Do you suffer with the headaches, upset stomach, heart palpitations, fatigue, restlessness, or excessive sweating associated with anxiety? Do your anxious thoughts sometimes work yourself into a panic?
What about the fears or phobias that keep you from enjoying your life to the fullest?
Well, you need to look no further for a solution to your anxiety related issues. In this ultimate guide to reducing anxiety, I’ll be sharing with you a few of the top, research-proven techniques for eliminating anxiety by reducing your worry and stress, enhancing your peace of mind, and optimizing your mental, emotional, and physical environments to create lasting change . . . and hopefully, kick your anxiety to the curb for good!
Sound good? Well then keep on reading, my friend!
Before we start, let’s get clear on one thing: What exactly is anxiety?
As I shared in my first article on anxiety, anxiety is an emotional response to a threat (whether real or imagined) that is designed to keep us out of danger. Though similar to fear, fear typically occurs in the presence of an identifiable threat, while anxiety usually occurs in the absence of it.
Anxiety can be caused by a number of different things including genetics, personality types (perfectionists, “control freaks,” or individuals with a low self-esteem seem to be more prone to anxiety), cognitions (or certain thinking patterns), substance abuse, physical health conditions (such as asthma or hypertension), ongoing stressful life circumstances (i.e. divorce, trauma, abuse, work stress, pregnancy, or the loss of a loved one), or physical and mental health conditions (such as chemical or hormonal imbalances). And the level to which each individual experiences anxiety will differ based on all of these factors.
Overcoming your anxiety is possible; it just requires the right guidance and the commitment to getting better. While this article will help you with the guidance, it’s up to you to decide to commit to your mental health and well-being.
At Neurogym, we like to highlight the difference between being interested in something, versus being committed. If you are merely interested in overcoming your anxiety, there’s a good chance you’ll come up with excuses as to why you can’t, or why you won’t improve when taking the steps toward healing seems difficult. However, when you’re committed you will do everything in your power to get better, no matter what it takes.
So are you interested or are you committed? In order to stay committed to the process, it’s important to know your why—or your reason—for wanting to get better. Why do you want to get better? The deeper and more meaningful your reason, the more likely you are to stick to the process of recovery. So if you’re committed, and you’re ready to say “goodbye” to anxiety, keep on reading!
“It’s all in your head, you just need to relax!”
Have you ever been told this before? This statement is among one of the worst possible things to tell someone struggling with anxiety (or any other mental illness for that matter) and yet it is also one of the most common phrases used by otherwise well-meaning friends and family members. These comments, though often meant well, can cause the afflicted individual to feel misunderstood, alone, and even crazy. It can be incredibly distressing for someone struggling with anxiety to hear the words “it’s all in your head.”
That person may begin to second guess their emotions and wonder, “Maybe I am just imagining things? Maybe it is just ‘all in my head.’” Well, I’m here to tell you that is simply not true (and to let you know you’re not crazy, nor are you imagining things).
My goal for you is that by the end of this article you’ll be equipped with a much better understanding of your brain, your anxiety, and have an appropriate response to any comments that discredit or downplay what you’re experiencing. You’ll be able to retort to those comments with: “You’re right! It is all in my head! But not in the way you might think!”
Dr. Daniel Amen, bestselling author of Change Your Brain Change Your Life and Healing Anxiety and Depression, has identified seven main types of anxiety and depression; there’s really no “one-size-fits-all.”
A few years ago, I had become so anxious that it began to interfere with my work (which yes, did create more anxiety and worry!). At the time, I didn’t know I was experiencing anxiety . . . and I actually worried that I might have something seriously wrong with me (a common symptom typical of anxiety sufferers).
I decided to get an evaluation at one of Dr. Amen’s Clinics. No, I wasn’t dying . . . that’s just the way that worrisome thought sabotage us! My brain was simply experiencing the anxiety of my negative thinking. Dr. Amen called it “over-focused anxiety and depression.” He did a brain scan . . . and showed me how my worrisome thoughts were causing my deep emotional centers to overreact.
Over-focused anxiety and depression can cause excessive or senseless worrying; a tendency to be oppositional or argumentative, hold grudges, have compulsive or addictive behaviors; a dislike for change; the inability to see different options; and repetitive negative thoughts.
According to Dr. Amen, anxiety and depression—the two usually go hand in hand—can interrupt many functions in the brain, which can affect the way we think, feel, and act.
The main area that is disrupted are the frontal lobes. These are your brain’s memory managers and interpreters of experience. They are responsible for a variety of functions including conscious decision-making, memory recall, and perhaps most important, helping to maintain emotional stability. In the front part of your frontal lobes, in the area just above and behind your eyes, is an area called the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the brain’s “CEO.” It’s responsible for impulse control, problem solving, critical thinking, judgement, learning from experiences, attention span, and perseverance.
Anxiety disrupts normal functioning of the prefrontal cortex, causing your mind to wander. This makes it extremely difficult to finish simple tasks . . . and increases the potential for you to make careless mistakes.
