When we are anxious and have OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), our sympathetic nervous system stays activated. In this state, our bodies are on alert and go into survival mode. Not only do we react in a fight, flight or freeze mode, but our immune system shuts down, our blood rushes from our extremities (the reason why our hands feel cold and the reason we can experience panic attacks), our ability to problem solve goes down, and our pulse rate goes up.
In order to lower our anxiety level, we need to cognitively work on changing our beliefs about that anxiety (usually with the help of a therapist) and implement some physiological exercises.
The following simple relaxation techniques can activate the parasympathetic nervous system and will help you relax, lower blood pressure and lower pulse rate.
1. Sit in a recliner.
- Take your pulse rate and write it down (plus the date).
- Close your eyes,
- Cinch your fists,
- Hold your breath after you have inhaled as much air as you can, and begin counting in your head (1001, 1002, 1003 …)
- Count until you feel you are going to pop.
- Slowly, let the air out of your lungs, relax your fists, and think of a situation where you were totally relaxed (i.e., lying in a hammock on the beach).
When all the air is released, take a few breaths, inhale as much as you can and begin the procedure again. Do this exercise three times. After the third time, record both your pulse rate and how high you counted. The goal is to do this exercise two times a day, and after several weeks observe that your max count figure is going up and your pulse rate is going down. This exercise will activate your parasympathetic nervous system.
Note: If you are anxious about a particular experience (like flying on an airplane), you can break down the event into several parts and go through the above exercise on each part until you get that pulse rate down.
2. Count your exhales for one minute.
Then look at a doorframe and let your eyes scan around it – top, right, bottom, left, and repeat. As your eyes look at the top of the doorframe – inhale; as your eyes look down the sides of the door – exhale. Do this for a minute, counting your exhales. Watch how this exercise lowers your exhales. Again, the lower the exhales, the more activated your parasympathetic nervous system becomes.
3. Do the same as above (#2), except place both hands on your lap.
Start with both index fingers up and inhale. Then while exhaling, lower the index fingers toward your lap. (Don’t let your fingers touch your lap until you have released all the air in your lungs.) Your exhale count will be lower than the exhales when you merely counted them for one minute.
4. Keep moving…
Humming, yawning, fast eye movement from left to right and right to left, forcing yourself to salivate (by thinking about your favorite foods) and forcing yourself to smile will also activate your parasympathetic nervous system.
No matter where you are, these simple techniques can help you relax. Give them a try.
Dr. Rick Fowler earned a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology/Theology (Greenville College), a Master of Arts degree in Social Science Education (University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point), an Education Specialist degree in Social Science (University of Georgia), a Doctorate of Education in Social Psychology (Highland University), and received his LPC, LMFT certification (University of Texas at Tyler).