How to tailor various 'anxiety-reducing' techniques to better suit your own needs

Combining various mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) can have numerous health benefits, according to new research.

Anxiety-reducing techniques you read about online can be tailored to better suit your needs.

Image by Benjavisa Ruangvaree Art on Shutterstock
  • Mindfulness is typically described as the ability to become more aware of your physical, mental, and emotional well-being at the present moment, without any negative perceptions.
  • In a 2019 UK-based study, participants who tailored various self-help practices to fit their individual circumstances and anxieties found them much more beneficial after as little as 5 minutes per day.
  • Different mindfulness techniques fit well together – here, we take a look at how to tailor various combinations to suit your individual needs.

    How do mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) work?

    peace of mind label on wooden surface

    Achieving peace of mind through various mindfulness techniques is easier than you think.

    Photo by Coompia77 on Shutterstock

    What is mindfulness?
    While there is currently no universally accepted definition for mindfulness (as it can vary depending on each person's definition of mindfulness or how to achieve it), the general idea associated with mindfulness is that you become more aware of your physical, mental, and emotional well-being at the present moment.

    A 2019 study assessed how MBIs have been applied successfully across different populations of people, reaching a conclusion that even brief exposure (as little as 5 minutes a day) can impact numerous health-related incomes such as anxiety, depression, stress, and cognitive outcomes.

    Some examples of MBIs include:

    • Yoga
    • Meditation
    • Progressive muscle relaxation
    • Breathing exercises
    • Guided imagery practices

    Mental health professionals suggest that through mindfulness practices, we can separate ourselves from negative thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations that revolve around the daily stresses in our lives. This kind of separation allows us to gain perspective and find it easier to address the issues we're facing.

    Combine multiple techniques to achieve the best results.

    While anxiety patients generally pick one type of MBI and test it, switching to another if that one is unsuccessful, research shows that psychological stress-management techniques like these are best in combination with each other instead of one by one. In 2019, a separate study by UK-based researchers Xu Wang, Connie Smith, Laura Ashley, and Michael E. Hyland looked at the impact of tailoring specific mindfulness-based interventions to each individual in their study of stroke survivors struggling with anxiety.

    Based on the results, two things are clear:

    • After the participants tailored these self-help practices to fit their individual circumstances and anxieties, they were perceived as more acceptable, user-friendly, and beneficial.
    • In order for these mindfulness techniques to be most beneficial, they should be practiced once per day.

    Which MBI techniques go well together?

    woman in yoga position focusing on breathing concept of mindfulness techniques

    Focusing on your breathing is a critical part of most MBI practices.

    Photo by fizkes on Shutterstock

    Mindful breathing and meditation
    Pausing and taking a few deep breaths is a good way to get a handle on your emotions, but in order for mindful breathing exercises to really work, research suggests you pay attention to the physical senses as well.

    In this beginner's guide to meditation, it's suggested to "follow your breath" for two minutes before really anchoring yourself in a meditation session. Naturally, your mind will wander. Take note of the distraction but don't let it consume you.

    Simply ignoring the outside world to try to focus on your breathing will only create more distractions. Instead, allowing yourself to be aware of your physical surroundings will make it much easier to eventually tune those things out and focus on your breathing.

    Yoga and mindful breathing
    Simply "going through the motions," as many do when following a yoga tutorial on Youtube or practicing something they read about online, isn't nearly as impactful as allowing the natural flow of yoga and breathing to carry you into a calm state of mind.

    Research supports the idea that yoga, in combination with mindful breathing techniques, can improve physical and mental health through regulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is our central stress response system.

    Progressive muscle relaxation, mindful breathing, and guided imagery
    Progressive muscle relaxation is the technique where you tense a group of muscles as you breathe in and relax that group of muscles as you breathe out. It incorporates mindful breathing, but guided imagery practices can take this anxiety-reducing technique to the next level.

    Progressive muscle relaxation looks like this:

    • Breathe in, tensing the first muscle group hard, but not hard enough to cause discomfort or cramping, for a maximum of 10 seconds.
    • Breathe out, completely relaxing the muscle group suddenly. This shouldn't be a gradual release, it should be a quick release.
    • Relax for a maximum of 20 seconds before moving onto the next muscle group.

    A breakdown of muscle groups and how-to instructions for muscle relaxation can be found via the University of Michigan's Health Library website. It's important to do this technique in the correct muscle group order to allow yourself to benefit from the experience.

    Once you've completed this technique a few times and feel familiar with how it goes, adding guided imagery practices can help you work on your timing and release/relaxation moments can become more impactful.

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    New research establishes an unexpected connection.

    Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

    Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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    • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

    We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

    A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

    The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

    An unexpected culprit

    The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

    What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

    "We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

    "Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

    fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

    Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

    The experiments

    The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

    You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

    For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

    Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

    The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

    However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

    The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

    As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

    The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

    The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

    "We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

    Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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