Further, anxiety undermines your ability to sustain attention and move toward your goals. Understanding how anxiety disrupts these areas in your in your brain will help you appreciate the importance of reducing this type of worrisome behavior.
Although most of your worrisome thoughts are imaginary, they still physically affect your brain. But it doesn’t mean that you're mentally ill. I share my personal story with you because I want you to know that you’re not alone . . . we all struggle with anxiety from time to time. And because this topic hits very close to home, I want you to know that every tip for eliminating your anxiety in this article is not only incredibly well-researched but are also the very same tools and tactics I used for healing my own anxiety.
The tips I share with you are not just abstract ideas; they are practical. And best of all, they are effective. I'm living proof! As you read through the rest of this article, I hope you feel a sense of relief wash over you in knowing that healing is on its way!
“What you resist, persists.” Ever heard of this saying by Carl Jung? There’s a lot of truth to it, especially when it comes to dealing with anxiety. Trying to resist anxiety, worrisome thoughts, or any situation that may trigger panic can leave you feeling like you’re fighting a losing battle. Trying to resist anxiety and worry through willpower alone is a lot like trying to paddle upstream a raging, uncontrollable river (with your bare hands); and it can leave you feeling completely depleted, exhausted, discouraged, and defeated for having not made any progress toward eliminating your anxiety.
The act of resisting something is the act of granting it life . . . the more you resist, the more you make it real—whatever it is you are resisting.
Neale Donald Walsch
Rather than constantly feeling the need to “battle against” anxiety, I would like to propose a different way of viewing and handling your anxiety. I would like to propose learning to embrace your anxiety. When we learn to perceive anxiety as a gift, we may even come to a place where we learn to fully accept it.
For those of you who have dealt with severe anxiety (to the point where it’s taken a negative toll on your life), you may be feeling a bit outraged. You may be thinking, “Brigitte, how could you possibly say my debilitating anxiety/panic/ phobia/worry/all of the above is a gift? How could you possibly say something that has had such a traumatic affect on my life is a ‘good’ thing?”
Having suffered with severe, often debilitating anxiety, I can honestly say that anxiety can be a gift . . . if you can learn to perceive it that way. Anxiety can actually be a good thing, and in learning to perceive it that way, you’ll be on a much quicker path to healing.
Resisting creates more resistance. Coming to acceptance and even embracing your anxiety is a key factor in putting an end to it (or at the very least making it more bearable to deal with). A quote often attributed to Buddha states: “Every experience, no matter how bad it seems, holds within it a blessing of some kind. The goal is to find it.” And it is no different with anxiety.
So what blessings or “gifts” could anxiety possibly hold? Before I share these gifts of anxiety with you, I want to briefly go over why it’s so important to begin viewing your anxiety as a gift and how you can do just that. The answer to both of those questions are what psychologists refer to as “logotherapy” and “positive reframing.”
Logotherapy was a term coined by a Vienna-born psychiatrist by the name of Victor Frankl. After having spent several years in numerous concentration camps during World War II, Frankl discovered that it was the individuals who were able to ascribe some sort of meaning to what they were going through—no matter how horrendous—who were most likely to survive.
Logotherapy, Frankl asserted, is based on the idea that it's a necessity for humans to find meaning in life, and that life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most disheartening ones. According to Frankl, "We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: By creating a work or doing a deed; by experiencing something fully or loving somebody; and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering."
In the words of Frankl, "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances.” It was likely Frankl’s work that propagated the idea that while we may not be able to change what happens to us, we most certainly can change our reaction to what happens to us—and that makes all the difference with how well we are able to cope and remain resilient.
"Positive Reframing" is a term used by psychologists to describe the process of highlighting the good in every situation, rather than focusing too much on the potential threats or undesirable aspects of it. Viewing our challenges as opportunities rather than hindrances can help us avoid feeling plagued by our problems.
Reframing the way you view anxiety can help you overcome it. Learning find the good in even the toughest of situations enables you to be more likely to cope, build resistance, and thrive.
So how can you begin to see anxiety as a gift? By acknowledging that anxiety does have a purpose.
Though anxiety may be the last thing any of us want to experience, there are certain invaluable life lessons which it can teach us: Lessons on patience, resilience, compassion, empathy, optimism, and perseverance (something Sherianna Boyle, MED, CAGS, highlighted in her book, The Four Gifts of Anxiety). And while many of us try to do whatever we can to avoid the discomfort of anxiety, we may actually be robbing ourselves of all that it has to teach. The way to take full advantage of anxiety and reap the greatest benefits from it is by acknowledging its upsides.
Here are a few of the upsides of anxiety.
I liken anxiety to the flashing indicator lights in your car that let you know when something’s wrong. When we experience anxiety, often times we are merely experiencing the symptom of something that is out of place. Your body is full of something called “feedback mechanisms” that let your brain know when homeostasis, or the body’s equilibrium, is achieved. If your body gets too hot, feedback mechanisms let your brain know to start your body’s cooling mechanism. In the same way, anxiety can be seen as a feedback mechanism. It lets us know we’ve deterred from balance and that something needs to change.
