What is anxiety? How to know your enemy and rewire your brain

What Is Anxiety?


By Rhea Roberts

Anxiety is our body’s natural response to stress, its way of telling us to stay alert to keep us safe. It’s triggered by the perception of a threat. At a deep level, what is happening is the amygdala (the part of the brain that is central in processing your emotion) is driving your fight, flight or freeze response. 

When the amygdala is activated, the memory part of the brain (hippocampus) that could probably remind you that you’re actually OK, as well as the area responsible for logic (prefrontal cortex) are near silenced by the withdrawal of blood flow that is instead rushing to the amygdala.

The trouble is, it’s all about perceived threat. Which today, for many of us, is all too common as we strive to balance our expectations with reality in a world that seems so often to demand so much. Adding an international pandemic to the mix has brought to the fore many simmering anxieties and magnified them for many people, myself included.


Signs of anxiety

I didn’t know I had anxiety - it crept up on me slowly and took awhile for me to be able to notice just how tightly it had a hold of me. 

In the short-term, anxiety can make us feel stressed, unable to concentrate and can impact on our relationships and ability to focus. We become tired but get poor sleep, we become irritable and tense and the body gets flooded with stress hormones like cortisol and the odd boost of adrenaline, when we really don’t need it. In the long term the effects of sustained anxiety on the body are more serious, especially on the immune system, our heart health and our gut. 

 

If you think you might be struggling with anxiety, or perhaps deep down you know you are - talk to your GP. When I first went to see my doctor I went in to discuss how tired and irritable I was all the time as well as a stomach complaint that seemed to never go away. I was sure there was some sort of physical problem and said as much. We did blood tests, which revealed nothing and I started running more, which helped. However, any relief was short lived and soon I fell into depression as well.

 

Fast forward 6 months and Covid-19 hit, work became incredibly busy and caring for a young family became an extreme sport as we slalomed from one activity to another, spinning multiple plates for work and home at all times and avoiding as many meltdowns as we could. 

 

My solar plexus had been firing so much it felt as though I had a knot in my stomach surrounded by butterflies for a month without end.

 

Soon it crescendoed and I was back at the doctors. My solar plexus had been firing so much it felt as though I had a knot in my stomach surrounded by butterflies for a month without end. It hurt and wouldn’t go away. Finally the penny dropped and my doctor prescribed me some SSRIs (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and signed me off work. The next few weeks were a bit bumpy but I soon came to realise how tense I had become. How my thoughts were many, hurried and often negative or fearful, all the time.

 

I was the frog in the slowly boiling water realising just how hot the pan had become. Thankfully, I got the help I needed. Cognitive behavioural therapy (or CBT) was particularly useful. But there are also several other, less clinical interventions (but are still endorsed by scientific research) that I now swear by and have taken me from feeling like I would always be anxious, to now understanding that like all things, anxiety too can (and will) pass.


Anxiety Relief

Here are my top five tips on what you can do to combat anxiety right now.

 

cbd

 

    1. Exercise

  • We all carry tension differently but common areas are the arms, shoulders and neck. A good run, swim or bike ride (any activity really) helps it to dissipate. This can break the cycle of a tense body reinforcing a tense mind.
  • Once your heart is pumping, positive changes occur in the chemistry of the brain. The availability of important anti-anxiety neurochemicals increases, including serotonin, gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and endocannabinoids (it’s the body’s endocannabinoid system that CBD oil interacts with). In short,this makes you feel good on a chemical level
  • Exercise also activates the frontal regions of the brain responsible for executive function, helping to control the worrisome amygdala, the centre of our fight of flight system that switches on in response to real or imagined threats to our survival.

 

 

meditation for anxiety

 

    2. Meditate

 

  • Mindfulness meditation involves sitting silently and paying attention to thoughts, sounds, the sensations of breathing or parts of the body, bringing your attention back whenever the mind starts to wander.
  • Gradually, we can train ourselves to notice when our thoughts are taking over and realise that thoughts are simply 'mental events' that do not have to control us. It does take practise but like most things, you get better the more you do it.
  • I use the Calm app. At first I used it to help me sleep (they have lots of wonderful sleep stories that really do the trick) and then I started using it for guided meditations for anxiety relief, self-esteem and gratitude (more on that below) 
  • As Professor Mark Williams puts it: "mindfulness isn't about making these thoughts go away, but rather about seeing them as mental events. That way we begin to develop an awareness of thoughts and feelings that enable us to silently name them. Like "This is anxiety" and then you can step back from it and break the spell.

 

    3. Eat Well

  • Low blood sugar, poor hydration, drinking alcohol or caffeine can all precipitate or mimic symptoms of anxiety. Eat regular meals to avoid hypoglycemic states.
  • Stay hydrated
  • Work toward a well-balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables and healthy fats. You need to nourish yourself from within so avoid processed foods and foods high in sugar. That way the body experiences fewer highs and lows of blood sugar, as a sugar rush can mimic a panic attack, which is the last thing you need when you’re trying to keep it on a level.

 

    4. Challenge Your Thoughts

  • This one sounds easy but when you’re in the spiky grip of anxiety, this is often really hard.  It can take some practise to achieve as we may have become habituated to negative habits of mind - constantly judging ourselves, worrying about the past or the future and dwelling for too long on negative fantasies that only make us feel worse. Waking up to that, challenging it and choosing to divert your attention takes strength and determination to begin with but thankfully it snowballs from there. 
  • As mentioned above, anxiety causes the amygdala to kick in, which disrupts the parts of your brain that can help you to see what's really happening in your own head. One trick that can help is to take a series of very deep, slow breaths to help get more oxygen into your bloodstream and hopefully wake-up your prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. Once they’re back online, try and think things through more rationally. 
  • Don’t dismiss all the feelings, concerns and thoughts but simply acknowledge them and choose to let them go. Remind yourself that they are just: mental events, not facts, not even anything real in front of you, just thoughts and that simply by seeing this you know you are getting better. Well done you.

 

 

anxiety relief through gratitude

 

    5. Gratitude

  • Just think what life would be like if we put as much time and concern into cultivating positive thoughts as opposed to negative ones? Well we can, it’s called gratitude and it is surprisingly powerful.
  • Make gratitude a new positive habit of mind that you become habituated to and you’ll soon see your thoughts, feelings and actions change for the better. 
  • Spend a little time each day making a list of things or people that you are grateful for. If at any point in the day, particularly at night before you go to sleep, you find yourself in a negative loop of embarrassing moments or reasons to doubt or criticise yourself, take a deep breath and replace those mental events with gratitude instead. 
  • Building on the points above you’ll eventually be able to break the cycle and build new thought patterns instead - ones that are positive and thankful
  • Tell people you’re grateful for them too - research shows that expressing gratitude releases as much if not more serotonin as receiving it.

 

These are all things that have helped me and I hope they help you too, by all means let me know in the comments.

The main idea here is to give yourself the space and opportunity (perhaps through exercise and healthy eating) to become more aware of your thoughts and their impact on you, to challenge them and to eventually replace them with gratitude.

It’s a big ask to rewire your neural pathways but the steps are shockingly simple - it just takes time, determination and practice.

You’ll get there - I did and you will too.


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