You’re driving to work one day when you suddenly wonder: Did I turn off the stove? You begin to mentally trace your steps from earlier that morning, but you still can’t remember turning it off. You probably did… but what if you didn’t? Your anxiety begins to build as the image of the stove catching on fire pops into your head. Just then, the person in the car in front of you slams on his brakes. You clutch the steering wheel tightly and hit your own brakes hard, stopping just in time. Your whole body is activated with a surge of energy and your heart is pounding, but you’re safe. You take some deep breaths. That was close!
The above is an excerpt from psychologist Catherine Pittman and author Elizabeth Karle’s interesting book entitled Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic, and Worry. We can’t escape anxiety – it’s all around us. And as the stove and almost-car accident illustrate, there are different types of anxiety. Pittman and Karle identify them as those that stem from the cortex and those that stem from the amygdala. Let me explain what the different forms of anxiety (and parts of your brain) are:
The cortex is the largest part of the brain and it fills the topmost part of the skull. It’s responsible for thought and action. Some say that the cortex is what makes us human. It’s what enables us to speak and think logically and critically. The cortex also allows us to get paranoid and fearful based on our thoughts (Did I turn off the stove?).
The amygdala is an almond shaped mass in the middle of brain (roughly behind your ear) that is responsible for emotions. As Pittman and Karle explain, the amygdala has numerous connections to other parts of the brain that “allow it to mobilize a variety of bodily reactions very quickly. In less than a tenth of a second, the amygdala can provide a surge of adrenaline, increase blood pressure and heart rate, create muscle tension, and more.” And most of this is not in your conscious control (stomping on the brakes with your heart pounding).
There are plenty of resources available for those whose worrying gets in the way of their day-to-day lives. In her book, The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques, Margaret Wehrenberg lays out 10 methods to help overcome anxiety:
Manage the body or amygdala. People who are stressed don’t take care of their bodies and this leads to a cycle of stress. Therefore, in order to manage your emotional and mental state, you need to take care of your physical self:
Eat right. Get plenty of fruits, vegetables, and proteins. These will help your brain feel safe and taken care of.
Avoid alcohol, sugar, and caffeine. These substances can create dips and spikes in our moods.
Exercise. Exercise releases stress-reducing hormones that calm the body and the brain.
Sleep. Sleep gives you the ability to recharge and have energy for the day ahead.
Breathe. Deep breathing slows down your amygdala’s stress response. If you practice deep breathing even when you are not anxious, you can more easily use it when you are in a stressful situation.
Mindful awareness. Close your eyes and pay attention to your body. How does it feel to breathe? Do you feel your heart beat? Can you feel your stomach rumble? Now, focus your attention away from your body. What do you smell? Hear? Last, shift your attention back to your body. When you are able to focus both internally and externally, your amygdala will feel more in control of your surroundings and your circumstances.
Don’t listen when worry calls your name. Anxiety is an emotional state. As I talk about in my children’s book My Friend, the Worrier, anxiety is a monster. When you feed the monster by giving into the anxiety, you let it grow bigger. Instead, you need to stop listening and feeding it. You need to say, “That’s just my anxious brain again.” Then, you can begin relaxation breathing. This way you are managing your cortex and your amygdala.
Turn it off. This one is a tough one; however, once you learn how to do it, it can change your life. The idea is to “turn off” your ever-thinking cortex. First, you think about each thing that is bothering you, one at a time. Then, you visually place each worry thought into a mental container and close it shut. Then, you can take out those worries when you have the time and resources to deal with them.
Interrupt those worries. When you feel your brain starting up, say “Stop” or picture a stop sign or hand. Then, say something like, “I can do this” or another self-asserting statement.
Learn to plan, instead of worry. Use your cortex for positive things. The difference between planning and worrying is that once you create a plan, you don’t need to check it over a million times. If you are worrying, you revisit that plan over and over. So, learn to plan:
Identify the problem
Come up with possible solutions
Choose the best solution for you
Create a plan of action
Don’t rethink it and change the plan. Instead, stick with it. You’ll ultimately be happier and less anxious.
Can you get rid of anxiety? Probably not, but you can manage it. You can rewire your brain to stop responding to the anxiety with negative responses. The reward for rewiring your brain is a life-filled with happy moments that you can appreciate without your brain’s nervous energy getting in the way!