Ask yourself: “Is there any area of my life that is out of balance which could be causing this anxiety to manifest?” You may come to find several areas of your life could use some re-calibrating and balance (maybe you’re overworked, under rested, malnourished, and stressed out). When we view anxiety this way (as a feedback mechanism), it becomes a helpful tool, rather than a nuisance or hindrance.
When we search for the silver linings in anxiety, we can learn invaluable lessons. We can do this by asking, “What is this anxiety meant to teach me? What good could come out of me feeling anxious?” Finding meaning or purpose in the anxiety you feel can lead to new revelations, new levels of growth, and a deeper understanding of yourself, life, and others—if you choose to look for it.
Learning to poke fun at our greatest anxiety inducing fears, can not only help us better cope with anxiety, but can provide us with a better sense of humor as well. For instance, while individuals who suffer with crippling social anxiety might find the thought of being embarrassed in front of a group of people terrifying, learning to find humor in that embarrassment can help the individual perceive the fear as a much less frightening thing. Learning to find humor in our biggest fears or worries can allow us to perceive those fears as something funny rather than as something terrifying.
We can alter our perception by beginning to make fun of the things we fear most. Replace fearful thoughts of “Wouldn’t it be awful if . . . (insert anxiety-inducing worry here)” with “wouldn’t it be hilarious if . . . (insert same worrisome thought).” While this may not work for every fear or anxiety-inducing thought, learning to poke fun at ourselves is an essential trait when it comes to coping with anxiety. And it leaves you with a better sense of humor as well!
Elisabeth Kubler Ross, pioneer psychiatrist and author of On Death and Dying said:
The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.
As difficult as suffering with anxiety may be, learning to cope and triumph over your struggles has the ability to make you a stronger, more resilient, more kind, and compassionate human being.
Your anxiety may help you encourage and inspire someone else someday. When I was experiencing the peak of my anxiety (and it felt unbearable), I was comforted by the idea that I would somehow figure out how to healthily cope with anxiety and then share what I learned in order that I may help ease the suffering of others also struggling with the issue.
Approximately 40 million Americans suffer with anxiety, which means there’s a good chance you’re going to run into someone who has it. This also means that because you’ve personally struggled with anxiety, you’ll have greater empathy and more powerful and encouraging advice to share with that individual when you do meet them (maybe you’ll even send them this article).
The moral of the story? While we may not be able to always control or change our anxiety, we can change the way we perceive it, and that makes all the difference. I hope that in reading this article, you too can begin to see how anxiety can be a gift.
Stress unmanaged becomes anxiety; and when anxiety is unmanaged, it reaches its peak and becomes full-blown panic.
If we were to think of anxiety in terms of electricity, low-level anxiety may feel like you’re slightly “charged,” “on edge,” or feel a constant gnawing “buzz”—it’s there, it’s discomforting, but it’s not bad enough to where you feel like you’re going to die. Full-blown panic on the other hand can feel like an overwhelmingly powerful, full-on electrocution!
Symptoms of panic can include nausea, shortness of breath, hyperventilation, feelings of choking, chest pain, heart palpitations or a racing heart, trembling, shaking, sweating, fear of dying, losing control, or going crazy. Panic can be caused by prolonged periods of stress, due to radical life changes (such as the loss of a job or loved one), major life transitions (such as moving, graduating, getting married, getting divorced, or entering the workplace), trauma (abuse or accidents), or physical reasons (such as exhaustion or malnourishment).
Sometimes there are physical causes responsible for triggering feelings of panic such as mitral valve prolapse (a minor cardiac problem that occurs when one of the heart’s valves doesn't close correctly), hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland), hypoglycemia (caused by low blood sugar), stimulant use (such as amphetamines, cocaine, and caffeine), or medication withdrawal—none of which are fatal, but can contribute to feelings of panic nonetheless.
If you have a health concern, please get examined to rule out any medical conditions. However, more often than not, the physical sensations you’re experiencing are nothing more than built up adrenaline (and other stress-related hormones) that are causing you to panic. If it’s determined that you’re an overall healthy person who “just happens to have anxiety,” trust the diagnosis and know that the panic you feel is not anything worse than that—it is just panic. And although it may feel like you’re dying or going insane, I can assure you that you’re not.
In Chinese there is a word “zhilaohu,” which means “paper tiger.” It refers to something that seems threatening . . . but is harmless. This phrase is the perfect analogy to how we should view panic: Frightening to experience, but actually quite harmless. While I can’t guarantee reading this article will get rid of your panic completely, I can promise that the tips I’m about to share with you will help you navigate through panic attacks with much greater ease . . . and hopefully help you get to the point where the thought of experiencing a panic attack no longer frightens you.
So much of our panic is fueled by the fearful thoughts associated with the anticipation of experiencing another attack.
