Why Moving Your Hands Can Quickly Ease Anxiety

Carolyn Rexius's picture

Why Moving Your Hands Can Quickly Ease AnxietyYou step up to the microphone, the front of the boardroom or that unpleasant phone call you need to make and your heart rate elevates to an almost unbearable rhythm. You can feel the blood flow out of your brain and the room starts to get blurry. An invisible crane lifting you out of the room sounds great about now---yet there are things you can do for instantaneous relief—and they don’t involve an invisible crane. All you need to do is move your hands from the center of your vision to the peripheral and your anxiety symptoms will start to diminish. This sounds like a pleasant dream, but just moving your like a pleasant dream, but just moving your hands as well as simple things such as yawning can actually alleviate your anxiety rather quickly.

To understand why this works, let’s go back to our high school science class and see how our nervous system operates.

Nervous System

The main components of the nervous system that we need to be aware of are the Sympathetic System and the Parasympathetic system.

Parasympathetic Nervous System

The parasympathetic nervous system is online in your brain when you are in the “flow” of your life. This system is for “business as usual”. You’re in your parasympathetic nervous system when there is no perceived threat and you are just living life. You feel relaxed in this state and your breathing and heart rate will be normal. Ideally, you spend the majority of your time here as it as much easier to function and live a normal life in this state.

Sympathetic Nervous System

On the other hand- and hopefully not too often- you’re in your Sympathetic Nervous System. You probably remember hearing about the fight or flight response and how this enables you to rise to the occasion or flee in danger. This is part of the Sympathetic Nervous System. It takes over in emergency situations like jumping out of the way of a falling object or running away from a bear. This system also takes over during focused experiences (remember this for later) like watching a beautiful sunset or during an upsetting event like when someone opens their car door and nicks your car.

Body Reactions:

When you are in the Sympathetic Nervous System, your muscles get tight, your breath gets shallow, your digestion is slowed down, your thinking brain goes off line, your reacting brain takes over and life stops while you deal with the "threat". These symptoms remain until your brain sounds the "all clear" and signals the threat is over.

Stuck in the Sympathetic:

Sometimes people get stuck in the sympathetic nervous system because they have either had something pretty bad happen or they are afraid that something bad is going to happen. They feel anxious, worried, angry or scared even though there is nothing happening at the moment to cause this. Their body is behaving as if they are in the midst of a crisis. It is not an easy thing to talk yourself out of this emotional place and it can make your daily life tasks seem almost impossible.

What You Can Do:

Fortunately there are actions that you can take to move your body from the sympathetic state to the parasympathetic one. If you start to give your body signals that you would experience if you were in a relaxed body, you can find your way over to a relaxed nervous state. Here are three things you can do to stay in your parasympathetic system:

  1. Move Your Hands: One exercise that you can use to calm your body down involves your hands. Try this simple exercise: Put your hands together straight out in front of eyes. With your arms extended, separate your hands widening them to the point of just being able to see them out of the corner of your eyes while still looking straight ahead. Remember that in the Sympathetic system your focus starts to narrow in, so this allows you to do the exact opposite and widen your focus. 
  2. Yawning: Try yawning and holding the yawn for several seconds. Then repeat this several times. Your body often yawns in the Parasympathetic State and it’s a quick way to tell your body that you are relaxed.
  3. Deep Breathing & Sighing: Take a slow deep breath through your nose. Imagine the air going to the very bottom of your lungs. Count to five as you inhale. Hold for five then release and exhale for six or seven seconds. Breathing deeply and exhaling for a few seconds longer than you inhale relaxes the body.

Try these simple exercises when you’re feeling anxious, before a job interview, a presentation or when meeting someone new. Every time you do them you’re training your body to relax and stay in the moment.