How to Train Your Brain to Take the Edge Off Anxiety

by Dr Angel Adams and Dr Patricia Papciak

Halloween pumpkins

© George Papciak

The days are shortening and the holidays will soon be here. Like the gutted pumpkins that we carve for Halloween, our facial expressions are also often carved with fear, anxiety, and worry. This is the time of year when the holidays bring more consumerism and people tend to become more stressed. Yet no matter what the season, we all worry over health issues, family problems, job or school related demands, children with special needs, our mistakes, not getting approval from others, or the fact that there is just not enough time in the day to get everything done, to name a few. Sometimes we know how to ease our worries by better self-care, more quality time with family, or slowing down and getting our priorities straight. It is refreshing to wake up after a good night’s rest and feel ready for a new day. It helps to have taken care of business the day or night before, so we know fairly well what to expect from the day in front of us. But what about the days where you can’t control what is ahead of you?

You might wake up with a terrible knot in your stomach, a heavy feeling in your chest, and a mind full of fear regarding what is in front of you. You might know what you need to do to relieve these feelings, but sometimes it isn’t that simple; it requires confrontation or work that you don’t want to do. It may involve talking to people who make you feel insecure or inadequate when you are interacting with them.

Sometimes you may numb your anxiety by self-medicating through over eating and drinking, or sooth yourself by escaping into what Dr Tara Brach calls false refuges such as dependent relationships, over achieving and the like (see her life-changing book called: Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha). However, what you resist will persist. Sometimes those generalised feelings of anxiety cling to you for reasons you do not fully understand. When you look at your life, you think you are basically happy, but ask yourself, “Why do I have these physical feelings”? The churning stomach, the headaches, the adrenalin, the thumping heart may mean you need to address some issue that has an unconscious basis to it.

Some of these feelings can be dispersed immediately when the obvious problem in front of us is addressed. We know that we have to get up and do the work that should have been done the night before. We call the person who we must speak to even if what we have to say is unpleasant. We set boundaries for our children even if they are angry at our decisions. We begin a new financial plan to help resolve our financial woes. We do something that immediately soothes our upset as we see what must be done.

When negative thoughts and emotions are unrelenting, what do we do to make ourselves feel better? Are we suffering from a more severe problem? Do we have depression or anxiety disorder that needs to be addressed by a doctor? There are physical symptoms that may indicate the necessity to see a doctor. These include: difficulty sleeping, difficulty breathing, feelings of fear that cause the heart to race or the body to perspire, feelings of fear that prevent us from doing things we normally have been comfortable with and eating issues that leave our bodies under or over nourished. If these kinds of problems seem to present themselves to you, you probably need to see your GP.

We recently read some articles by and viewed some video clips of Dr Rick Hanson, Neuropsychologist, and we learned some extremely interesting and helpful information. First of all we found out why we as human beings might actually be rigged to feel stress and free-floating anxiety. Dr Hanson invited us to imagine some of our earliest mammalian ancestors, after the last of the dinosaurs were gone. Perhaps a little rodent, one that was relaxed and sitting on the warm rock, around the sweet smelling flowers, feeling full of gladness and joy as it looked at light on leaves…..CRUNCH… it gets eaten up quickly because it wasn’t listening to the sound of the slithering snake near by! Mother Nature has therefore evolved our brain to be wary and irritable for the sake of survival. So it is part of our inclination to be hypervigilant.

Our early mammalian ancestors who were nervous and jumpy passed on their genes to us! They were quick to notice threats and remember painful experiences. The same story holds true for a hominid in Africa a million years ago, living in a small band of our ancient ancestors. To pass on their genes, they had to find food, mate and have children, and run from the sabre-tooth tiger. If they missed some food for a day or so they could survive, but they could not afford to fail to notice a predator, which had much more urgency and impact.

The alarm bell in our brain is called the amygdala, an almond shaped mass of nuclei located deep within the temporal lobes adjacent to the hippocampus. We’ve got two of these regions, one on either side of our head. It uses over half of its neurons to look for bad news. Once it sounds the alarm, negative events and experiences get quickly stored for rapid recall — in contrast to positive events and experiences, which usually need to be held in awareness much longer to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage. Additionally, positive stimuli need repetition to be held in memory, unlike negative memories.

We tend to remember the negative experiences such as when a threatened dog snapped at us more than the 100 other positive interactions with dogs. Children remember the few times they got bullied much more intensely than the many positive interactions they had with their mates. Couples remember more acutely the one bad thing said in an argument more than the 20 times there was positive exchange. Studies show how subjects can identify angry faces faster than happy ones; even if they are shown these images for only a tenth of a second or so. There is no way they can have any conscious recognition of them at that speed, thus, the ancient fight-or-flight limbic system of the brain will still activate negative images.

Dr Hanson states that the brain (the amygdalae) works like Velcro for negative experiences and like Teflon for positive ones. Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intense (e.g., loud, bright) positive ones. They are also perceived more easily and quickly. This contributes to how people may automatically look for what is negative in others. That anger and distrust cause others to react to them, and then this confirms the person’s worst fears – that person really is despicable! People can become afraid of what Dr Hanson calls “paper tigers” which has a paranoid flavour to it. No wonder suspiciousness begins in personal interactions, but can spread to a global level. For example, all the fears about Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” that could never be found.

