How to Retrain Your Anxious Brain

How to Retrain Your Anxious Brain

November 5, 2018

As humans, we have the fascinating ability to adapt. Adaptation is a wonderful thing that has aided in our survival throughout history – it’s what helps us eventually turn a new, strange city into a hometown and what reminds us to choose a salad for lunch instead of pizza.

The downside of adaptation is that it can also work against us. Once a bad habit begins, we can adapt to it becoming our norm. And if you’ve ever experienced chronic anxiety, you’ll know first-hand how easy it can be to adapt to an anxious way of thinking.

It’s no coincidence that once anxiety begins, it’s difficult to change. The more frequently we do something or think a certain way, the stronger that neurological connection becomes in our brain becomes.

Anxiety & The Brain

Everything we do and think is triggered by synapses firing in our brains, which results in pathways being formed. When we repeat a behavior or thought pattern frequently enough, those pathways become more and more etched into our brains. This makes it easier for these impulses to travel through the brain, which is why some things can feel as easy as “second nature.”

Think about getting in your car to head to work in the morning. Chances are, you don’t think twice about buckling up, starting the engine, and shifting the car into gear. This series of actions is likely something you do every day, multiple times a day. Over time, this likely has resulted in strong synaptic pathways to be formed, which helps you breeze through this string of actions.

Similarly, when someone begins to focus on worry and negativity, it too can result in a strong synaptic pathway to develop, making it easier and easier to continue that mindset.

While it’s true that the stronger the connection, the harder it can be to break, these connections aren’t set in stone. We now know that our brains are plastic, meaning they’re capable of change. It just requires a bit of effort.

How to Alleviate Anxiety

In the long term, there are lifestyle changes you can make, which can help promote a healthy brain, resulting in less anxiety. A balanced diet, regular exercise, and plenty of sleep are great places to start.

But the next time you feel anxiety beginning to creep up, try these three in-the-moment tips to help retrain your anxious brain, and alleviate anxiety.

  1. Breathe Taking a few deep breaths is one of the simplest ways you can help alleviate anxiety. Getting more oxygen in your body, and to your brain, is a great way to help regulate the sympathetic nervous system. Just try focusing on taking in deep inhales and long exhales for as long as needed.
  2. Label If your anxiety does spiral into a panic attack, walk yourself through what’s happening. While panic attacks can feel like a number of life-threatening experiences, remind yourself that what you’re feeling is just a panic attack. Panic attacks are temporary, and these feelings will pass – all you have to do is breathe and wait it out.
  3. Ground There’s an anxiety-reducing technique called grounding. There are different versions of this, but an easy one to remember is the 3-3-3 rule. Mentally note three things you see, three sounds you hear, and then move three parts of your body. This exercise can help your mind refocus on something else.
  4. Find Objectivity Try catching yourself when your mind jumps to catastrophic thinking and reframe your thinking with objective, logical thoughts instead. For example, if your mind jumps to “I’m getting fired” every time your boss wants to meet with you, recognize that kind of thinking as irrational and replace it with reasons why you’re a valuable member of the team.
  5. Laugh We all know that laughing makes us feel good – it releases endorphins, which can improve our mood. The next time you’re anxious, try watching a funny video or listen to your favorite comedian. Not only does laughing release endorphins, but it also lowers cortisol levels.

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Hughes, Locke. (2017, March 2). “How to Stop Feeling Anxious Right Now.” Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/ways-to-reduce-anxiety

Layton, Julia. (2009 July 29). “Is it true that if you do anything for three weeks it will become a habit?” Retrieved from https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/form-a-habit.htm

Tartakovsky, Margarita. (2012). “How to Train Your Brain to Alleviate Anxiety.” Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-to-train-your-brain-to-alleviate-anxiety/