Your palms are sweating, your stomach is upset, your heart is racing, and thoughts of worry flood through your mind.
No, you’re not dying; you’re having a panic attack.
Anxiety affects approximately 40 million Americans. For some, anxiety causes some slight discomfort and distress. For others it’s debilitating, causing the afflicted individual to miss work, socially withdraw, and even avoid certain places, people, or situations entirely.
If you or a loved one has ever dealt with the irritating, often incapacitating, effects of anxiety; take heart. There are several very tactical approaches for lessening your stress and decreasing your anxiety, and this article will show you how.
Similar to fear, anxiety is an emotional response designed to keep us out of danger. However, while fear typically occurs in the presence of an identifiable threat, anxiety usually occurs in the absence of it.
In other words, anxiety is caused by our thoughts, worries, or concerns related to a fear, not the actual existence whatever is causing the fear itself.
When it comes to eliminating stress and anxiety, or at least lessening their effects, the first step is to develop awareness. Where is your anxiety really coming from?
There are three general areas of the brain where anxiety originates: The prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus (with the other areas associated with memory), and the amygdala. It’s important to recognize which circuit of your brain triggers your anxiety, so that you can pinpoint the root and effectively go about treating it.
Prefrontal Cortex - When the prefrontal cortex is in overdrive, people tend to worry and have trouble letting go of negative thoughts that contribute to anxiety (Amen and Routh 2003). Although this area is often associated with "rational thought," it's important to realize not all of the thoughts are truly rational.
Hippocampus –The hippocampus stores memories and emotions.. When a situation arises, your brain automatically pulls up related memories. If your past experiences in similar scenarios were very negative, that triggers the anxiety response.
Amygdala – The amygdala is responsible for the physical reaction our bodies produce in the midst of stress or panic. Muscle tension, heart palpitations, or sweaty palms are all a result of a hyperactive amygdala initiating “panic mode,” in response to a real or perceived threat (Pittman and Karle 2015).
If your anxiety comes from the thoughts and images flowing through your mind, it is your prefrontal cortex – the area just above and behind your eyes - that needs to be addressed. If strong anxiety reactions appear to be triggered for no apparent reason, your brain may be pulling up negative memories from the past. If, however, there is a real threat happening in the world, your amygdala will trigger a fear response to help you get out of harms way.
For example, if you see a vicious dog on a chain, your amygdala will trigger a fear reaction, causing you to feel anxious. But if you see a nonthreatening dog, and your mind begins to visualize or think of all the ways it might hurt you, that’s your prefrontal cortex reacting to old memories and beliefs. This too will cause your amygdala to overreact.
While there are many tactics you can use to tackle your anxiety, below are a few of the most effective ways you can calm your mind (your prefrontal cortex) and reduce the possibility of stimulating your amygdala.
1. Practice Cognitive Diffusion. Cognitive fusion occurs when we allow ourselves to believe that our negative thoughts, worries, or visions are a reality. It’s important to recognize that just because you think something bad is going to happen, doesn’t mean that it will happen. You don’t have to believe every negative thought that comes your way. Practicing cognitive diffusion means being aware of your thoughts without necessarily believing they are true or thinking they will become a reality. Learning to observe negative thoughts or images that enter your mind, without feeding into them or getting completely absorbed. This is essential to reducing your anxiety.
2. Practice Optimism. Pessimists are more likely to feel anxious than optimists, because pessimistic thoughts are inherently anxiety-provoking. You can ease anxiety by being more conscientious of your thoughts and making an effort to eliminate ones that make you feel poorly. Rather than thinking thoughts such as: “Things never go my way,” “something’s bound to go wrong,” or “I always disappoint people,” try replacing them with more accepting, loving, and optimistic thoughts. For instance: “Just because I think something wrong is going to happen doesn’t mean it will. In fact, often times when I felt something would go wrong, it actually went really well” or “I’m only human. Everyone makes mistakes at times and that’s okay” are much more productive and effective in reducing anxiety produced by the cortex.
3. Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of therapy in which negative thought processes are challenged in order to alter unwanted emotions or behaviors. CBT has been shown to help reduce obsessive negative thoughts and worries associated with anxiety (Zurowski et. al 2012).
4. Breathe Deep- Slow breathing has been shown to decrease amygdala activity (Jerath et al. 2012) and increase the level of relaxation in the body (Bourne, Brownstein, and Garano 2004). If you feel panic coming on, or feel anxious in general, try counting to five on inhale, and repeating the same process as you exhale. Breathing in a brown paper bag has also been shown to be effective in relieving anxiety as it replenishes carbon dioxide in the bloodstream.
5. Relax Your Muscles- Responsive to muscle tension, the amygdala seems to increase activation when the muscles are tense, thus contributing to anxiety. Progressive muscle relaxation techniques have been shown to reduce the anxiety-inducing effects of the amygdala (Jacobson 1983). Try sitting in a comfortable chair, and alternate between tensing and relaxing each muscle group once at a time. Work from your toes and feet all the way up your body until you reach your scalp and facial muscles. Regularly practicing this muscle relaxation technique can help calm your amygdala and decrease your anxiety.