If we can learn not to fear the panic itself, we’ll be on a much faster road to recovery. Going along the theme of battling against a “paper tiger,” an acronym for moving through your panic is, “RAWR.” Follow these RAWR steps the next time you need to overcome a panic attack.
When we experience sensations such as heart palpitations, or headaches it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not the physical sensations themselves that cause panic; it’s our reaction to physical sensations that trigger panic.
It’s our “what if” thoughts of: “What if I’m dying of a heart attack or stroke? What if I’m going crazy? What if these feelings never go away? What if I pass out or lose control?” that further arouse and propagate feelings of panic.
Learning to respond with these fearful “what if” thoughts with defusing “so what?” thoughts help take the danger out of our feelings. For example if your heart starts beating rapidly, replace your typical “what if . . .” statement with a “so what my heart is beating rapidly? It’s incredibly strong and the feeling will subside in a few minutes.” Applying this practice works to disarm tension and decrease the level of panic we feel rather than arousing it.
Allow yourself to feel the sensations of panic and release the need to get rid of them. When you feel panic arising, rather than resisting those feelings, tell yourself, “I accept these anxious feelings and allow them to run their course.” Remember that what we resist persists, but what we accept, we can change.
We are transformed by what we accept.
When you let go of the need to get rid of your panic and allow it to just be, you can move through it a lot quicker.
In getting rid of resistance and allowing panic to run its course, you open the possibility of transforming into something that is no longer a nuisance to you. Learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
While this may seem counterintuitive, learning to turn our “fears into friends” by being welcoming towards them does just that! In psychology there is a term known as “cognitive reappraisal,” or paradoxical intention, that requires reinterpreting the meaning of a stimulus in order to alter the experience of it. When we attempt to push panic away, we are telling ourselves it is an unwanted, undesirable thing, and our experience of it is unpleasant. If we can learn to welcome panic, our perception of it will be changed, and our experience will be improved.
As uncomfortable as experiencing panic may be, you must remind yourself that you will not die, and you will not go insane. Remember that the panic is only temporary, and it will pass. It’s nothing more than a “paper tiger,” and it can’t hurt you. Knowing it is harmless will help you fear it a lot less; in turn cutting down your panic just by knowing that it can’t hurt you.
In addition to following these tips the next time you experience panic, implementing the lifestyle changes I suggest in this guide (such as eating and sleeping habits, and healthy stress management) can help get your physical condition into top shape, and work to prevent future panic attacks from occurring.
Excessive shyness, low self-esteem, and the crippling fear of being judged—these are all the traits of an individual suffering with social anxiety. Contrary to what many might think, individuals with social anxiety are not afraid of other people; it’s the possibility of rejection, humiliation, or judgement of others that they find horrifying. These fears often stem from a series of negative thought processes and limiting beliefs, such as:
“I might say or do something weird, and people won’t like me because of it.”
“People are going to think I’m weird, and therefore they won’t accept me or want to be my friend.”
“I’m going to end up alone, and I could never handle being alone or rejected.”
Ultimately, social anxiety can be linked to a fear of being left alone.
Having a certain degree of social anxiety isn’t actually a bad thing. In fact, many psychologists argue the need for social anxiety as a means to increase your chance for survival. This was especially true in our more primitive days, when being left alone and apart from your clan meant a lesser chance of survival. Your survival was—and in many ways still is—dependent upon the acceptance and support of others.
For example, if you find yourself repeatedly rejected by the opposite sex, it decreases your chance to procreate. If a prospective employer doesn’t accept you, it inhibits your likelihood of finding a steady source of income which you need to survive (put food on the table and a roof over your head).
So the fear of not being accepted, being humiliated, or being rejected or abandoned is quite a legitimate fear—one we associate at a subconscious level with our ability (or inability) to survive. No wonder so many people break out in a sweat before a meeting, party, date, or interview! We’re associating our ability to “perform well” in social situations with our ability to stay alive!
Here are a few ways to overcome social anxiety.
Three common distorted ways of thinking that contribute to social anxiety include:
Here are a few examples of these distorted ways of thinking and common negative thoughts.
“I’m going to say something foolish and everyone will laugh . . . I’m not as intelligent, attractive, or successful as other people . . . I’ll get anxious and everyone will notice . . . I won’t know what to say. People will think I’m boring . . . No one will talk to me. No one will like me.”
In order to overcome social anxiety, it’s important to challenge these negative thoughts by asking yourself just how true they really are. Consider asking yourself the following questions:
“Am I 100% sure this will happen? How many times has that actually happened? What evidence supports my thoughts? Does this person’s opinion support everyone else’s? Do I have to please everyone? Is that even possible to do? What happens if I don’t?”
Now that you’ve challenged your negative thoughts, it’s time to replace them with some positive and empowering ones. Writing down these affirmations followed by evidence as to why they are true can help reprogram your brain to start feeling more confident and optimistic about yourself and social situations. Our brains are always looking for circumstances to confirm our beliefs; therefore it’s important to condition our brains to look circumstances that confirm the belief that we are a likable person. Here are a few examples of good beliefs to adopt:
“I am a highly likable person.”
