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).
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 harm's 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 non-threatening 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 eight of the most effective ways you can calm your mind (your prefrontal cortex) and reduce the possibility of stimulating your amygdala.
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.
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. I’m only human. Everyone makes mistakes at times and that’s okay. These statements are much more productive and effective in reducing anxiety produced by the cortex.
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).
To eliminate your anxiety naturally, you have to become aware of your breath and slow it down.
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.
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).
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.
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).
When panic or anxiety attacks,
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 and even have relaxing effects for up to 6 hours after a workout (Crocker and
Sleep is essential to reducing anxiety and stress. 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.).
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 bedtime, having a bedtime 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
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