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Breathe, Move, Relax, Nourish: Using Your Body to Manage Anxiety

Like athletes, good leaders benefit by getting their bodies ready for difficult or stressful situations.

When there is a lot of change or conflict taking place in an organization, leaders can face uncomfortable feelings and responses. Cope and prepare with these four words: breathe, move, relax and nourish.

When I served as a pastor, a tense situation at church would increase my personal anxiety. I could feel my heart start to race, my hands sweat, muscles tense up, and stomach churn. Sometimes I didn’t sleep well at night because I thought over and over about what happened and what I could do about it. I had the same kind of response years earlier when I served in various positions as a lay leader.

The systemic tools to manage anxiety that I described last week are best when backed up by personal tools. Personal anxiety can be managed in five realms, physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioral and spiritual. Breathe, move, relax and nourish are subgroups of the physical tools.

Systems tools help identify and resolve the root causes of tension, but it is often easier and more effective to use those tools if you ease your personal stress first.

In addition, the most effective systemic tools often temporarily raise personal anxiety. Dealing with the physical symptoms of anxiety helps to keep a situation tolerable until the systemic tools take effect.

Personal tools are for you. You can’t make other people use these. However, talking about how the tools help you, could motivate others to try.

Here are a few suggestion in each category to get you started:

Breathe

It is so easy to convince oneself that there is no time to stop and breathe, but when we don’t take the time to slow down on a regular basis, physical anxiety builds up and makes any task harder to accomplish. Here are some ways to breathe:

  • Take some deep cleansing breaths by drawing the air to your gut until you feel your stomach expand, then letting it out slowly. It’s simple, basic and momentary, but it’s a good way to face the onset of anxiety because deep breathing can relax you physically and mentally.
  • Meditate. Taking five or ten minutes a day to sit and mediate with no interruptions can make a big difference. Try setting a timer, then sit in a comfortable position and focus on your breathing. Don’t force yourself to breathe deeply, just pay attention to the gentle in and out of your breath, and let other thoughts float away for the moment. If you find this helpful try increasing to 20 minutes a day.
  • Listen to relaxing music. When we listen to music our breath matches the rhythms we hear. If you choose music with a slow steady beat, you can slow down and even out your breathing.

Move

Movement gives anxiety a beneficial focus. By working out or enjoying a physical activity, you can release anxiety during stressful times. It’s easy to convince yourself there is no time, but managing anxiety through purposeful movement makes us more efficient and healthier which saves time in the long run.

  • Take a walk.
  • Exercise.
  • Dance.
  • Play a physical game like ping pong, badminton, bowling or basketball.

Relax

Stop, slow down and allow yourself to unwind and rest even if it is only for 20 minutes. Taking a temporary break from a long list of demands helps to put life in perspective.

  • Take a warm bath.
  • Sit down and sip a cup of coffee or tea with no other agenda.
  • Allow yourself to go to bed on time in order to get enough sleep, or to rest if you feel too keyed up to fall asleep right away.

Nourish

  • Eat healthy meals and resist “junk” food. This is especially important and beneficial when you are under a lot of stress. Many of us tend to crave chocolate, chips and baked goods when we are under stress. These give a fleeting sense of pleasure with no long term benefit. What our bodies really need to perform at their best is good sustenance.
  • Drink plenty of water and other non-alcoholic beverages.

This is a part of a five week series on managing personal anxiety in five realms: physicalcognitive, behavioral, emotional and spiritual.

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