by Lisa Leahey, MA, LPCC, NCC
Anxiety, fear, and worry are all normal parts of life. In healthy doses, it is what propels us to get to work on time, stop suddenly when a car pulls out in front of us, and be diligent about teaching our children how to handle conflict. But what happens when these things start to affect our health and overall happiness? A man might be worried about never having money like his father, and tell himself that the anger he feels is just a normal part of life. The same man’s wife may drink three glasses of wine each night to calm herself from the day, not realizing that she is even anxious about her husband’s mood. A college student may have always had a hard time speaking to others and is finding it difficult to meet others on his new college campus. A CEO might not be able to drive to work because she is too fearful of getting in a car after an auto accident.
Research shows that two pathways in the brain, the cerebral cortex, and the amygdala, play a role in anxiety and fear. Approaches to anxiety, fear, and worry that target the cortex focus on cognitions, or how people think (Pittman & Karle, 2015) For example, a single man who is worried he will not find “the one,” might continually talk to himself about all the reasons he will fail in his quest. This may leave him fearful of ever asking for a date. The amygdala attaches emotional responses to situations or objects, sometimes creating anxiety-producing memories (Pittman & Karle, 2015). For example, a woman who always got yelled at by her father for taking too long in the store while he waited in the car, might have a beating heart and run worriedly through the store the first time her new husband drops her off to purchase milk.
Fortunately, our brains have an amazing ability to change neuropathways and reorganize patterns of reacting. Through cognitive behavioral therapies, we can learn new ways of thinking that can permanently decrease anxiety. Exposure therapies can activate the amygdala, while we learn to calm down our nervous systems through relaxation and mindfulness techniques. A skilled therapist can help you achieve these changes (Donarski, 2018).
If you are wondering what you can do for yourself to help reduce your anxiety, there are a number of amygdala-based interventions. Diaphragmatic breathing, yoga, and aerobic exercise all produce immediate effects on the activation of the amygdala. Serotonin receptors in the amygdala are less active after 20 minutes of exercise, with regular exercise reducing the sympathetic nervous system activation, thus counteracting amygdala activation. Breathing exercises and meditation also reduce activation of the amygdala (Donarski, 2018).
In my practice, I have my clients practice this technique using a device that measures heart rate variability to show when someone’s nervous system is having an anxiety response. By practicing breathing and positive thoughts, clients can actually train their nervous systems to calm down. Buying this device (www.heartmath.com) and using it at home for 10 minutes, three times a day is recommended for the best results. Yoga is also effective because it combines the diaphragmatic breathing and reduction of muscle tension, which deactivates the amygdala.
It is also important to get a good night’s sleep, because more REM sleep results in less amygdala reactivity. During the first four hours of sleep, our bodies are in repair mode. Our brains go into repair mode after those first four hours, so if nightmares or worrying is repeatedly waking someone up, their brains will not have a chance to repair and rest, resulting in anxiety the next day (Donarski, 2018).
If you need to train yourself to be able to sleep, follow these 12 sleep strategies:
It might not be as simple as, “Don’t Worry…Be Happy,” but there is hope for relieving anxiety. Avoiding the problem is often tempting, but in most cases it can exacerbate anxiety. Being intentional about treatment can help you feel both calm and confident as you learn to focus on the positive and change your responses. Our brains are wired for fight, flight, or freeze in the face of danger, which is a survival mechanism that keeps us safe. Even when these anxiety pathways are overly activated, it is possible to learn to manage anxiety and effectively rewire the brain.
Konarski, J.M. (2018, August). Rewire the anxious brain: neuroscience-informed treatment of anxiety, panic and worry. Presented at PESI, Inc. conference, Denver, CO.
Pittman, C.M. & Karle, E.M. (2015). Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to use the neuroscience of fear to end anxiety, panic and worry. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.