So… you’re tired of being anxious and you’ve decided it’s time for a change.
You want things to be different so you want to make BIG changes to reflect the BIG shift in how you want to feel.
But to make this happen, you need to accept that, in order to feel differently, you need to ‘do’ differently. Possibly changing your environment like your job, friends, and home life can really affect how we feel, but changing the essence of your internal state is where feeling different is truly manifested.
We often try to apply a quick, bold, and external solution to make ourselves feel better in the moment, but most of the time that change doesn’t stick emotionally. So what’s the deal? Why don’t you just feel better when you want to?
Because it’s unrealistic. Creating a balanced emotional state does not occur overnight, and telling ourselves that there should be this one BIG, AMAZING moment where we magically feel better is counterproductive.
We set ourselves up to chase a feeling, and since feelings change from moment to moment, so will our desire to continue doing the thing that will eventually make us feel better.
Let’s Take a Step Back…
To understand why the most dramatic changes are incremental ones, it’s important to reflect on infancy. A newborn’s movements are very limited and it takes many weeks for the baby to gently bring its head up, strengthening their neck muscles.
After some time, the baby learns to roll over. Then the baby starts to pull itself up. After hundreds of attempts, the baby stands without assistance. And then, what seems like all of a sudden, the baby walks! Wow.
From an observer’s perspective, we just see the baby taking steps and applaud its walking efforts, but what about all the stuff leading up to the baby walking? All of the baby’s small movements that progressively made the child stronger and created a neural network of building blocks that made the act of walking possible. What about all that effort and experience?
These pieces are often overlooked while only the end result is celebrated. What about all the months of the baby training its muscles, tendons, and bones to work together in harmony?
This example speaks to how subtle practices eventually lead to change. Keeping on with that example, it’s clear that the baby’s repetitive efforts to lift its head created a crescendo of events that strengthened its body and mind to eventually result in walking.
So, when we look at change through the lens of development, we can say that there is a delay between what the brain is already doing and what we consciously register. The baby’s brain was preparing the body for walking long before the baby was conscious that she was taking her first steps!
This means that if we want to create a change, we need to set an intention to change and practice subtle exercise daily to facilitate that change. Each time you choose to do what you value over how you may feel in the moment, your brain strengthens a new neural connection. Through time your brain can move into healthier patterns on a deeper, less conscious level. This means that eventually you’ll start feeling ‘better’ without conscious effort.
Commit to New Daily Interventions
Subtle daily interventions are undeniable elements necessary for change. Change does not happen over night.
Telling yourself that “it shouldn’t be so hard” is not motivating… it’s actually pretty disheartening. Looking for immediate results and that long-sought-after “feel good” feeling is counter-productive. It’s okay to be where you’re at right now, and it’s wonderful that you want to make a change now. But, I encourage you to be kind and realistic. Understanding the need for gradual, progressive change is imperative to healing. That is why I suggest subtle practices for facilitating this growth mindset.
DO Try This at Home:
As a first step toward wellness here, ask yourself: can you tell the difference between tension and relaxation in your body? Take a moment right now to take your physical and emotional baseline. Is your body holding tension somewhere? Do you feel calm or do you notice some anxiety?
Why is noticing this the first step to change? Because often times we are completely unaware of what our body is doing. And, our bodily responses are a great indicator to our mental state.
We might “think” we are relaxing, but really, our shoulders are up to our ears, our jaw is clenched, and our arms are crossed tightly in front of our bodies. If we break it down to observe what are body is doing in the moment, it’s easier to objectively notice that we are not REALLY relaxed.
Now for a little experiment:
With your next breath, tighten the space of your forehead by raising your eyebrows. Smile widely and squint your eyes together. Notice if your breath changes at all as you hold your face in a state of tension.
Now, let go of your tension completely. Let your eyes, lips, and forehead become relaxed. Breathe in and out of your nose. Notice what your body feels like as you rest.
Next, flex your feet towards your face, tightening your lower and upper legs. Hold this tension as you breathe in and out of your nose. Notice your breath – has it changed at all?
Now, let go of flexing your feet. Allow your legs to go limp and simply breathe in and out as you rest.
Next, ball your hands into little fists. Squeeze as tightly as you can. Breathe slowly for five seconds.
Now, let go of the tension in your hands. Breathe for a few moments and notice the difference between the tension in your hands a few moments ago and what you are experiencing now.
Take another baseline. Do you feel more relaxed? Does your mind feel any calmer?
If not, don’t worry, it takes time to notice the subtle changes our body and mind go through during progressive muscle relaxation. The goals here is to notice that you are capable of creating tension AND relaxation in your body. You are mindfully engaging in a conversation with your body, letting yourself feel tension and then relaxation.
Now, notice your breathing. For the next five seconds decide to track your breath without altering your breath in any way. What did you notice? Is your inhale or exhale longer? What was the temperature of your breath?
Is your breath shallow or deep?
We notice our breathing because it helps us better understand our relationship to our bodies. For example, in times of tension it is more likely for your breath to be shallow and for your exhales to be shorter than your inhales. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s important to note because shorter breathes mean that less oxygen is being delivered to the brain and it is more likely to experience a stress response.
Checking in on Your Breathing
Since we’re here, let’s do another quick experiment.
Practice changing the duration of your breath. Start with a four count.
• Inhale, 2, 3, 4
• Exhale 2, 3, 4
Do this for a total of 60 seconds and then check in with yourself. What are you noticing in your body?
Emphasize Your Mind-Body Connection When Making These Subtle Changes
Although these exercises (progressive muscle tension and relaxation AND regulated breathing) may not seem like a BIG deal, these exercises have a BIG impact on how you feel and move through life.
These exercises, in addition to other practices such a restorative yoga, offer your brain the opportunity to explore the relaxation response on a deeper level, mindfully affording you the pathway to strengthen your parasympathetic response. It takes time for the brain to form new ways of responding to stress, but the more time you spend cultivating a healthier relationship with your relaxation response, the more balanced you become.
So, if you’re looking to make a change, choose to prioritize subtle change first. For example, challenge yourself to regulate your breathing for four minutes each day for the next week and track your physical response. Then maybe decide to keep it up for the following week.
Reflect on your physical responses after 1, 2, 3 weeks.
I bet you your anxiety will start to shift. It will be a subtle shift, but with time, your brain will start choosing a calming response over an activating one. The more frequently that happens, the easier it is for you to make choices that align with reducing and managing anxiety more healthily. Then, one day, you might just feel a little different, and that feeling will be more likely to be your new baseline as you’ve laid the foundation for responding from a balanced internal state.