“I am easy to get along with.”
“I am surrounded by people who love and appreciate me.”
“I am confidently aware that others enjoy being in my presence.”
“I am able to conduct myself confidently, and with grace, poise, and charm.”
“I am aware of the abundance of people in the world who would like to be my friends. There is no lack.”
“I am fearless in social situations.”
Any time we are in an anxiety-inducing social situation, our minds are often flooded with thoughts of: “What is everyone going to think of ME? Are they judging ME? Are they going to like ME?” The way to put an end to these self-absorbed thoughts that intensify feelings of social anxiety is to be more concerned with others than you are about yourself. You can do this by engaging with them and by cultivating a genuine concern to get to know more about them. Really listen to what is being said, rather than getting caught up in your own thoughts about yourself. Release the need to be perfect.
While you may think others value perfection, what people crave most is authenticity. Showing a genuine concern and attentiveness to learn more about the other person will make you far more likable than the person trying to maintain a perfect appearance. Who knows, this practice may even cause you to come to enjoy social engagements!
Something to keep in mind is that avoidance breeds more fear. Facing your fears allows your brain to form new memories about social situations that aren’t as bad as you thought they would have been. However, don’t try to face your biggest fears right away. Instead, reduce it to the ridiculous. Meaning, face your least-intimidating fears first until you feel comfortable working your way up to larger fears. Make a list of all of the social situations in which you would feel anxious. Now rate them in terms of which situations make you least anxious to the ones that make you most anxious.
Once you have your list, start out with trying to face the least intimidating social situation, and working your way up to the most intimidating one. For example, if you can’t stand the idea of talking to strangers, and can’t even go into a coffee shop without feeling anxious. Try simply spending a few weeks driving past the coffee shop. Next, sit in the parking lot of the coffee shop several times a week. Then work your way up to going in and ordering something.
Once you feel comfortable with that, try starting up a conversation with a stranger in the coffee shop. Take it one step at a time, but don’t run before you can walk.
When you love your own company, you realize being alone isn’t so bad, and the idea of being alone becomes less fearsome. When you cultivate self-love, whether others accept or reject you becomes irrelevant, because you like you. Try taking some time each day in self-appreciation. Give yourself recognition for the good things you do, and silence that inner voice that constantly tries to bombard you with negativity and self-doubt or unworthiness. Speak kindly about yourself, and in doing so your positive self-talk will enhance your self-esteem, and make much it easier to associate with others.
“What if . . ." these two words are the main culprit for what every individual with a pulse has experienced at some point in their life or another: Worry.
“What if I get into an accident . . . ? What if my boss decides to fire me . . . ? What if our city gets hit by a typhoon . . . ?” It’s these type of “what if” statements that cause us to worry, or conjure up negative thoughts and images regarding our future (no matter how unrealistic or unlikely they may be) and add fuel to the fire of anxiety.
According to a survey done at Chapman University, the things people worry about range anywhere from relatable personal issues (such as unemployment, illness, or death) to world problems (such as terrorism, war, or nuclear attacks), to even the less common and more unusual worries (like aliens, ghosts, and zombies).
We humans worry about our health, our appearance, and our relationships. We worry about being judged by others, natural disasters and manmade disasters, about crime, and the government—and then, to make matters worse, we often worry about how much we are worrying!
While a certain amount of worry serves the purpose of keeping us out of harm’s way, and though neuroscientists have discovered it seems as though we have been “wired to worry” as a means to ensure our survival, an excessive amount of worry can add unneeded stress and anxiety to our lives.
But at what point does worry become excessive?
The word worry originates from the old English word “wyrgan,” meaning "to strangle.” Worry becomes excessive when it impedes on our ability to function and “strangles” our enjoyment out of everyday life (like when you have to drive all the way back home because you’re worried you left the gas stove on, or when you struggle to enjoy a pleasant evening spent with family and friends because you worry incessantly about all of your responsibilities). It is this type of excessive worry that can result in unhealthy eating and sleeping patterns, and contribute to anxiety, OCD, panic, and chronic stress (as well as its accompanying health issues).
But it’s not completely our fault that we worry. In addition to seemingly being “wired to worry,” the majority of us have never been taught how to healthily handle worries or utilize our imagination to visualize future experiences we actually want, rather than the ones we don’t.
This exercise will help you identify and eliminate any unnecessary worries . . . and show you how you can use your imagination constructively (visualizing favorable outcomes), rather than destructively (incessantly worrying).
“It might be counterintuitive, but it’s almost as if you empty the fears out of your mind,” study researcher Sian Beilock, an associate professor in psychology at the University of Chicago shared in regards to writing out worries to reduce performance anxiety. Often times when we worry we feel a vague sense of dread or feel overwhelmed by all of the things we are worrying about.
