Relieve Anxiety by Zipping In, Not Out

What to do with the gnawing discomfort and prickly, excessive energy of anxiety? My go-to strategies are walks, hard work outs, doing chores, writing, weed pulling, filling the bird feeders… something to engage my body and my whole attention to the task.

This strategy of getting into my body is curiously calming and soothing, and often steers me toward solutions to my angst without me consciously controlling the process. It seems so magical and mystical to me. Turns out there is important science to support these experiences–that zipping in is better than zipping out.

Many of us just want to fly out of our bodies when the discomfort of anxiety descends upon us (or smacks us between the eyes). We anesthetize the anxious feelings and sensations in our bodies with umpteen strategies and distractions–food, self-loathing (ugh… the ubiquitous guilt and shame!), shopping, alcohol, drugs, social media, or excessive busy-ness.

But what if I told you that these strategies NEVER lead us to sustainable solutions? That only by SINKING INTO the body–where the discomfort of anxiety resides–will we find our solutions. This doesn’t mean marinating in our anxious thoughts. It’s about embodiment–using the body’s electrical genius to calm, soothe, and transform.

The Science of Embodiment Explains How Integrated Movements and Strategies Help Calm Our Anxious Minds.

In his book,  The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, Steven Kotler writes about the deep embodiment employed by elite athletes and master performers to achieve flow states–the experience of calm, cool, full surrender to the task and the moment, which when combined with skill and practice, allows them to perform at their highest level by losing themselves to the moment and the experience–to flow.

People in flow states are able to disengage just enough from their thoughts, judgments, and stories–attributes that can get in the way of optimal performance–to fully participate in the tasks at hand.

We can apply this same principle to the experience of anxiety. It’s so often our stories and judgements about our feelings that make matters far worse. And our efforts to anesthetize our feelings lead to stagnation and lack of resolution–the anxiety always comes back.

Kotler’s hypothesis is that part of what happens when people achieve flow states is they learn to use (whether conscious of it or not) sensory information from their bodies to turn off the excessive thinking (very often the most painful part of anxiety) that gets in the way of of optimal performance.

Applying Kotler’s concept of embodiment to the experience of anxiety allows us to:

  • become more present to our experiences
  • release our anxious thoughts and stories
  • go with the flow of the present moment (rather than the future or past where our anxious minds want to steer us)
  • open ourselves to solutions and possibilities (that our anxious minds shut down)

A Functional Frontal Lobotomy: How the Science of Embodiment Works

We are exquisitely wired to receive enormous quantities of sensory information from our bodies and our environments–through all of our senses–and transmit this to our brains continuously. More than fifty percent of all such sensory information heading toward our brains originates in our feet, hands, and faces. Another large share comes from our perception of where our bodies are in space–through balance, movement, and proprioception (our sense of body placement).

When our bodies are engaged in a complex activity, they produce large amounts of sensory data that flows from these areas to the brain. The sheer magnitude of this sensory information flow is too much to manage at any given time and overwhelms the brain’s capacity to process everything. This leads to a state Kotler refers to as “hypofrontality.” This is, in essence, a functional pre-frontal lobotomy–inhibition of our conscious, thinking minds–overwhelming the analytical parts of our brains with so much sensory data that they go off line. This process can be used strategically as a way to purposely reduce the interference of thoughts on what we are trying to accomplish.

Embodiment as a Tool for Relieving Anxiety

For those of us with anxious constitutions we can use embodiment as a tool to get our anxious minds out of our way. By challenging and engaging our bodies through a variety of movements and tasks we can reduce our anxious thoughts, feel a greater sense of calm, and empower ourselves to experience the deeper wisdom of our instincts and intuition. By getting our minds out of our way, we open ourselves to guidance and solutions to our problems.

How to Use Embodiment to Relieve Anxiety and Create Sustainable Solutions

  • Move as a way of life: Sit, stand, walk, run, skip, hop, balance, stoop. Walk in the woods. Work in your garden. Mow the lawn. Dance. Movement supports embodiment.
  • Be challenged by movements that are new, hard, or feel risky and uncomfortable: practice something new, embrace the awkwardness and uncertainty, work on skills that require balance.
  • Focus on engaging and invigorating activities: hobbies, chores, or tasks–art, music, fixing things.
  • Spend time everyday walking with bare feet–this literal grounding sets up extensive electrical signaling from the feet to the brain to clear room for calming and clearing the mind.
  • Keep a calm face in the midst of intensity: hold that challenging yoga pose, pull that heavy deadlift, while focusing on relaxing the muscles of the face, neck, and jaw.
  • For more acute anxiety, engage the sensations of the body through movement, power poses, or, as I do, lay flat on the ground, drop into a squat with feet flat on the ground and palms touching. Breathe.

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Resources:

Steven Kotler. The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. New Harvest, 2014.

Karyn Shanks, MD. The Genius of Our Anxious Minds. 2017.

Karyn Shanks, MD. Anxiety: Simple Ways to Calm and Soothe by Fine Tuning Your Biology. 2017.

Karyn Shanks, MD. The Upside to Being An Anxious Person (A Doctor Explains). mindbodygreen. June 27, 2017.

KARYN SHANKS MD

Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-five-year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.

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Join the discussion One Comment

  • Janelle says:

    I’ve thought about this concept in the context of our mainstream culture, where consumption of information, entertainment and objects are among the main things (and easy, enjoyable things) people are encouraged to do.
    I like the way you’ve concretely applied the concepts here to management of anxiety. Indigenous cultures are there already.

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