How To Cope With Anxiety: Behavioural Science Insights

Ever felt like worry, fear, panic, and the drive to run or hide will drown you? Whatever the answer it’s too often, even when it’s inevitable. Unfortunately, our way of life encourages anxiety: because we are always connected the natural anxiety about what others think of you turning from like, respect, or love to their opposites because of a simple mistone or miswording is a day and night gnawing worry. Jobs and education and romance are competitive; failure is inevitable yet shamed. And I’ve already written here about contemporary loneliness jeapoardising mental health.

In the illuminating Rewire Your Anxious Brain Catherine Pittman PhD, and Elizabeth M. Marle, both with knowledge of behavioural science and neuroscience, explains the mechanisms of anxiety and proven solutions. They are:

1. Understand your amygdala causes panic anxiety, and it is not a conscious fault or ‘mistake’

“When people understand that the roots of panic attacks often lie in the amygdala’s attempts to prepare the body for an emergency, they’re less likely to be troubled by these concerns (Wilson 2009)”

Knowing the response is a mammal reaction to distress gives a feeling of understanding and a little control, that itself calms. Yourself or others are not blameable since the amygdala overrides your rational cortex, and effects your thoughts through habitual neurotransmitters. And awareness of the biology of anxiety allows you to separate your anxious thoughts from events, and how they warp one another. As Pittman says “you are not the driver but the passenger” by then, when stuck in the fight, flight it freeze response.

2.) Track your triggers and recondition your actions to ‘rewire’ your brain cells

“If you want to change the anxiety you experience, you need to change the neural connections that lead to anxiety responses”.

As animals, we react to things, because of our memories and web of associations. As Pavlov’s dogs salivated when a bell rang for food, the sound of the bell alone triggered the eating response when food and bell were accompanied and food no longer is given. Mild to traumatic experiences linked to a car (car crash), a certain smell (ex’s perfume), drinking (abandonment), open water (near drowning), dates (an abusive relationship) or a Facebook notification (social rejection) become, for the brain, indistinguishable from the associated experience. To reduce anxiety the trigger must be edited or replaced by combining with positive associations and mindfulness – the awareness you are reacting disproportionately.

3. Face Problems With Exposure Therapy

The inborn phobia of snakes is cured by incremental closeness to snakes often with a brain pleasing reward for progress–such as chocolate. Progressive exposure to cars or that car type, the perfume used in new scenarios, drinking a little for a short while in a public space supported by friends, can be solutions that when repeated will retrain brain cells to react better, differently or mitigate the bad in trauma cases. This happens through Hebb’s Law, “cells that fire together, wire together”. If inborn phobias can be unlearned or as the authors say “rewired” then environmentally wired responses can, in turn, be overcome (time again as necessary) through exposure therapy.

4. Understand Your Cortex Causes Worry Anxiety

Your cortex enables you to imagine good things like Harry Potter or a night-out with with Louis Theroux. But because it imagines and anticipates the good, so in turn, you can anticipate bad (sometimes, impossible) scenarios also. These include someone never speaking to you again, your presentation getting you a reputation as an idiot, love going wrong again. There are thoughts and images to this anxiety where you subvocalize negatives and envision bad things: awareness of this can help you reframe for the better with positive sub-vocalising and good envisionment. Your brain and inner voice have a run of 300-100 words a minute. The words your mind narrates to itself alters your worldview. There is nothing inherently anxious about it hence others undergo the same experience without anxiety.

5. Retrain Your Interpretations

If you are reading this your brain (probably) has a negativity bias. Mine does. By vocalising good-things and imagining good-enough to good things, your whole perception of the world can change. Psychotherapy or talking therapy is entirely about this: making your story and situation coherent and generous. Empirical evidence shows it is potent over six months.

6. Move Your Body To Move Your Mind

As shown in happiness and depression studies like that compiled by John. B Arden in Rewire Your Brain and Alex Korb in The Upward Spiral (see this post here ) it’s been proven that aerobic exercise restructures your brain. The endorphins released counteract cortisol stress which contributes to anxious sensations.

7. Rebalance Hormones with Sleep

Proper sleep for 6.5-9hrs at night is good for melatonin (the sleep and calm hormone) and the function of your body. Negative emotions arise far more without enough sleep. And studies have shown too many think they sleep well and enough when they simply do not.

Anxiety is a natural emotion and depending on context a natural one that can provide motivation. But excess in anxiety disorder and avoidant behaviour can be self-fulfilling through our, part subconscious, response to triggers. Rather than a state of being an anxious self, it is a process: no one is constantly anxious all minutes of the day and environment dependent. (As much as it might feel you are.)

In order to deal with anxiety best, Pittman recommends diagramming the three parts of an anxiety response: the cause, the response and the anxiety reducing plan. The anxiety of public speaking, for example, stems from the brain’s need for security and fear of dormant shame, with the response to avoid or rush. The appropriate response to reduce the anxiety of it is to incrementally do it time and again with knowledge of your amygdala and the subjectivity of anxious feeling, that has much less tension than the African Savannah two million years ago.

So to sum up:
1. Accept neurological basis for anxiety and the difference between events and warped thoughts.
2. Track the triggers of your anxiety and priorities how you will tackle them and their traumatic origin.
3. Avoiding problems allows the problem to foster. Exposure therapy be it all-at-once immersion or gradual is a research-backed cure.
4. Realise the Senecca quote that because of our larger brain “we suffer more in imagination than reality”.
5. As an anxious person your brain will have an anxious bias that distorts your world.
6. Exercise is anxiety medication.
7. Sleep and diet are anxiety medication.

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