The irony of what is happening in the world around us should not be lost. We are over run with trepidation, anxiety, and fear — at the time everyone is striving for the opposite. Most of us will go to extreme lengths to experience some rest, safety and peace.
Everyone wants to experience peace. Whether you are a government leader sitting across from people from a different political party with a different agenda, or a businessman facing the uncertainty of the economy or financial pressures of a shut-down business we want a break from reality. You might be a stay at home spouse trying to balance your children’s online education assignment and other chores, or a student just trying to make it through the semester without the same routines. Our cities are the most modern in the history of the world, yet our streets feel more unsafe than any time in history. Our communication technology is unsurpassed, but there has never been more misunderstanding and division.
We all want a break, to be able to rest. We would desperately like to not worry about our health, to be free to enjoy life, family, friends, work, social gatherings, hobbies, entertainment options, and our prior life in general.
If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit we encounter more anxiety than peace. Our day is like in Jeremiah’s time, in people cry “Peace, peace, when there is no peace”.
In the first part of this article, we talked about the ways different parts of our brains process fear. Today we would like to cover strategies for working with our brain to create more rest and peace in our brain, our soul, and spirit.
As we discussed, being aware of which type of anxiety you are struggling with is crucial for anyone who is struggling with fear.
Take for example a panic attack. When you experience a pounding heart, trembling, stomach distress, and hyperventilation, we know these symptoms are related to the amygdala’s attempts to prepare the body for action.
In contrast, when you are worrying and obsessing over a fearful or stressful event, it is most likely your rational brain stuck in a difficult cycle of thoughts. For example, if your heart is beating out of your chest as you are waiting for some test results, it is your cortex-initiated anxiety.
Understanding where and how your anxiety begins will allow you to develop the most effective approach to interrupting the process.
Strategies for Changing Our Cortex Based Anxiety
Let’s talk about a couple of strategies for healing our thinking-based anxiety. As we have discussed, the anticipation of negative situations creates threatening thoughts and images that can significantly increase anxiety.
In fact, the experience of anticipation is often more distressing than the anticipated event itself!
What are you thinking will happen when you start to hear scary music in the show you are watching? In this case, the amygdala responds to the information passed on from the cortex.
In fact, the amygdala may respond to what we imagine might happen in much the same way it responds to what is actually happening.
What would you think or feel if every time you heard ominous music and nothing happened in the movie or show?
Would your amygdala have responded the same way? No. In that case, the music would have been associated with nothing more than a normal scene.
What are some things we can do you help ourselves with thinking or cortex anxiety:
1.Recognize You Are Panicking. Remember it is only a feeling even though it seems very real. If we will slow down we will recognize we are most likely not in imminent danger. We must work to not buy in to the cortex’s misinterpretation.
Stay in the present — not the past and not the future. Use your 5 senses to remind yourself to stay in the here and now.
2.Distract yourself. Purposefully changing direction is another cortex-based tool to use against anxiety. For example, if you were sitting waiting for those medical test results, you could think of all the horrible options that ‘could or might’ happen. Or, you could talk to the person next to you or pull out your phone and play a game.
Remember, anxiety is not always caused by what is actually happening in our lives. Because of the cortex’s ability to anticipate, our anxiety is most likely about things that will never happen to us. When we get to a place of constant worry or negativity, distract yourself to parts of your life that are good. Even if there is not very much right now — or it all seems very overwhelming — it is literally protection for your heart.
3. Question Your Actions. Telling yourself what you ‘should be doing’, probably makes you feel anxious. Try working on developing coping thoughts or statements that are likely to have positive effects on your emotional state. One way of evaluating the usefulness of thoughts is to look at the effects they have on you.
- What evidence is there for this thought?
- Is there another way of looking at this?
- What advice would I give someone else?
- Is this fact or opinion?
- Is this thought helpful?
The words we speak will either build us up or tear us down. Our tongues have the power to bring blessings or curses upon us. Some people write down their healthy thoughts to remind themselves. By deliberately thinking of coping thoughts at every possible opportunity, you can rewire your cortex to produce healthy thoughts on its own. Remember, you are changing your neural circuitry!
4. Don’t Fear Mistakes — Make Plans Instead. Mistakes are part of life. They show us we are not afraid to push ourselves and try new things. So, next time you make one, accept it, learn from it, and move on. Instead of getting stuck ruminating about the mistake, plan what is next!
