You know how sometimes you discover something and it blows your mind. Well today’s Blog is all about that in relation to anxiety. We’ve been helping people with the physical symptoms of anxiety at the clinic for many years. But what if we told you anxiety is an entirely physical condition?! That’s a game changer right?
This is the considered opinion of Paul Sheppard – The Life Doctor. So with Paul’s kind permission and input this Blog is a review of the things I have learned from his amazing talk. We’ll compare his insight with our experience of where anxiety ‘hangs out’ in the body to hopefully give you hope and encouragement to beat that damned anxiety. Paul did. Lots of our clients have. So why can’t you?
For those of you that don’t think you suffer with anxiety… please read on. I’ve never considered myself as a particularly anxious person. But some of the behaviour traits we’re going to talk about here are me to a tee. I suspect I’m not alone!
How Is Anxiety Reflected Physically?
I’ll start with my area of expertise. Every emotion has a facial expression and a posture to match. Actors know this. There are even computers that can read our emotions – or at least be trained to read them. Most of us simply look at people’s faces for information about how people are feeling. Muscle geeks like myself look further to body language for evidence of what people are really thinking. Body reading if you like.
These physical representations of emotional states become habitual. I’ve spoken in many previous Blogs about the concept of adaptive shortening. If you put in a muscle in a short tight position it thinks if should stay there and so tightens up. This then starts to pull us into these postures… almost like the tight muscles are pulling into the representations of emotional states. So the muscles begin to maintain the emotional state. And we get stuck.
Our easiest and most spectacular work happens when people have moved on emotionally from the physical state that was causing them the pain in the first place. We come along, release a few muscles that are holding onto the remnants of this emotion and we look like amazing therapists and these clients get an incredible wow factor. This can be any emotion. Anxiety, depression or even trauma. If people have moved on emotionally we can catch their body up to where they are emotionally.
That’s why with the majority of our clients we look to the psychological side of things to ensure our clients are not only doing the right things physically but also the right things mentally.
What Are The Anxiety Muscles?
Honestly they can be anywhere. That’s why we need to use our physio assessments to work it out. When we find and release them many people do feel an emotional release as well. Having said they can be anywhere there are some very common areas to find these physical representations of emotional states. Basically any muscles that pulls us into a fetal position.
When we are not happy we all tend back to this fetal position. Is it the desire to go back to the womb and feel protected? Is it the desire to cover up what’s going on inside? Or is it simply the struggle to stand up to our emotions and gravity? Who knows. But it’s what we all do.
As such we find tension in people struggling with anxiety represented in their diaphragms, hip flexors, muscles of the neck (mostly sternocleidomastoid) and muscles that pull the shoulders inwards – most commonly pectorals (chest muscles) and latissimus dorsi (the muscles that forms the back of your armpit). When we release these muscles people can immediately feel less anxious. If they’re ready to!
Where a person’s physical symptoms of their anxiety manifest themselves can be anywhere in the body although it is very commonly in the knees. That’s why in our crib sheet of how to avoid knee pain you’ll see lots of opening out exercises. This is also why we feel so good after yoga session. It opens us out. We feel more upright. Our mood and our body feels lighter. We have reduced the physical representations of our stressed state.
How To Maintain Your Anxiety!
In his talk Paul introduced me to the 10 behaviours that maintain anxiety. All which make absolute sense to me based on my personal and professional experience.
- Treat anxiety only as a mental condition.
- Stay on edge and keep shallow breathing – this is the physical definition of anxiety, this will also make you feel more sensitive which you can read as more pain. This is why we are particularly interested in it already from an injury perspective.
- Keep chasing happiness for rewards outside of yourself – in hormonal terms these are dopamine hits. Things which make us momentarily feel good about ourselves. Drinks, drugs, casual sex, food, shopping, drinking tea / coffee, chasing exotic holidays. You know all that stuff that immediately makes us feel better about ourselves but in the long term makes no difference whatsoever.
- Continue to believe that all your thoughts are true. Our mind wanders all the time. It can wander to some amazing and beautiful places. It can also wander to some fairly gruesome and dark places. The human mind is great as catastrophisation. Thinking of the worse possible thing that can happen in any situation. Such behaviour is there to protect us. It is just assessing the risk of the situation. But these darkest fears are unlikely to become reality.
- Continue to remove yourself from uncomfortable situations where you feel people will judge you or you’ll feel the odd one out.
- Keep pressing the f**kit button! Continuing to do your avoidance behaviour and thinking we can start again on Monday. I’ll stop drinking after the weekend. I’ll start my diet on Monday.
- Continue to feel guilty that we’re not doing as much as everyone else.
- Continue the ‘what if’ mentality. What if I look silly? What if I bump into my ex partner? What if I can’t cope with out beer? (very relevant for your truly!)
- If you can’t be perfect, procrastinate – this is so me!
- Never take risks and continue on auto pilot – it’s safer that way right? Things are less likely to go wrong yeah. Perhaps. But life is less likely to be full and your brain less able to adapt to new and different experiences.
How To Reduce Your Anxiety
Basically Paul recommends changing your life from a physical perspective and wait for things to get better. Same as you would for any say injured muscle or ligament. Do the right things, look after yourself / wound and wait for it to heal. Generally speaking treat yourself with greater compassion and kindness and focus your efforts on better self care. Exactly what that self care involves we discuss below…
I’ve been banging on about this for years. When we do our relaxation we reduce our overall sensitivity to pain from an injury perspective and calm our entire nervous system. This can have implications for our mood and well being. I talk about this in detail in one of previous Blogs: Does Relaxation Breathing Really Easy Pain And Improve Your Mood? If you haven’t got time to read it the answer is YES!