Writing down your worries gets them out of your head and onto the paper. From there, you can take the time to identify which worries are constructive or "good worries" (the kind that help you anticipate threats and have the potential to help you solve a problem) and useless or "bad worries" (the kind that are circular, habitual, and don't lead to any solutions).
In Stephen Covey’s, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, he describes the “circle of concern” and the “circle of influence.” While in life there are many things we could be concerned about, it does no good to worry about that which is beyond our control. Within our circle of concerns however, there are things in which we can change and have the ability to influence—otherwise known as our “circle of influence.” A major cause of worry-induced anxiety is the fact that people concern themselves too much with that which they cannot change, rather than focusing on what is within their power to fix. Focusing solely on problems that are outside of our control leads to a feeling of helplessness, rather than the empowerment that comes with focusing on what we are able to change. Take a look at your list of worries and categorize them into two groups: Things you can control (i.e. preparing for meeting a deadline you’re worried about), versus things you can’t (i.e. whether or not an earthquake will strike in your area)—and then take action accordingly.
Dale Carnegie wisely stated in his book, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” Taking action is one of the most effective ways to reduce worry. Once you’ve identified all of your worries that are within your control to change, work on taking action towards eliminating them.
If you’re worried about giving a presentation in front of all your colleagues at work for example, spend extra time in preparation so you feel well-rehearsed and ready to present. Are you worried about your health? Then take action to do everything in your power to establish healthy lifestyle habits: Go to sleep early, eat right, and exercise. Whatever the worry, if it’s within your control to take some action to ensure a more positive outcome, then do it! In the words of Carnegie, “Prepare for the worst – hope for the best.”
Many worriers will try to ease their anxieties by seeking evidence that their greatest fears won’t come true. Someone worried about a headache may do a google search to seek relief in knowing they don’t have some sort of terminal illness, only to feel more anxious and worried than before. Trying to prove to yourself that you have “nothing to worry about” expends a lot of time and energy, and in most cases does little to provide any relief because you can’t really prove that something won’t happen. David A. Carbonell, Ph. D., and author of The Worry Trick, explains, “You can recognize that [your worry is] very unlikely [to occur], there’s no way to prove to yourself that some calamity isn’t going to happen tomorrow, because just about anything, no matter how improbable, is possible if your rules of evidence are loose enough.”
Rather than trying to prove to yourself that your worries won’t come true, accept that life can be uncertain and unpredictable. And that while “bad” things do sometimes happen, more often than not, things end up turning out better than we thought they would.
Worries aren’t based on what’s most likely to happen (probability); they’re based simply on our thoughts about what misfortunes would be terrible if they did happen (fear). Mark Twain hit the nail on the head when he said: “I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
According to a study shared in The Worry Cure by Robert L. Leahy, Ph. D., 85% of our worries never actually happen. And when unfortunate worries do come true, 79% of the worriers reported coping much better with the outcome than they thought they would. Asking yourself, “How likely is this worry to happen?” and, “How well would I be able to cope if it did happen?” can help put your worries into perspective. Reminding yourself that most of your worries won’t come true can help you eliminate unnecessary worries. After all, there’s no use in worrying over things that will never happen.
If you find yourself constantly spacing out or distracted from the current moment because you’re too busy worrying, your problem is that you’re not practicing being present. You’re practicing being off somewhere in the future; and when you worry about the future, it only creates more anxiety. As Lao Tzu wisely stated, “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
A way to end your worries and anxieties about the future is to practice being present. You can learn to be present by cutting out unnecessary distractions, like TV, cell phone usage, and cutting down your time spent on other electronics; by spending time in nature and soaking up the detail and beauty of the outdoors (what the Japanese refer to as shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”; by practicing different deep breathing techniques; or by becoming completely absorbed in the moment with a task or enjoyable pastime (a concept positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi refers to as getting into “FLOW”).
Training your brain to focus on the kind of results you want to create, rather than putting all your focus and attention onto undesirable fears you don’t want to occur is a powerful way to help eliminate your worry and anxiety. Just as Olympians use visualization to clearly envision themselves winning the gold (they certainly don’t waste their time or energy imagining how awful it would be to lose!), you too must imagine yourself experiencing the best possible outcome of an upcoming event that you’re worried about, instead of “catastrophizing” and imagining the worst possible outcome. To effectively visualize, start by getting in a comfortable space where you can be free from distractions.
Close your eyes and start to imagine whatever upcoming event you’re worried about going incredibly well. Imagine yourself saying and doing all the right things, as well as all of the kind compliments from others that you’ll receive once the event has taken place.
The more you maintain this practice, the easier it will become. Take the time to consistently train your brain to visualize good things happening to you and soon enough the practice will become second nature to you; and worry will have to take the back burner.
If you need some additional help visualizing, or want to boost your visualization efforts, try creating a vision board that you can look at every morning when you wake up, and every night before you go to sleep (to keep the positive visions fresh and potent).
