send yourself each day with your thoughts. For example, if fear of public places triggers your anxiety symptoms, the mind will send a constant stream of messages to you reinforcing your beliefs about the dangers and mishaps that can occur in public places. The fright triggers muscle tension and shallow breathing. Similarly, if you constantly criticize the way you look, your lack of self-love may be reflected in your body. For example, your shoulders will slump and you may have a dull and lackluster countenance.
Affirmations provide a method to change these negative belief systems to thoughts that preserve peace and calm. Positive statements replace the anxiety inducing messages with thoughts that make you feel good.
The first affirmation exercise gives you a series of statements to promote a sense of emotional and physical health and well being. Using these affirmations may create a feeling of emotional peace by changing your negative beliefs about your body and health into positive beliefs. The second affirmation exercise helps promote self-esteem and self-confidence and also helps to reduce anxiety. Many women with high anxiety lose their self-confidence and feel depressed and defeated by their condition. They feel frustrated and somehow at fault for not finding a solution. Repeat each affirmation to yourself or say them out loud 3 to 5 minutes. Use either or both exercises on a regular basis to promote healthful, positive thought patterns.
Exercise 13: Positive Mind/Body Affirmations
Exercise 14: Self-Esteem Affirmations
More Stress-Reduction Techniques for Anxiety
The rest of this chapter contains additional techniques useful for relief of anxiety and relaxation of tight and tense muscles. These methods induce deep emotional relaxation. Try them for a delightful experience.
For centuries, people have used warm water as a way to calm moods and relax muscles. You can have your own "spa" at home by adding relaxing ingredients to the bath water. I have found the following formula to be extremely useful in relieving muscle pain and tension.
Alkaline Bath. Run a tub of warm water. Heat will increase your menstrual flow, so keep the water a little cooler if heavy flow is a problem. Add one cup of sea salt and one cup of bicarbonate of soda to the tub. This is a highly alkaline mixture and I recommend using it only once or twice a month. I've found it very helpful in reducing cramps and calming anxiety and irritability. Soak for 20 minutes. You will probably feel very relaxed and sleepy after this bath; use it at night before going to sleep. You will probably wake up feeling refreshed and energized the following day. Heat of any kind helps to release muscle tension. Many women find that saunas and baths also help to calm their moods.
Music can have a tremendously relaxing effect on our minds and bodies. For women with anxiety and nervous tension, I recommend slow, quiet music classical music is particularly good. This type of music can have a pronounced beneficial effect on your physiological functions. It can slow your pulse and heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and decrease your levels of stress hormones. It promotes peace and relaxation and helps to induce sleep. Nature sounds, such as ocean waves and rainfall, can also induce a sense of peace and relaxation. I have patients who keep tapes of nature sounds in their cars and at home for use when they feel more stressed. Play relaxing music often when you are aware of increased emotional and physical tension.
Massage can be extremely therapeutic for women who feel anxious. Gentle touching either by a trained massage therapist, your relationship partner, or even yourself can be very relaxing. Tension usually fades away relatively quickly with gentle, relaxed touching. The kneading and stroking movement of a good massage relaxes tight muscles and improves circulation. If you can afford to do so, I recommend treating yourself to a professional massage during times of stress. Otherwise, trade with a friend or partner. There are also many books available that instruct people how to massage themselves.
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