Paul also uses this as his calming the nervous system 101 and was kind enough to share some more research to back this up. This one looks at how breathing improves our attention and reduces our cortisol levels – you can read reduction in cortisol, as reduction in stress as it’s a key stress hormone. Another discusses the positive impact on stress of deep breathing.
Bringing it back to injury for a moment when we’re more relaxed we produce less inflammation. This can only be good for any kind of injury.
Meditate With Your Eyes Open
Now we all know about the positive impact of meditation on calming us. And of course our nervous system. Many of our clients use it to aid their recovery from injury and also to help to stay injury free. Many of us struggle to stayed focused during meditation. Or if you’re anything like me you’ll just pass out after 5 minutes and wake up 2 hours later!
It’s the focus that’s the key though to successful and beneficial meditation. Paul suggests meditating with your eyes open to help keep you focused and not drop off. He also suggests trying to count the number of out breaths before your mind wanders off. It won’t be a big number for most of us. Don’t beat yourself up however low your number is but use the counting to give yourself an idea of how you’re doing relative to your previous performance. Overall this will get better with time, but some days will inevitably be better than others.
Less Multitasking And Over Stimulation Of Your Nervous System
If you’re multitasking it means you’re doing more than one thing badly. To do things well it has to have our complete focus. My wife really appreciates it when I cite this as the reason for ignoring her whilst I’m watching the TV. I’m just watching the TV really well! Sadly this is a bad example. Television is a really great way to overstimulate yourself.
I speak about reducing stimulation in pretty much every Blog post these days. Our best bits of advice can be found at this previous Blog: 9 Stress Busting Tips To Keep You Sound Of Body And Mind.
Eat well feel well right. We all know that right? But did you know why? Have you heard of serotonin? The so called happy hormone that adds to our sense of well being. I learned from Paul that 93% of the bodies serotonin is produced in your gut. Happy gut, happy life!
Speaking of serotonin of course exercise is great for such things. But not too much. We all know how good we feel after exercise thanks in part to the serotonin. As such this can become addictive and we can over rely on exercise to regulate our mood. Exercise is a bit like Goldilocks. Not too much, not too little, but just the right amount. What is the right amount for us all varies greatly and will change over the course of our life.
Your Thoughts Are Not Dangerous
If you treat a thought as dangerous your can develop obsessions. Over fixating on something that you fear happening is a great way to over stimulate the nervous system and keep you on edge all the time. A thought is just a thought. It’s up to you what you do with it. You can sit comfortably with and let it evolve into something else. Or you can hang onto them and fixate about it. It’s your choice.
Please excuse the gross over simplification here! If you want to get more comfortable sitting with your thoughts, feelings and emotions without being scared by them I strongly recommend The Language Of Emotions. There’s a whole chapter on anxiety. Enjoy!
Don’t Fight Your Anxiety
How do we keep ourselves constantly overstimulated? Fight. It’s not called ‘fight of flight’ for nothing! Paul tells us that if you fight with it you’re more likely to keep your anxiety in place rather than vanquish it. We’ll also be more inclined to reach for out nearest dopamine hit. Whichever poison that may be. Stay calm. Accept where you are, put the changes in place that need to be made and trust that you will heal. Be kind to yourself. Don’t fight yourself.
Don’t Fear The Unknown
When we’re anxious we tend to withdraw from life. Our friends. Our family. Our work. Anything and everything. For fear of what might happen. The less we do the less adaptable our brain becomes. Situations that previously we would have waltzed through become daunting. I’m not suggesting aversion therapy here and Paul positively guards against it.
Get out there do what you can, challenge yourself a bit. If you start looking after yourself properly you’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll become comfortable doing things you never even dreamed of.
Paul informs me chewing gum reduces anxiety and there’s research to back it up. Something about your body getting ready to eat being more part of a well being activity. If you’re eating the right things of course. For any football fans I’m sure we can all picture Alex Ferguson on the touchline chewing like a cow on steroids towards the end of tense games.
In my world however the increased use of the muscles of mastication is not necessarily a healthy compensation pattern. Over use of the masseter and temporalis muscles can lead locally to neck tension and headaches in the temple region. More globally they can be a compensation for inactive hip flexors. Which can be a symptom when we are not at ease with ourselves. My view is that we should be feeling at ease with ourselves and not reliant on external devices (chewing gum) to feel at ease.
Are You Living To Your Core Values?
Anxiety wants us to criticise ourselves to keep us in that hyper vigilant physical state. We tend to go against ourselves when we are not sticking to our true values as a person. We begin to internally attack ourselves. Many of us may not know what our true values are. There are many ways to work out what they are. Most of these methods start with a big list which you then whittle down. That’s how I found mine. There’s a big list in this Psychology Today post on how to find exactly what those core values are. Maybe try the approach shown here or just use the list in the article. Whatever feels best for you.
How To Cure Your Anxiety
So do I agree completely with Paul that anxiety is a completely physical state. I’m not sure. But I’m willing to be convinced. Certainly it makes sense in terms of how we’ve managed to help so many people who suffer from anxiety by primarily focusing on the physical side of things. But it seems to work better in those people who have moved on emotionally and are ‘ready’ to shed their previously anxious selves.
That said, where does physical end and emotional begin? This could get very philosophical! From my experience they are one and the same thing for reasons discussed above. Moving on physically helps us to move on emotionally. Moving on emotionally helps us to move on physically. The key for us as individuals is to recognise what it is that we need to change in ourselves to move out of our anxious states.
You may be able to do this all by yourself. You may need some help from us here, or Paul, or both. If it’s neither of us there are plenty of alternatives out there. Keep going until you find something that works for you. Anxiety is not something that happens to you, it is something that we all maintain. We are all capable of becoming less anxious. This article is a plea for you go out there and start helping yourself.
This Blog first appeared on our Brighton site.