Albert Einstein said, “the single most important decision any of us will ever have to make is whether or not to believe that the universe is friendly.” Do you believe that even if our world has its share of tragedy, suffering and misery, that you can still choose to believe in and tap into a loving force faithfully moving you towards greater awareness, compassion, peacefulness, loving kindness and purpose? Would embracing this loving force help you to make your nervous system not so nervous? Gandhi encouraged us to “be the change you want to see in the world”. The first thing is just to understand how your brain became so vigilant and wary, and so easily hijacked by alarm as a first step toward gaining more control over your ancient circuitry. Then when it happens in your daily life, you can remind yourself that your brain just feels threatened and that’s a good start! When the brain becomes conscious we can become more mindful to not react to the messiness of our emotions and obsessive thoughts.

Secondly, we need to remind ourselves that whilst there are many things to worry about in life, there are also many things that we need not worry about so much! For this reason the serenity prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr is relevant:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can
and wisdom to know the difference.

Some of us are probably much better at having the courage to change things, but not so good at accepting the things we cannot change. We are often driven to react to our feelings of anxiety and try to have control and fix things as soon as possible. It’s hard for us to just stay still. We get busy, we speed up, we keep moving, we keep trying to prove something to ourselves.

Yet when we are stressed and anxious, we can’t truly be there for others because we are too involved in our own agenda. Our mind narrows, we become frozen and we have less capacity to really be there for the people who are important to us. The word “worry” stems from the Old English wyrgan, which means “to choke or to strangle.” We are fretting about the paper tigers lurking around the corner. The reactivity is our human conditioning, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change it and stop living in a state of survival when we can be in a state of creativity. Dr Joe Dispenza states: “It takes more energy to suffer then it does to love”. Of course the deepest form of suffering is to feel a deep sense of unworthiness that prevents us form truly loving ourselves.

In many Aborigine cultures there is no such word as should. There either is or there is not. You do what you can, and you live with what you did, not what you should have, could have or would have. If you are constantly looking at the world as how it could have been better if only you would have done what you should have done, then you don’t have time to enjoy what is around you and any accomplishments you made on any given day. This unfortunately can be passed down generationally. Has your child ever said to you, “Watch me jump. Watch me stand on my hands. Watch me dive in the pool. Watch me catch the ball. “Children don’t stop and say, “Oh, I should have done that better” unless they have somehow been taught by the adults or the circumstances in their lives that what they do is just not good enough.

Another way of addressing your stress is suggested in a book by Dr. Marty Rossman called The Worry Solution. Dr. Rossman’s interest, among other things, is the way in which meditation can disengage you from whatever it is you are worrying about. He points out that very often in today’s world we find people who have anxiety over something that they speculate might happen rather than something tangible. His book discusses how meditation can help you change the way your mind obsesses over things you can’t do anything about. He also points out that random anxiety, even if it has no real basis, is just as harmful to your body as the problem that is absolutely real. Moreover, the structure of your DNA can be changed to shorten your life if you don’t make the effort to control it because there is no solution for something that isn’t real. Read more about Dr. Rossman and his “Worry Solution.”

We end with some strategies from Dr Hanson’s website (and added some of our own). He gives some ways to wire positive experiences in our brain (via Neuroplasticity) to counteract the way we are more rigged to negative experiences and anxiety. He states that emotions organize the brain as a whole. As opposed to stress and anxiety, positive emotions have far-reaching benefits and include the following:

  • Lift mood; increase optimism, resilience
  • Counteract trauma
  • Strengthen immune and protect cardiovascular systems
  • Overall: “broaden and build”
  • Create positive cycles

Tips for How to Take In the Good

  1. Look for positive facts/events and let them become positive experiences. (This helps the brain to register long enough for neurons to fire together positively to start wiring together positively!)
  2. Become mindful of positive experiences. This means we must engage more actively when we have them. If someone gives you a compliment….take it in!
  3. When you feel happy about something, keep it with you as long as you can. Let it soak into your mind and body like the way the sun shines on your face on a warm day. Sustain it for 10-20-30 seconds and intensify it.
  4. Make positive remarks to the people around you about your happy feelings.
  5. When you feel unhappy, sit quietly and focus on the thoughts and memories both past and present that create happiness as an antidote to the negative ones.
  6. Focus on the positive things your children say or do that is funny, uplifting, and priceless.
  7. Take time at night to recap the wonderful parts of the day with your children.
  8. Share with our family what you are grateful for at dinner time.
  9. Find poetry, songs or uplifting quotations to help you remember the beauty of life and its potential.
  10. Lastly, take in the small pleasures of ordinary life.

We often find much pleasure on hearing the songs of birds and admire their graceful nature as a way to help us relax. When we watch the geese coming in for a landing on the waters of the river Thames, and hear their majestic wings wafting above, it is easy to see that they are fully into being in their body as they honk and splash into the water.

When birds fly along the coast of California, like all birds, they may be responding to a fear of danger. However, when they rise above the danger in the air, they soar and glide with such beauty and freedom. It’s a good metaphor for us to see ourselves as capable of rising above our negative feelings into that spaciousness, that presence, where we don’t have to feel like we need to control or react when we feel anxious. We can just surrender into what ever we are feeling and remember why we are here on this earth. When we are able to be in a more mindful and meditative state, we are much more present to help others. Like the meaningful words in the song below by Larry Henley and Jeff Silbar, we can find the courage to rise above our anxieties, and help support our children and others as they take off into unfamiliar territories.

I can fly higher than an eagle,
For you are the wind beneath my wings.

A flying pelican

© George Papciak

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