All in all, remember that worrying cannot add a single moment to your life. On the contrary, worry only ends up taking away from our life—a moment spent in worry is a moment wasted! The next time worry strikes, I hope you are able to find comfort in following these tips, and if all else fails, turn on some music and sing along to the sensible advice of Bobby McFerrin who sang, “Don’t worry, be happy!”
“Just relax!” A phrase often much easier said than done.
In this part of the guide, I’m going to share with you how you can get your body into a more relaxed state by practicing a few of the best anxiety-reducing relaxation techniques.
If you’re ready to lower you stress, decrease your anxiety, function better, and create a heightened sense of peace and well-being . . . then read on!
When our brains perceive danger (whether real or imagined) our sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the “fight or flight” response) is activated, and our bodies release the stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. These hormones work to heighten our awareness, strength, and agility so that we can act quickly in the midst of danger. When an actual threat to our survival is present, these hormones can help save our lives. But when our body’s stress-response is activated in a non-life threatening situation, these hormones can wreak havoc on our bodies; contributing to issues like chronic stress and anxiety.
So what’s the solution? To combat the negative effects of stress and an overactive SNS, we must activate the parasympathetic nervous system, or the body’s “rest and digest” state. The way we do this is by activating one of the most important elements of the parasympathetic nervous system: The Vagus Nerve. The word “vagus” is Latin for “wanderer” –an appropriate name for a nerve that “wanders” throughout the body and connects to various vital organs. The vagus nerve connects the brain to the gut (intestines and stomach), the heart, liver, pancreas, gallbladder, kidney, ureter, spleen, lungs, fertility organs (females), the neck (including the pharynx, larynx, esophagus), and the ears and tongue.
In people who suffer with things like brain fog, fatigue, food sensitivities, gut problems, and anxiety; the vagus nerve almost always plays a role in these issues. These individuals have what’s referred to as “low vagal tone,” meaning that the vagus nerve has a lower ability to perform its necessary functions.
On the contrary, when the vagus nerve is stimulated, it works to release a variety of anti-stress related hormones and enzymes (such as acetylcholine, prolactin, vasopressin, DHEA, and oxytocin) in the body. In addition, the benefits associated with vagus nerve stimulation include: Improved memory, immune function, sleep, blood pressure, concentration, mood, energy, and higher levels of growth hormone. Vagus nerve stimulation also combats a variety of other health issues associated with chronic stress, such as inflammation, muscle pain and tension, allergic responses, and headaches.
While we may not be able to directly and consciously stimulate the vagus nerve (unless you happen to be a master yogi with complete control over your body), you can indirectly stimulate the nerve to relieve anxiety and depression, and promote well-being in all of your major organs.
You may be surprised to find that the one of the organs largely responsible for contributing to anxiety lies not within your skull, but in what scientists now refer to as your “second brain." It's your gut. Your gut is the home to over 100 trillion bacteria that work to help you digest and extract nutrients from the food you ingest, eliminate waste, keep your immune system healthy, and protect your body against harmful microorganisms. Researchers have now well-established the inextricable link between the gut and the brain, and that imbalances in the gut can lead to psychological imbalances in the brain. Disorders including anxiety, depression, ADD, ADHD, schizophrenia, and even autism have all been linked to poor gut health.
In fact, it’s been found that 80-90% of the body’s serotonin (the “feel-good” neurotransmitter) is actually produced in the gut. The gut directly connects and communicates with your brain via the vagus nerve. With an innumerable amount of neurons in the gut that are in constant communication with the brain, it’s no wonder we use terms like “butterflies in our stomach” to describe when we feel nervous; “gut wrenching” to describe an unpleasant experience; or “going with our gut” when we make an important decision.
There’s no denying that keeping your gut healthy keeps your brain healthy too. So how do we heal and alter the condition of our gut for a better, healthier brain?
1. Eat probiotic rich foods (or supplement with a pro-biotic). Probiotics are the “good” bacteria that help your body digest food, build immunity, and extract nutrients from your food. When we don’t have enough probiotics, our digestion and our mental state suffers for it. You can heal your gut by re-inhabiting the good bacteria through taking a quality probiotic supplement, or eating probiotic rich foods (such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, coconut kefir, yogurt, and natto – a Japanese dish of fermented soybeans).
2. Take a prebiotic. While probiotics are the “good,” healthy bacteria in your gut, prebiotics are plant fibers that act as nourishment or “food” for these bacteria. Foods rich in prebiotics include: Raw chicory root, raw Jerusalem artichoke, raw dandelion leaves, raw garlic, raw leeks, raw onion, cooked onion (although it is best raw as it maintains most of its prebiotic fibers), and raw asparagus. You can also take prebiotics in supplement form.
3. Avoid antibiotics. While antibiotics certainly serve a useful purpose of killing harmful pathogens and dangerous bacteria, unfortunately they kill all bacteria—both good and bad. For a healthy gut, try only taking antibiotics when absolutely necessary, and afterwards be sure to re-inhabit your gut with some more prebiotics and probiotics.
