Cure anxiety by retraining your brain

Elisa River/Pixabay

Elisa River/Pixabay

Do you struggle with anxiety? I understand it, because I have experienced it myself. And I have good news for you: your brain has a wonderful ability to change and adapt to new information. And you can actively play a role.

I write about some of my struggles with anxiety 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 Get Your Life Back.”

Reduce anxiety by teaching your brain new things

It used to be triggered by certain situations, or certain things related to those situations. Sometimes, after the situation was over and the active threat was gone, I still felt jumpy, jittery, and reactive.

On a neurological level, the fear center of my brain (the limbic system, powered by the amygdala) hadn’t realized that the threat was gone. My brain was afraid to let its guard down. He wanted to protect himself from any possible future threats, even if there really weren’t any.

Once we have locked away a fear response in our brain, it resists new information and wants to reinforce that fear circuitry. I have heard experts compare the amygdala to a fearful little child, and it is very difficult to convince that child of the truth.

You can heal and retrain this ingrained system in your brain by feeding new information to the limbic system. Ideally, you would do this with the help of a counselor, but if your symptoms are relatively mild, you can try this on your own.

The following concepts have been really helpful to me and the patients I have worked with:

1. Start small and be brave.

If there’s something you’re avoiding, prepare for small victories. Be brave. It will show that “little kid” in the fear center of his brain that the “unsafe” assessment is not accurate. And although it may seem like it, I’m not just talking about phobias here (if you have a specific phobia, do it with a professional). This also works for everyday anxiety-provoking situations where avoidance becomes a habit.

Pay attention To all the good feelings that come from your little victories. It’s time to re-educate your brain so that certain activities are fun, fairly safe, and worthwhile, no matter how small the risk may be.

2. Acknowledge the fear but put it in perspective.

When fear arises, take a step back. Think of it as her brain responding to a trigger. You can look at this more objectively instead of letting the fear response overwhelm your rational mind.

Say to yourself something like: “This is just my fear system talking; this is not really me.”

Or: “My limbic system thinks this situation is threatening, but it’s wrong. I am safe. I’m fine.”

Another good one: “This is scary, but I know I need to do this to help my brain heal and enjoy my life again.”

Take a breath to calm your system. And again, really celebrate winning and give yourself a pat on the back for being brave and conquering your fears.

3. Change a pattern of fear by directing your attention to the good things.

On road trips in my local area, I often have to drive up a steep and winding road. When my husband was driving, he used to drive me so low that he was practically under the dash with his eyes shut tight and praying out loud. If he were driving, I would go so slow that he would almost stop me.

Eventually I had enough of this and decided to apply some neuroscience principles. I needed to teach my brain to have a different response. I decided to focus intensely on what I was good at.

This high road overlooks a beautiful lake. I forced myself to stay upright as the car lowered and I took in the beautiful view. I found different aspects of the view to focus on. He would even say, out loud, with deliberate delight, “Isn’t this place so beautiful?”

These days, I really enjoy this awesome part of the trip. It really worked.

When your anxiety kicks in, intentionally focus on what is joyful and good around you. If you are really safe, feel safe. Let that get into your bones. It will also get into your brain and begin to change (and heal) your limbic system’s flawed narrative about anything you may be irrationally afraid of.

4. Live a calm and relaxing life.

If you are in a season where you feel 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 that make you feel more stressed.

I won’t watch really scary or violent movies. I have worked in the ER. I don’t need that in my entertainment.

Practice full attention or other mind-body practices that calm your nervous system below. Remember to breathe, especially if you are stressed. If there are people in your life that you really find stressfulmaybe you don’t need to see them this season.

5. Rewire your brain with the truth.

Think of your brain as a machine that can get stuck in an error pattern that needs to be rewired.

Write down a fearful thought that holds you back or makes your life miserable.

Where did that fear come from? What is true in that? What is not true about it?

What are the possible negative results or losses you could experience if you give in to fear again?

What are the likely positive results if you overcome your fear and move on?

Usually the answer is clear. When viewed in the light of reason and objective facts, this is a reasonable “risk.” So, you take it (and continue to talk to a counselor or his diary as fears arise).

Feel that fear. Feel all the fears. Do that anyway.

© Copyright 2022 Dr. Susan Biali Haas, MD

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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