an illustration of African American woman feels anxiety and emotional stress.
Mental Health

How to deal with anxiety: how “tuning” your nervous system could help increase your coping capacity and lower stress

How can “tuning” our nervous system help us to deal with the stress of everyday life? 

If you’ve experienced anxiety at any level, you’ll know that it can sometimes feel difficult to pinpoint a cause. Of course, we each have certain triggers that send our minds into an anxious state, and we work to avoid them. However, when it comes to our day-to-day lives, it turns out that there are plenty of stressful situations that we expose ourselves to without even realising, and it’s wreaking havoc with our mental wellbeing.

According to David Hanscom MD, author of Anxiety: Another Name For Pain, being aware of the consequences of your actions that fire up your physiology and cause your body stress is increasingly important when it comes to dealing with the effects of anxiety.

You may also like

News anxiety: does reading the news leave you feeling anxious for hours? You could have a “sticky mind”

This can be anything as simple as paying more attention to the kinds of films we watch, games we play, messages we listen to and people we spend time around, and how all of these make us feel.

“You have choices regarding what you input into your nervous system,” writes Hanscom for Psychology Today.

According to him, when our attention is on disturbing or tense topics, we remain agitated, which fires up our whole body’s reaction and puts our nervous system under pressure.

Anger and anxiety describe agitated physiological states and are sensations generated by your body’s response to threats,” he explains further.

“When states of agitation are sustained, your body’s physiology causes physical damage to your tissues, sensitises your perception of sensory input, and detracts from your capacity to enjoy life. Mental and physical pain will also increase.”

You may also like

“The surprisingly simple way I learned to live with my anxiety”

The good news is that we’re not completely helpless to this. “To some degree, you are in charge of the information going into your nervous system, and what you choose to input into your nervous system will affect your body’s chemistry (output),” he continues.

He goes on to explain how our bodies have a very physical fight or flight mechanism. When we feel threatened, the body reacts by upping their rate of energy consumption and kindling inflammation, by putting the immune system on guard against wounds.

When our minds are exposed to any threatening thoughts or concepts, the exact same thing happens, causing anxiety. Sure, we might be aware that our doomscrolling habit isn’t doing us any good, but do we know just how much harm it could be inflicting?

And how can we learn to “tune out” from this stressful state?

You may also like

No, it’s not (just) your imagination: why the stress of the pandemic appears to slow down time

“Understanding the effects of what you are inputting into your nervous system is important in calming it down,” says Hanscom. “Initially, they may be so ingrained that you can’t see them or the effects they are having on the quality of your life. It takes practice to notice and is also challenging to change. How much of your life has been consumed by them. Are they productive?

You may notice that as you back away from these activities, you may feel more anxious, as you are less distracted.”

He continues: “Anxiety is unpleasant, and it takes practice to learn to tolerate it. Eventually, as you quit fighting this sensation, it will be less powerful and integrated into your daily life. It is a stepwise process and a learned skill.”

And part of this may involve rethinking certain routines that lead to unpleasant neurological circuits. For example, while venting sessions with our friends often feel like they’re helping us take a weight off our chests, Hanscom suggests that talks that focus purely on complaining are counterproductive and can actually stoke more anxiety than they relieve.

Instead, he says: “a better alternative is choosing to place your attention on more functional or more positive neurological circuits,” such as a more balanced catch up or combining these talks with movement, which is anti-inflammatory.

The same goes for gossiping and spending long periods watching the news. If you can “tune” yourself out of these behaviours, Hanscom says, you put your mind and body under less stress.

Maybe checking out from the chaos of the world every once in a while is what we all need, after all.

If you think you need help managing your anxiety, Anxiety UK offers support and help accessing therapy.

Sign up for the latest news and must-read features from Stylist, so you don't miss out on the conversation.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

Images: Getty