4. Eat whole foods and avoid processed ones. Maintain a diet rich in whole-foods, and as free of processed foods as possible. Processed foods (particularly those high in sugar) feed the harmful bacteria, weakening the population of healthy bacteria, and causing an imbalance in the microflora
5. Avoid alcohol and drugs. Drugs and alcohol have been shown to decrease the amount of healthy bacteria in the gut. However, there is an exception to this: One study found that those who drank one glass of wine a day had higher levels of healthy bacteria. So if you’re going to drink, for the sake of your gut, stick to the wine!
6. Get enough sleep and have a healthy form of stress management. Studies show that stress can negatively affect the condition of the gut and create an environment filled with more ‘bad bacteria” than good. If you want to keep your gut (and brain) healthy, it’s important to get plenty of rejuvenating rest, and to have plenty of downtime and de-stressing activities in your schedule.
7. Eat your anxiety away with stress-reducing foods. One of the most effective ways to combat stress and anxiety is to maintain a diet full of anxiety-reducing foods which have a calming effect on the body. Anxiety is not a result of a Xanax-deficiency. On the contrary, when an individual experiences anxiety, there is a good chance that they are actually deficient in essential vitamins, nutrients, and amino acids that are necessary to feeling calm, relaxed, and resilient towards stress. Maintaining a nutrient rich diet, full of lean proteins, low in sugar, and rich in amino acids and vital nutrients can be key to keeping our anxiety at bay.
Here are a few of the best naturally occurring, anxiety-reducing supplements (and what food sources they can be found in):
Magnesium — Essential to nearly every function in the body, including neurological processes, magnesium restores the adrenal glands, can promote a restful night of sleep, and promotes feelings of calmness. Known as nature’s “chill pill” magnesium can reduce anxiety, irritability, weakness, muscle tension, PMS symptoms, headaches, heart palpitations, and fatigue. Magnesium can be found in: Kelp, almonds, brown rice, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, spinach, sweet potatoes, brazil nuts, cacao (dark chocolate), oats, and apricots.
B Vitamins — B Vitamins reduce the emotional and physical effects of stress on the body and stimulate the production of the feel-good chemical serotonin. They support the nervous system and promote emotional well-being. B Vitamins can be found in: Blueberries, pistachios, mango, sweet potatoes, oats, brown rice, salmon, ginger, turkey, and brazil nuts.
Antioxidants — Protect the body against the negative effects of long term stress Antioxidants can be found in: Blueberries, pomegranate, cacao, plums, pecans, cranberries, goji berries, and grapes.
Fiber — Fiber is necessary for a healthy digestive system. When stressed, our body’s ability to process and digest foods can become impaired. Ensuring you maintain a fiber-rich diet can combat the negative effects of stress on your digestive system. Fiber can be found in: Beans, nuts, berries, oatmeal, vegetables, brown rice, peas, broccoli, brussel sprouts, chia seeds, and flax seeds.
Quercetin — Reduces the stress-related hormone cortisol. Quercetin can be found in: Elderberry, red onions, white onions, cranberries, blueberries, apples, romaine lettuce, pears, spinach, and kale.
Melatonin — Melatonin has a calming effect and can promote a restful night’s sleep. Melatonin can be found in: Cherries, bananas, almonds, honey, and flax seeds.
Tryptophan –Tryptophan encourages the release of serotonin, the body’s feel-good chemical. Tryptophan can be found in: Turkey, eggs, soybeans, and spirulina.
Zinc — A necessary nutrient which can be drained from our system through chronic stress and anxiety. Not only can it help reduce stress, but it’s necessary for improved energy levels, memory, hormone balance, immunity, and libido. Zinc can be found in: Brazil nuts, sesame seeds, spinach, asparagus, almonds, kidney beans, and cremini mushrooms.
Omega 3’s — These fatty acids are essential to the overall health of the brain. They have been shown to effectively reduce the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia. Omega 3 Fatty Acids can be found in: Salmon, flaxseed, chia seeds, navy beans, walnuts, cold-pressed olive oil, pecans, and leafy greens.
Vitamin D — Deficiencies in vitamin D have been linked to poor mood and emotional health. Vitamin D encourages nerve health, reduces fatigue, and balances the mood. Vitamin D can be found in: Salmon, egg yolk, and sweet potatoes.
So by now we’ve discovered how we can change our perception of anxiety to eliminate it, we’ve covered a few of the most effective tips for enhancing relaxation and reducing stress, and we’ve learned about the connection between the gut and the brain, as well as the best anxiety reducing foods. And hopefully, you have a much greater understanding of anxiety and what you can do to eliminate it.
If you’d like more insight on how to reduce your fears, eliminate your worries, and overcome the anxious thoughts that hold you back from achieving all that you desire in life, join us for a free training with John Assaraf. In this training, you’ll learn how to live your life to its fullest and achieve your maximum potential.
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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.