Part 1: Research Proves Tiny Actions Can Help to Conquer Anxiety

Over the past few months, I’ve been experiencing episodes of anxiety, way more than I have in the past. Bouts of anxiety with a frigging capital “A”. And I mean ugly, massive, whole body, language robbing, focus stealing ANXIETY.

Like all of us, I still had responsibilities to fulfil: family to do’s, business activities (like writing this post for one), household duties. You know, life.

But if you, someone you love or a client is seriously anxious and/or depressed, taking action can seem impossible. It’s especially difficult because the very nature of anxiety tells us: “it’s not safe. I can’t do it”. While depression convinces us there’s no point, so why bother?

So how on earth, when these gremlins are running through our lives and minds or in some cases, running our lives and minds, do we find a way to take action to help ourselves?

PS: This tool is also especially effective as an antidote for what I call perfectionistic procrastination paralysis (aka P3). If you’re already flourishing, it can move the needle to more wellness too.

Practice taking SPACE:

I practice a technique I call SPACESmall Positive Actions have Cumulative Effect.

I call B.S. on the “Go Big or Go Home” kind of thinking. It’s not true! Tiny efforts do not result in tiny results. Tiny is big. Slow is smart. Applying microscopic yet consistent positive measures yields BIG positive changes over time.

The Low-Down on How to Practice Taking SPACE to Reduce Anxiety and Increase Wellness

1. Make a series of small, sustained healthy choices (the tinier the better).

2. Make ‘the tiny’ something you can successfully do, but also pushes you a bit.

3. Do NOT wait until you feel better or feel like taking action. Take tiny action NOW. Feeling better results from doing healthier things first, not the other way around.

4. The accumulation of repeated, gentle, positive actions will slowly improve mood and increase wellness.

5. When you make choices towards wellness the world around you will respond with care and concern. Your new choices will draw in helpful resources and people.

When I’m running up against the wall of depression or anxiety, I set intentionally ‘itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny’ achievable goals.

Since I know exercise is excellent for reducing my anxiety, but I’m feeling like I just want to hide indoors thank you very much, I start like this:

I commit to walking to the mailbox. Seriously. Then usually I end up walking a bit further just because it actually feels good to be outside. The next day, I ‘rev’ it up to 5 minutes of walking. Then I keep doing that. Over the next 7 days, before I know it, I’ll be walking or back to running for my usual 20 – 30 minutes three times a week.

Neuroscience and research shows tiny actions work.

There’s neuroscience to back up this phenomenon I call SPACE. Dr. Alex Korbe author of “The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time”1 explains that small, positive life changes, actually trigger positive neural changes which contribute to good mental health. “Any tiny change can be just the push your brain needs to start spiralling upward,” he writes in his book. Positive actions are self-reinforcing and build momentum for more benefits.

He describes how practicing gratitude triggers serotonin production which lifts mood and helps improve quality of life which helps you feel better. Exercise, he goes on to say, changes the electrical activity in the brain during sleep which decreases anxiety, improves mood and gives more energy to exercise.

How tiny is tiny?

One observational study of 416,175 Taiwanese found that just 15 minutes of low-volume, moderate intensity exercise extends life expectancy by three years.2

Lead researcher Chi Pang Wen of Taiwan’s National Health Research Institutes found the benefits apply to everyone, all levels of health, all ages and sexes, not just for those people who are sedentary.3, 4

“The tiny” is whatever you can manage to achieve but that also pushes you just a bit.

For example: Say the desire to sleep all day is upon you like a cat scrambling on your shoulders to avoid a bath. “The tiny” in this case might be committing to get up at 11:30am instead of noon. Repeat that the next day. Then the day after, set your alarm for 11:15am and so on.

If you’re feeling well, but want to make a good thing better, tiny changes make that easier to do. Like drinking more water. Choose to drink one glass or one more glass of water as soon as you get up. And make it habit paired with brushing your teeth.

Reminders

1. The beneficial effects won’t result with the first or second action completed. It will take a few days or, yes, even a few weeks, but through the consistent, gentle effort, improved mood and wellness will happen and will reinforce itself.

2. Enlist others to help if even the tiniest of tiny steps feel insurmountable. Have a family member or a peer support worker text or call you to give you extra energy and a little push.

3. Your actions declare to the universe the readiness to change and a willingness to move towards more health and it will respond in kind. Even in my most manic or desperate moods, when I made choices towards wellness the world around me in at least one area of my life responded with care and concern.

It is in the pint-sized, but courageous acts of, for example, texting that friend when you’d rather not, that gives a small boost of confidence and helps move you out of your comfort zone of habitual isolation and into territory that is laden with potential healing.

Choosing to practice SPACE means you’re in your own corner fighting for your wellness. Slowly, just as spring always returns, recovery comes into focus and with it more vibrant wellness. It takes patience and time, but with tiny healthy actions “shift does happen”.

Tell me, what’s your ‘tiny’ for this coming week? Comment below to let me know.

© Victoria Maxwell

References:

  1. One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way Paperback by Robert Maurer (2014) (page 5)
  2. Minimum amount of physical activity for reduced mortality and extended life expectancy: a prospective cohort study, Wen, Chi Pang et al., The Lancet , Volume 378 , Issue 9798 , 1244 – 1253
  3. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-exercise-taiwan-idUSTRE77E69L20110816
  4. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110816112130.htm