If you anticipate a frustrating situation will happen, come up with possible solutions and then move on. If it does end up that way, you can put your plan in place. In the meanwhile, you do not need to keep thinking about it.
Strategies for Changing Our Amygdala Based Anxiety
It is important to remember when anxiety begins in the amygdala, thinking- based interventions, such as logic and reasoning, do not always help us reduce anxiety.
Amygdala-based anxiety can often be identified by strong physiological responses, and it can seem out of proportion to the situation. When anxiety starts in the feeling brain, we can work through some relaxation exercises to create calm in our bodies.
Here are a few amygdala-based coping strategies that will work to calm you down:
Unlike other bodily functions, the breath is easily used to communicate between these systems, which gives us an excellent tool to help facilitate positive change. It is the only bodily function that we do both voluntarily and involuntarily.
One group of muscles that commonly tenses in response to stress are those located in the wall of your abdomen. When your abdominal muscles are tight, they push against your diaphragm as it extends downward to initiate each breath. This pushing action restricts the amount of air you take in and forces the air you do inhale to remain in the top part of your lungs.
Lie down and close your eyes. Take a moment to notice the sensations in your body, particularly where your body is holding any tension. Take several breaths and see what you notice about the quality of your breathing. Where is your breath centered? Are your lungs expanding fully? Does your chest move in and out when you breathe? Does your abdomen? Do both?
Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen, right below your waist. As you breathe in, imagine that you are sending your breath as far down into your body as it will go. Feel your lungs expand as they fill up with air. As you do this, the hand on your chest should remain fairly still, and the hand on your abdomen should rise and fall with each breath. If you have difficulty getting the hand on your abdomen to move, or if both hands are moving, try gently pressing down with the hand on your abdomen. As you breathe, direct the air so it pushes up against the pressure of your hand, forcing it to rise.
Continue to breathe in and out slowly. Let your breath find its own pace. If your breathing feels unnatural or forced in any way, just maintain your awareness of that sensation as you breathe in and out. Eventually any straining or unnaturalness should ease up by itself.
After breathing deeply for several breaths, begin to count each time you exhale. After ten exhalations, start the count over with one. When thoughts intrude and you lose track of the number you are on, simply return your attention to the exercise and start counting again from one. Continue counting your breaths for ten minutes, with some awareness devoted to ensuring that the hand on your abdomen continues to rise with each breath.
The amygdala is responsive to muscle tension, and tight muscles seem to increase amygdala activation. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a deep relaxation technique which has been used to effectively control stress and anxiety and relieve insomnia. It is based upon the simple practice of tensing, or tightening, one muscle group at a time followed by a relaxation phase with release of the tension.
As you go through the exercise, do two cycles of tensing and relaxing for each muscle group. Tighten each group for seven seconds, then relax for twenty seconds, then repeat. Each time you tense a muscle group, tighten the muscles as much as you can without straining. When it is time to release the tension, let go of it suddenly and completely and notice the feeling of relaxation. Do your muscles feel heavy, warm, or tingly? Learning to recognize the physical signs of relaxation is a key part of the process.
No matter the level of your stress or the extent of your fear, maintaining a healthy exercise routine and a healthy diet will also help us reduce anxiety. When stress affects the brain, with its many nerve connections, the rest of the body feels the impact as well. If your body feels better, so will your mind. Exercise and other physical activity produce endorphins — chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers — and improve our ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress.
Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has shown to improve overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. About five minutes of aerobic exercise can begin to stimulate anti-anxiety effects.
No matter what type of anxiety you are experiencing it is important that you practice your calming and relaxation techniques. The more often you practice the faster the fear will fade.
Take an Inventory of what you can work on today:
Are there any activities of my lifestyle that increase my anxiety and fear daily?
How would my life improve if I incorporated some coping strategies or relaxation?
What is one thing I can do today or tomorrow to make a small step toward reducing my anxiety?
Please remember if your worry or panic feels out of control, and especially if you feel like you may hurt yourself, then talking to someone is really important. Get immediate assistance from the Depression Helpline — 1–800–273-TALK (8255).
Pittman, C. M. (2015). Rewire your anxious brain: How to use the neuroscience of fear to end anxiety, panic and worry. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.