Here’s the amazing thing about your brain it’s made to rewire itself all the time this is called neuroplasticity. Scientists used to think that after childhood our brain was pretty much locked in place but now we have better imaging technology we can literally see how the brain changes depending on how we use it. You can do to rewire your brain to be reduce anxiety and it is simple.
Three steps you can take to make it happen and sure 10 extra skills you can develop on your own or with the therapist to build up your ability to take control of your anxiety.
So let’s start off with one example of neuroplasticity. In London the taxi drivers have the super difficult exam where they have to prepare by memorizing all the streets and events and locations.
In this huge city researchers took images of the brain before they started studying and after this 2 year process. They were literally able to see the new neural connections the wiring that changed in the brain. There’s good evidence that changing how you think like going to therapy can actually change the structure of your brain end of the types of chemicals.
It’s pumping out our brain has an amazing ability to rewire itself to learn grow and heal. Let’s talk about how to do that with anxiety if we want to change how our brain processes anxiety.
We need to understand 3 principles of anxiety, the number one understand what is anxiety now this may sound dumb. You already know what anxiety feels like but what you need to do is understand your perspective on anxiety. You need to let go of the idea the inside these bad anxiety is not inherently bad anxiety is uncomfortable.
Sometimes anxiety is disordered, anxiety gets in the way but we all experience anxiety because it’s supposed to serve a really important function to motivate us to avoid real danger.
We’re supposed to feel anxious when standing on a cliff edge it helps us be safe. We’re supposed to feel anxious when we know we have an important test coming up because that should motivate us to study.
Anxiety tells us that something is important to us things IT. Excitements are basically the same chemical reaction in your body with adrenaline triggering that sympathetic activation and prepping you for action when we look at anxiety as being uncomfortable.
But acceptable and a normal part of life suddenly we develop new tools to work with it and that includes working with the other type of anxiety. The second thing we need to understand is we need to understand disordered anxiety. This is when anxiety seems to take over your life this is anxiety that makes it hard to go to work to school or to enjoy life at all.
The harder you try to make it go away the stronger and stronger it gets not contrary to popular belief that anxiety is disordered. It’s more severe anxiety is actually disordered when one of 2 things happens. Number one when you feel in danger when you’re actually safe.
This it’s called perceived versus actual safety for example, who is afraid of radiators she would feel anxious and sweaty around them. She couldn’t make herself go into a room with a radiator. It is not radiators are not actually dangerous but she was having a real physiological response to something that was actually safe. So anxiety can be disordered when you have a danger response in your body but you’re actually safe.
The second way anxiety can be disordered is when your anxiety interferes with your ability to function. This is essentially what determines if you meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder diagnosis when your anxiety or your attempts to avoid anxiety stop you from effectively facing life.
When this happens you start avoiding school or calling in sick to work you stop leaving the house or spending time with friends. Your anxiety is taking over your life and stopping you from doing the things you love.
So let’s talk about what causes anxiety to spiral out of control this is called the anxiety cycle every day throughout our day we have experiences. We interpret these experiences as either being safe or dangerous. For example you see a dog know each person interprets and experience differently for some people this would be exciting and fun but for some reason you think that I was going to bite me.
This leads to feelings of fear anxiety maybe even panic these are uncomfortable feelings and you may even take them as a sign that your thoughts are true. So you escape you run away you get out of there.
Nothing bad happens so your brain releases this surge of relief that was close the only way. I survived was because I ran away I could have died. Your brain thinks I’m gonna do that again I’m gonna motivate my human to avoid that situation by increasing their anxiety about it and voila your anxiety goes up.
Every single time that we avoid a threat and survive our brain thinks let’s do that again so it lays down neural pathways. It is wiring that reinforces that behavior and the whole function of emotions is to motivate us to action.
Because we convinced that the dog was a threat it takes action into its own hands and it increases your anxiety level around dogs. Every time we feel anxiety and then avoid the situation our anxiety level will go up a notch this is principle number 3 avoidance sheets disorder anxiety.
