We live in a stressful world. Unexpected events, dangers, and sudden threats can leave us fearful and anxious. Even everyday aspects of life like work, finances, parenting, and marriage can cause our brains to release the stress hormone cortisol. A certain level of anxiety is normal but living in a constant state of anxiety can flood our brains with such stress hormones, making our brains hypersensitive to threats and making it more difficult for us to think logically. Excessive amounts of anxiety can also trick our brains into holding onto negative, rather than positive, memories. Luckily, the brain has a fascinating ability to retrain itself, which can help regulate stress and decrease heightened anxiety levels.
The Anxiety Cycle & The Brain
The brain is an intriguing organ with a miraculous ability to reason quickly and rationally. Because of the brain’s fast-acting processes, you tend to react to a situation before you even have time to think about what happened. For example, you smile when you receive a compliment and sigh or roll your eyes when you’re frustrated. You don’t think about reacting that way, you just do. Usually, this process works just fine, but constant anxiety can hijack the brain’s quick reaction time and make fear your automatic response.
Anxiety happens in a cycle. Every time your mind experiences a pattern of a stressful cue and an anxious response, your amygdala, the part of your brain that processes fear and threats, grows larger. The anxiety cycle occurs in 4 distinct stages:
- An anxiety-producing situation. The anxiety cycle begins the moment you encounter an uncomfortable situation that produces worry or fear. Overwhelmed by sudden emotions, your heart races and your body might sweat.
- Avoidance happens to ease the fear, worry, and rapid heartbeat. Common examples of avoidance include skipping class to avoid a presentation, using drugs or alcohol to numb feelings, and procrastinating.
- Short-term relief happens when you avoid the anxiety-producing situation. This stage can give you an immediate sense of relief and lessen the symptoms of anxiety. Unfortunately, this stage is temporary.
- Long-term anxiety growth. Eventually, the fear that initially caused you to avoid the situation returns, generally worse. Your brain remembers that avoiding the situation in the past made anxiety symptoms go away. As you encounter other anxiety-producing situations, your brain, trying to protect you from anxiety, makes the symptoms worse, which makes you more likely to avoid that situation and restarts the anxiety cycle.
This anxiety pattern activates the amygdala, an almond-shaped collection of neurons located in each side lobe of your brain that acts as an automatic regulator of our behavior. An overworked amygdala can make you more likely to exaggerate emotional cues. Constant exaggerated responses can trigger heightened anxiety levels and a constant state of stress. The good news is that the brain can change and learn new behavior patterns. Eventually, our amygdala will become less active at inappropriate times.
How Does the Brain Change?
Just as quickly as the brain reacts and adapts to the anxiety cycle, it can also unlearn that patterned response. That’s because your brain, like your physical body, can change and adapt based on your behavior patterns. Neuroplasticity is the term that refers to the brain’s ability to change, adapt, and rewire itself. Neuro refers to the nerve cells that make up the brain and plasticity refers to the brain’s malleability or capability of changing. As nerve cell connections change and connect new nerve pathways, the brain can learn and unlearn different patterns and functions. In fact, there are two types of neuroplasticity that can cause the brain to change. These are:
- Functional plasticity, which allows an undamaged part of the brain to take over functionality that would normally take place in a part of the brain that has been damaged.
- Structural plasticity, which causes the brain to change its physical shape.
The anxious brain, through learned behavior patterns, has experienced structural plasticity, causing an enlarged amygdala. Luckily, new, healthier behavior patterns and amygdala retraining can cause structural plasticity to work in your favor and shrink the amygdala back to its original size.
How to Rewire & Retrain A Brain From Anxiety
Anxiety doesn’t have to control your mind and life. Thanks to plasticity, your brain can learn new therapeutic and lifestyle practices that work to shrink the amygdala, including:
- Meditation. A regular 30-minute meditation practice once a day can help reduce the size of the amygdala, which can make it easier for you to think rationally. “Focused attention,” “open monitoring,” and “loving-kindness” are three of the most effective mindfulness practices to include in your meditation sessions in order to lessen anxiety.
- Exposure therapy. This type of therapy begins with you creating a list of all the things that trigger your anxiety. Instead of avoiding these things, you’ll expose yourself to each trigger starting with the smallest trigger first. As you become more comfortable with the things that trigger you, your anxiety-based response will decrease, helping your amygdala to decrease in size.
- Tapping your temples, cheeks, or shoulders repeatedly. According to a study published in Traumatology, this mild brain stimulation can help erase fear-based memories.
- Breathing. It may seem simple, but taking a few deep breaths is one of the easiest ways to relieve anxiety. Deep breathing also allows more oxygen into your body and brain, which helps regulate your sympathetic nervous and limbic system, home to the amygdala. Take a deep breath in, hold it, and slowly let it out until your anxiety calms down.
- Grounding. This anxiety-reducing technique has several versions, but the 3-3-3 rule is easy to remember. The 3-3-3 rule asks you to take note of three things you see, list out three sounds you hear, and move three different parts of your body. By refocusing your mind on something other than your anxiety, you stop the anxiety cycle and prevent the amygdala from prematurely activating your flight or fight response.
- Laughing. It can be hard to laugh when you’re feeling anxious, but watching a funny video or listening to a comedy session from one of your favorite comedians can help lessen stress. Your body releases endorphins when you laugh, and your cortisol levels decrease.
You can use one, a combination, or all of these techniques to develop new ways of responding to anxiety. As your brain gets used to these techniques rather than avoiding anxiety-producing situations, it learns these healthier patterns instead of relying on an overactive amygdala. These patterns can help encourage structural plasticity which can rewire, change, and retrain your brain.
Restoring Your Brain to Optimal Health
Here at StoneRidge Centers, we take a different approach to treating mental health conditions like anxiety. We combine evidence-based brain science with clinical support. We’ve designed our programs to provide you with individualized yet comprehensive treatment that includes proper nutrition, exercise, and compassionate support.
We know that living with anxiety can be frustrating and overwhelming, but we can help restore your brain to its optimal health. Let us help you get there. Call us today at 928-583-7799.
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