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Part 1: Take Care of Your Body

It’s awful to feel revved up in your body and overwhelmed by anxious thoughts. Some people seem prone to this. It’s something they deal with daily. For others, worry comes with challenging circumstances, sometimes lasting a day, sometimes a season.

This week, two clients with different temperaments – one anxious and the other sanguine but troubled over a fresh break up – asked me what to do “when anxiety hits.” I’m so glad they asked, because I’ve heard people talk about anxiety as if it’s something totally beyond their control. That may be the case for some people or at some times. However, for most people at most times, there are things you can do to help yourself.

Over three blogs posts, I’ll share with you, as I shared with them, what I’ve learned about the simple, but powerful, basics of mood management: how to take care of your body, regulate your state of arousal, and investigate your thinking. These interventions will not remove anxiety from your life forever. They will increase your wellbeing generally and help you manage worry when you experience it.

Take Care of Your Body: Keep Your “Body Budget” Flush

According to neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, in her book How Emotions Are Made, the brain evolved to regulate the body. Everything the body does, from thinking to feeling to moving to digesting, has metabolic costs. To “pay” for those costs, the body requires certain inputs: healthy food and water; sleep; movement; time in nature; and time with other humans. Feldman Barrett calls this balance of income and expenses the body budget.

Feldman Barrett says we feel the state of our body budget but not as vividly as we experience our external senses. And thank goodness; otherwise, we’d hardly be able to focus on the external world. (Think about the last time you were sick. How well were you able to pay attention to anything else?)

Because of this relative dullness, we tend to underestimate the influence of our body budget. However, the body budget is what creates our affect: when our body budget is flush, it’s a pleasant sensation that we experience as a good mood; when it’s in deficit, it’s unpleasant and we experience a bad mood.

Parents of babies and young children understand this intimately and so actively manage their child’s eating, activity, and sleep. If you don’t have children, but you’ve ever been “hangry” or felt better after a good night’s sleep, you also understand the concept of a body budget.

This has huge implications for anxious times because emotions have metabolic consequences: emotional upsets deplete your body budget; a depleted body budget feels unpleasant; this creates a bad mood. So, when you are going through a rough patch or managing an anxious temperament on a daily basis, it is vital that you make feeding your body budget your priority to give yourself a fighting chance of feeling good.

To understand what feeds the body budget, think about how humans lived for most of our time on earth – about 140,000 years – until the agricultural revolution and the advent of cities: in small, cooperative groups, in nature, with nature’s bounty and rhythms. I call these The Big 5.

The Big 5

Healthy food and ample hydration. Generally, the closer a food or beverage is to its natural, unrefined or unadulterated state, the healthier it is. For example, a whole grain is healthier than bread or a cheese puff; water is healthier than an energy drink.

Ample sleep. Circadian rhythms and hours vary according to age. Here’s a simple guide. For a more in-depth discussion, here’s a fascinating interview with sleep researcher Matthew Walker.

Movement. It’s important not to be sedentary. Low-to-moderate intensity movement daily with bursts of high intensity weekly were the experience our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and our modern bodies expect the same. Here’s what the Mayo Clinic says about exercise.

Nature. Again, parents of babies and young children need no proof of the power of nature. They know from experience that spending time outdoors daily helps keep a child happy, works as a giant reset button to soothe an upset soul, and that a lack of nature is harmful (see Nature Deficit Disorder). The phenomenon of Japanese Forest Bathing attests to its enduring power for adults.

Other humans. This aspect of body budgeting requires more explanation than the others. Humans are social creatures. We evolved from social primates, not from solitary species (like tigers), so our bodies expect some regulation from other humans. . . but not just any humans: humans who love us unconditionally and are protective of us.

So, be sure you spend time with such humans daily and limit your time with humans who fall outside that category, particularly if you’ve just experienced a breakup of some kind. The loss of an intimate depletes your body budget. Be proactive about “replacing” that lost contact with increased contact with good friends and family. In other words, your body budget needs you to reach out to others as you’re recovering!

+1: Meditation

Modern life is so different from how the human body evolved to live that some form of meditation is a necessary adjunct to body budgeting. Meditation is time away from thinking and doing and can take many forms: a quiet walk in nature; staring up at the sky; journaling; yoga; traditional sitting meditations. Find a handful that work for you and do something daily.

My favorites, which I do as daily practice and as-needed, are deep breathing and The Work.

Looking after your body budget by prioritizing The Big 5 + 1 provides a solid foundation for wellbeing. Next week I’ll discuss another facet of self-care, the skill of regulation.

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