Do you struggle with worrying and wish you knew how to heal anxiety? I know what that’s like, because I’ve experienced it myself. And I have good news: your brain has a marvellous ability to change and adapt to new information. You can learn how to actively play a role in loosening the grip of anxiety on your brain and your life.
I write about some of my struggles with anxiety (and a bunch of strategies and solutions) in my new book The Resilient Life: Manage Stress, Reduce Burnout, and Strengthen Your Mental and Physical Health. This post is a modified excerpt from Chapter 5, “Calm Anxiety, Face Your Fears, and Take Back Your Life”.
You can heal anxiety by teaching your brain new things.
I used to get triggered by certain situations, or certain things related to those situations. Sometimes, after the situation was over and the active threat was gone, I would still feel keyed up, on edge and reactive.
On a neurological level, the fear center of my brain (the limbic system, driven by the amygdala) hadn’t clued in that the threat was gone. My brain was afraid to let its guard down. It wanted to protect itself from any potential future threats. Even if there really weren’t any.
Once we’ve programmed a fear response into our brain, it resists new information and wants to reinforce that fear circuit. I’ve heard experts liken the amygdala to a small fearful child. A child that is very difficult to convince of the truth!
You can heal anxiety and retrain this entrenched system in your brain, by giving the limbic system new information. Ideally you would do this with the help of a counsellor, but if the symptoms are relatively mild you may try this on your own.
The following concepts have been really useful to me, and the clients and patients that I’ve worked with:
1. Start small and be brave.
If there’s something you’re avoiding, set yourself up for small wins. Be brave! It will teach that “little child” in your brain’s fear center that the “unsafe” assessment isn’t accurate, that that position needs to change. And though it may sound like it, I’m not just talking about phobias here (if you do have a specific phobia, please work it through with a professional. Also, if your anxiety is affecting your ability to function in your life, it’s important to talk to your doctor or other qualified expert). This also works for everyday anxiety-provoking situations in which avoidance becomes a habit.
Pay attention to all the good feelings that come from your small wins. Re-educate your brain so that it knows that certain activities are fun, really quite safe, and worth whatever small risk might be involved.
2. Acknowledge the fear but put it in perspective.
When fear comes up, take a step back. Think of it as your brain responding to a trigger. You can observe this more objectively versus letting the fear response overwhelm your rational mind.
Or this: “My limbic system thinks this situation is a threat, but it’s wrong. I’m safe. I’m ok.”
Another good one: “This feels scary but I know that I need to do this in order to help my brain to heal, and to enjoy my life again.”
Take a breath to calm your system. Learning to breathe slowly and deeply, to center yourself when you’re afraid, can be another key in your journey to heal anxiety. And again—really celebrate the triumph, and pat yourself on the back, for being brave and conquering your fears.
3. Shift a fear pattern, by directing your attention to good things.
On road trips in my local area, I often have to drive through a steep, twisting road. When my husband was driving, I used to sink down so low that I’d practically be under the dash, eyes tight shut and praying out loud. If I was driving, I’d go so slowly that I’d almost come to a stop.
I eventually had enough of this, and decided to apply some principles of neuroscience that I knew could help to heal anxiety. It was clear that I needed to teach my brain to have a different response. So, I decided to intensely focus on what was good.
This high road overlooks a beautiful lake. I forced myself to stay upright as the car descended, and take in the beautiful view. I found different aspects of the view to focus on. I would even say, out loud, with deliberate delight: “Isn’t this place so gorgeous?”.
These days, I actually enjoy this stunning part of the drive (I just drove it last week!). This technique really worked.
When your anxiety gets triggered, intentionally focus on what’s joyful and good around you, If you’re actually safe, feel the safety. Let that get into your bones. It will get into your brain, too, and will start to change (and heal) your limbic system’s erroneous narrative about anything you might be irrationally afraid of.
4. Live a calm and calming life.
If you’re in a season where you’re feeling anxious, be kind and gentle with yourself. Don’t force yourself to do things that have nothing to do with the source of your anxiety, but make you feel more stressed.
I won’t watch really scary or violent movies. Working in an ER was more than enough drama for a lifetime. I don’t need that in my entertainment.
5. Rewire your brain with truth.
Think of your brain as a machine that can get stuck in a pattern of error, that needs to be rewired.
As an exercise that can help to heal anxiety, write down a fearful thought that’s holding you back or making your life miserable.
Where did that fear come from? What’s true about it? What’s not true about it?
What are the probable negative outcomes or losses you might experience, if you give into the fear again?
What are the probable positive outcomes, if you step past your fear and move forward?
Usually, the answer is clear. When looked at in the light of reason and objective facts, this is a reasonable “risk” to take. So, you take it (and continue to talk to a counsellor or your journal, as fears come up).
Feel that fear. Feel all the fears. Do that thing anyway.
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© Copyright 2022 Dr. Susan Biali Haas, M.D.