It is literally creates overwhelming now there are lots of ways to avoid there’s running away and physically avoiding but there’s also emotional avoidance. If you have social anxiety you might still go to the party but only if you get drunk ahead of time. You might be in a relationship but scared of getting hurt so you don’t allow yourself to let the other person into your heart.
You see emotionally distant where you protect yourself by not committing. Social media anger blame distraction and even coping skills can be avoided regardless of the type of avoidance. It is increases your anxiety and even worse it shrinks down your world.
The dog example you might start avoiding situations where a dog might be present by not going to friends homes or skipping the park and in a world shrinks you miss out on good relationships or you stopped going to parties.
Your world gets more and more constrained avoidance can make a world small and scary and I’m happy but every time you get anxious. Avoid something and survive your brain increases your anxiety in that area.
Now looking at this cycle we have 2 places where we can intervene or we can stop that anxiety from spiraling out of control.
The first place is with our actions when we feel anxiety but were actually safe if we stick with it if we stay there we experience our emotions and sensations without running away and again. If you do this and you don’t die then your brain learns.
What a relief I guess that not all dogs are dangerous let’s do that again. It sends out a surge of relief this leads to a gradual decrease in anxiety over time and a gradual increase in your emotional muscles.
Your ability to feel emotions and sensations that are uncomfortable without needing to skip them all the time so you get better at feeling. As you do this your brain literally lays down new neural pathways saying not all dogs are dangerous I don’t need to be anxious around dogs. It’s literally changes your brain chemistry releasing less cortisol and adrenaline and other stress hormones.
This is the most straightforward way to rewire your brain to have less anxiety. Now we talk about the most straightforward way to rewire the anxious brain and that’s through action.
Step one make an exposure hierarchy, you take one thing that scares you and you break it down into teeny tiny steps can you start by courageously facing the easiest.
First hello this, the part that most people miss the jump in too fast and then the panic or the escape and they never do it again. That fear is reinforced so make exposure hierarchy and write down as many teeny little steps as you can think.
Step 2 changes your rules no courage doesn’t mean the absence of fear but choosing that something is more important than avoiding fear. In acceptance and commitment therapy this is called the willingness allowing you. Do something even though it makes you uncomfortable if you make a rule for yourself like I’m going to do this until I get too anxious.
Your brain will be like cool let’s do that then I can escape so it will make you really anxious and when we say I’m gonna do this thing unless it makes me too anxious. They were just inviting anxiety to make all our decisions for us so when it comes to exposure.
You choose an easier activity to start with and then you stay with it can you watch yourself for a certain amount of time or until your anxiety decreases by half during the exposure. While you’re facing your anxiety and practicing willingness grounding activities and self regulation activities this body up approaches to decreasing anxiety.
It can be helpful but the most important part is that you sit with your anxiety for a little while until it decreases or at least for a certain set amount of time.
Step 3 do it faces go get anxious and see if you survive. A little spoiler alerts here you will so with the dog examples start by it repeatedly imagining yourself interacting with the dog.
You practice every day for 10 minutes until that activity no longer makes very anxious and then you might work with a friend who has a dog to set up the next steps so you might see a dog through a window he just stay there.
Use it with the new breed and then you allow yourself to relax and you do this every day for 10 minutes until your anxiety decreases and then you practice being in the same room as a tiny dog on a leash and then perhaps touching a tiny dog on a leash.
Then heading a tiny dog on a leash and eventually you’re moving up to a bigger dog and then off leash then eventually you get yourself to the point where you can go to a dog park.
Sit down and stay there for 30 minutes it’s okay if you feel anxious it’s okay if you feel uncomfortable or you sweat free shake or whatever. You just stick with it and pretty soon your brain learns it’s cool most dogs are safe.
You’re okay and your anxiety will decrease now again you can do some physiological grounding activities while in the midst of your anxiety. Don’t use those as another way to just avoid anxiety users as a way to practice willingness.
There is a simple solution to anxiety face your fears and they will decrease this may seem too simple.