7 movements to alleviate anxiety and increase mental resilience

From my feature in Top Sante - April issue

When dealing with anxiety, we are often drawn to think that the only way to ease the agitated parts of our mind is to practice relaxation techniques, perhaps we picture someone seated cross legged in meditation or resting in child’s pose. 

While increasing numbers of studies suggest that slow forms of Yoga and conscious breathing represent an effective adjunct therapy for people experiencing anxiety disorders, these are not the only ways we can use our mindful movement practice to shift into a safer mental/emotional state.

For some of us, a balanced and varied training programme, which not only includes calming but also stimulating activities, can be a more effective strategy to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and improve our resilience to stress.

For instance, being still and focusing inwards can be extremely challenging for the anxious mind, as rumination might arise and create even more discomfort. In this case, a vigorous practice can be beneficial to start with, especially for those of us who experience anxiety as restlessness.

Also, when performed within a safe range, physically challenging activities that lift our heart rate up help us associate a state of high activation with excitement and joy (the safe state of the sympathetic nervous system), rather than fear and anxiety only (the sympathetic nervous system under threat).

Furthermore, muscular contractions produce myokines, the hope molecules, which contribute to keep our brain healthy, reducing the symptoms of anxiety and depression

Below is a sequence that you can practice to train your nervous system to swing harmoniously and healthily between activated and relaxed states and respond to stress more efficiently. Some of these practices stimulate the vagus nerve (key in regulating our nervous system), others safely increase our resilience, others induce relaxation.

Always make sure you listen to your sensations and notice what feels good in your body. If anything feels painful or triggering, gently back off and choose a different movement; the more you practice the more you can learn how to use the right tools for you in a compassionate and wise way.

1. Expanding and contracting. With a wider stand, gently breathe in and open your arms, expanding your chest as if you wanted to stretch your whole body into an X shape. Breathe out and soften your knees, hugging yourself and releasing the weight of your head coming into a smaller shape. Repeat this pulsation in your own rhythm, feeling the movement of your arms and legs radiating from the centre of your body. 

Good for: 

- teaching your body how to harmoniously shift between the feeling of containment and safety as you hug yourself, and courage and confidence as you reach out into the world; 

- gently stimulating the vagus nerve by opening the chest and throat.

2. Arms swinging and shifting weight. Standing with your feet wider than your hips and soft knees, shift weight to one foot and swing your arms in the same direction, then change side as if you wanted to throw something. Keep your shoulders, spine and arms loose and allow your eyes to take in as much information as possible. Choose the pace and range of motion that feels right for you and after 2-5 minutes reset to centre. 

Good for: 

- calming some of the stress circuits through the optical flow, the apparent movement of the objects around you as you walk and shift your position in space; 

- releasing tension from your shoulders; 

- safely lifting your energy up and improving your mood.

3. Shaking. Standing with your feet slightly wider than your hips, gently bounce up and down through your knees and ankles, allowing the vibration to resonate in your whole body. Choose the range of movement and speed that feels right for you, the purpose is to loosen up your joints, shake off tension and feel your weight nicely dropping towards the ground. Close the movement returning to stillness and placing your hands on your chest and belly, noticing how your breath slows down and recovers. 

Good for

- consuming specific hormones and get rid of excess energy, so you can receive some relief from hyper-arousal and settle into stillness more easily;

- mimicking the very mechanism your body uses to discharge stress; 

- training our system to seamlessly shift from activation to relaxation.

4. Full Salamander. From a table top position on your hands and knees, look over to your right and let your right ear move towards your right shoulder. Let the bend in your side continue to involve your whole spine. Hold for about 30-60 seconds, return to centre and repeat on the other side. 

Good for

- toning the vagus nerve; 

- grounding, paying attention to the safe connection between your body and the Earth, which is often weakened when we are anxious.

5. All 4’s balance. Start in table top with your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips. Gently hug your abdominals in and up and lengthen your spine. Lift one knee and the opposite arm sideways and up and try and maintain balance, then smoothly and slowly switch side without moving your shoulders and hips. Allow your breath to be slow and full, and keep your gaze on the floor. Repeat 5-10 times on each side and feel free to slow the movement down and hold the position at the top for an extra challenge. 

Good for: 

- building the bridge between right and left hemisphere of the brain for better control of our impulses; 

- refocusing the mind when we are overwhelmed with anxious thoughts; 

- activating our core for extra resilience.

6. Bridge roll. Laying on your back, bend your knees and place your feet hips distance apart. Press your heels, arms and shoulders firmly on the ground and progressively lift your hips, lower back, middle back and upper back, as if you were peeling a necklace from the floor. Pause at the top and slowly reverse the movement articulating your spine from the top to the hips to return to the starting position. Try and match your breath and movement, using your whole inhalation to complete the journey in one direction, the whole exhalation to reverse. 

Good for: 

- gaining tolerance of bodily sensations of effort, especially when holding the hips lifted for a significant amount of time; 

- soothing the nervous system with slow and repetitive rhythmic movements mirroring the breath; 

- elongating your breath to shift into the calm parasympathetic state of the nervous system.

7. Neck stretches. From a comfortable seated position, rest your right hand on your left ear and allow your head to gently tilt sideways. Each time you breathe out, allow the weight of your right elbow to drop deeper and both shoulders to relax more, so you can softly create space between your left ear and right shoulder. Hold for about 10 breaths and slowly return to centre. Repeat on the other side, always staying in a safe range of 60-80% of intensity. 

Good for: 

- releasing tightness from your sternocleidomastoid and scalenes muscles in your neck, therefore producing a relaxation response (when our neck muscles are tense, our body sends “alert” messages to brain, when they are soft, the body signals that we are safe).

The full article has been published on Top Sante magazine April issue. 

Categories: feel good, resilience, stress