As a teenager, I suffered from occasional panic attacks, social anxiety, and more than the usual amount of teenage angst. In today’s drug-obsessed society, I would certainly have been given psych meds; thankfully, back then, it was expected that maturity would bring greater resilience and awareness. And so it was.
Over the years, I developed numerous skills to help calm myself. I also learned that all normal people have ups and downs and worry at times about their health, relationships, finances, and major life changes.. This is because the amygdala, a walnut-sized area located deep within the primitive brain, is forever busy alerting us to possible dangers, both internal and external. On the positive side, the amygdala is what tells us to wash our hands to stay healthy, to drink water to stay hydrated, to stay away from dangerous people, to make sure that we lock our doors and to get to a doctor if we suffer from worrisome physical symptoms. On the negative side, it can take control of our minds so that we can do nothing but obsess about everything from whether Iran will attack Israel to petty fears concerning our looks or clothing, to whether we will be rejected for not living up to the impossible standards of various relatives.
No one is born knowing how to manage life’s stresses. We must acquire skills that help us face the failure, criticism, betrayal, frustration and disappointment with faith and fortitude. Until we acquire these skills, our level of anxiety can cause us panic, confusion and despair. Unfortunately, the medical profession has pathologized feelings. While pills can provide temporary relief, they do not teach us how to think. They can create dependence on external substances or cause severe side effects.
In anxiety-ridden people, the amygdala is in a constant state of hyper-alert, causing them to feel stressed. As they continue to entertain fearful thoughts, the amygdala actually grows larger. By contrast, the amygdala in criminals is generally unusually small. Criminals can commit horrific crimes and feel no emotion, no regret or remorse or pity for their victims. Their brains automatically minimize, deny, excuse, justify, defend or trivialize their crimes. So, if you have anxiety, it’s highly likely that you are responsible and conscientious and will not become an exploiter of others!
The second piece of good news is that the brain is “plastic,” i.e., it can be taught new tricks, and the amygdala can be reduced to normal size. When we try to control something not in our control, we feel helpless and anxious.
When we think about things we can change, we feel empowered. Thus, our task is to take control of what is within our control, i.e., our beliefs and behaviors. The more we control what can be controlled, the more we calm down. You can start taking charge today. For example:
1. Get adequate sleep. Except for the one percent of the population who can function on four to six hours of sleep, we need between seven and nine hours to avoid becoming agitated and anxious. Very few people get adequate sleep today. Many think of sleep as unnecessary or even a sinful waste of time. In truth, the nervous system relaxes and is rejuvenated during sleep. The immune system is also strengthened, helping us avoid illness. Anxiety-ridden people need a great deal of energy to “battle” their negative thoughts and stay positive, especially in the beginning of this learning process. So adopt a disciplined sleep regimen, going to sleep and getting up at more or less the same time.2. Eat only nutritious food. Every nerve cell is surrounded by a protective shield called the myelin sheath. It is composed mainly of Vitamin B. You lower your B levels every time you ingest white flour, white sugar, drugs, food additives such as diet sugars and other junk substances. Therefore eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and healthy proteins. It is also essential to check your level of vitamin D and make sure it is over 40 IU.
3. Get busy. Many anxious people are narcissistically obsessed with themselves. To get your mind off yourself, get busy with chesed projects, exercise, work, crafts or other creative projects. Daily exercise is also very important to help you work off the dangerous level of cortisol which accumulates in your bloodstream when you are under stress.