6. Meditate- Meditation has been shown to reduce amygdala activation, consequently reducing anxiety (Goldin and Gross 2010). In fact, meditation positively affects both the cortex and amygdala (Davidson and Begley 2012). Not only is meditation beneficial for the relief of anxiety, but it also improves a variety of other stress-related symptoms like high blood pressure and insomnia (Walsh and Shapiro 2006) and improves your overall ability to relax (Jerath et al. 2012).
7. Exercise- When panic or anxiety attacks, pacing or exercising can help reduce the severity of the anxiety or the length of the attack. Exercise works to increase the flow of oxygen to the brain, improving overall brain function and improving symptoms of anxiety (Amen and Routh 2003). Remember that when you panic, your body is in the "fight or flight” mode. Physical exertion is what your body needs, and is designed to do in the midst of panic. Also, having a regular exercise routine as a preventative measure can help rid your body of any excess adrenaline in your system. Numerous studies have demonstrated exercise's ability to decrease anxiety (Conn 2010; DeBoer et al. 2012; Rimmele et al. 2007) and even have relaxing effects for up to 6 hours after a workout (Crocker and Grozelle 1991).
8. Catch Some Z’s. Sleep is essential to reducing stress and anxiety. As important as it is to get enough hours of sleep, equally important is the quality of the sleep you're getting. Researchers have found that reduced activity in the amygdala is associated with getting more REM sleep (van der Helm et al. 2011). REM occurs during the later hours of sleep, so if you're tossing and turning throughout the night, there's a good chance you aren't getting the quality of sleep your body needs to remain stress and anxiety-free. Investing in a more comfortable mattress, wearing ear plugs at night, establishing a consistent bed time, having a bed-time ritual, using your bed primarily for sleep (not working or watching TV), and making sure your room is pitch-black are all ways to ensure you get a better night’s sleep.
While each of these tips can work to reduce your stress, fear, and anxiety; the cause of your anxiety may be linked to another imbalance in the body. Make sure you listen to your body, and make a point to be aware of your thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
If you want even more info about banishing your fears and anxiety, join us for a free training with John Assaraf. He explains even more about where fear comes from, and how you can actually use it as fuel.
We hope you enjoyed these tips for reducing anxiety and we’d love to hear from you: What are your favorite ways to feel calm and reducing your stress or anxiety? Let us know in the comments below!
And if you know anyone who might benefit from this article, be sure to share it with them!
Amen, D. G., and L. C. Routh. 2003. Healing Anxiety and Depression. New York: Penguin Group.
Bourne, E. J., A. Brownstein, and L. Garano. 2004. Natural Relief for Anxiety: Complementary Strategies for Easing Fear, Panic, and Worry. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
Conn, V. S. 2010. “Depressive symptom Outcomes of Physical Activity Interventions: Meta-analysis Findings.” Annals of Behavioral Medicine 39:128-138.
Crocker, P. R., and C. Grozelle. 1991. “Reducing Induced State Anxiety: Effects of Acute Aerobic Exercise and Autogenic Relaxation.” Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 31:277-282.
Goldin, P. R., and J. J. Gross. 2010. “Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) on Emotion Regulation in Social Anxiety Disorder.” Emotion 10:83-91.
Davidson, R. J., and S. Begley. 2012. The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live—And How You Can Change Them. New York: Hudson Street Press.
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Jacobson, E. 1983. Progressive Relaxation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Jerath, R., V. A. Barnes, D. Dillard-Wright, S. Jerath, and B. Hamilton. 2012. “Dynamic Change of Awareness During Meditation Techniques: Neural and Physiological Correlates.” Frontiers in Human Science 6:1-4.
Pittman, C. M., E. M. Karle. 2015. Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic, and Worry. California: New Harbinger Publications.
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Van der Helm, E., J. Yao, S. Dutt, V. Rao, J. M. Salentin, and M. P. Walker. 2011. “REM Sleep Depotentiates Amygdala Activity to Previous Emotional Experiences.” Current Biology 21:2029-2032.
Walsh, R., and L. Shapiro. 2006. “The Meeting of Meditative Disciplines and Western Psychology: A Mutually Enriching Dialog.” American Psychologist 61:227-239.
Zurowski, B., A. Kordon, W. Weber-Fahr, U. Voderholzer, A. L. Kuelz, T. Freyer, K. Wahl, C. Buchel, and F. Hohagen. 2012. “Relevance of Orbitofrontal Neurochemistry for the Outcome of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy in Patients with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.” European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience 262: 617-624.
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NeuroGym Team: NeuroGym’s Team of experts consists of neuroscientists, researchers, and staff who are enthusiasts in their fields. The team is committed to making a difference in the lives of others by sharing the latest scientific findings to help you change your life by understanding and using the mindset, skill set and action set to change your brain.