Feeling Anxious? Give Your Brain a Break, Already!

Six steps to get on the right side of calm.

Posted Nov 06, 2017

Chucs Sama/unsplash
Source: Chucs Sama/unsplash

Most knee-jerk, impulsive reactions during an anxiety attack are the result of your brain’s amygdala, screaming "fight-flight-freeze!"

So to beat your anxiety at its own game, you’ve got to do differently next time your heart starts racing or you panic about that upcoming family reunion.

To get your brain on the right side of calm, you’ve got to give it a break from the habitual gloom and doom:

We have an ingrained negativity bias. Negative emotions really hit us like a sledgehammer. They are much more intense and attention grabbing than our positive emotions, which are comparably more subtle. —Researcher Barbara Fredrickson

The following six steps done consistently, and in succession, can help you avoid anxiety's automatic, rigid, inflexible responses. The ultimate goal?: Bore your central nervous system.

1. Listen to your body’s stress signals. Common physiological reactions include rapid heart-rate, tightening in the chest, difficulty breathing, dizziness, and nausea. Notice your body getting worked up, and your mind is less likely to run with it.  

2. Practice deep-breathing or a physical activity to stop the runaway anxiety train in its tracks. The goal is to recognize your mind and body are over-reacting and not under attack in this moment. Being present is crucial for getting out of panic mode and into your rational mind. This article includes multiple calming techniques.

3. Fire the negative committee inside your brain. Would you hire Debbie Downer to run your front office? Of course not. Be just as stealth with your mind. Watch out for catastrophic, unrealistic and unhealthy thoughts. Anxiety loves drama, over-attention to the content of your worries (“Blink 23 times before the stop light or you’ll crash into that lady crossing the street!”), and worst-case scenarios: “What if this headache is a brain tumor?”

4. Replace rundown, stubborn thoughts with adaptive thoughts: “Here we go again. My anxiety wants me to think I’m going crazy. I’m sweating and breathing shallow, but I’m okay. I’m going to pull over to the side of the road and calm down. Being a few minutes late to work is not the end of the world.” Making it to this step means you’re thinking with your rational brain.

5. DO differently. Because anxiety is rooted in the automatic fight-flight-freeze response, the brain can’t distinguish between a real threat and a perceived threat. It’s common to go into auto-pilot and either react impulsively with anger (fight), or escape due to emotional flooding (flight). Sometimes the perceived threat is so intense, you may become immobile (freeze). Once you identify your patterns of unhealthy behavior, you can make informed decisions about what to do instead: “Rather than swallow my anger, I’m going to tell my husband I feel dismissed when he sides with his family about child-rearing.”

6. Repeat steps 1-5 as often as necessary. Sometimes this process will take a few minutes, other times you're in it for the long haul. That’s okay. You can rewire your brain’s response to stress through repetition. Remember the ultimate goal is to bore your central nervous system.

Don’t give up! Anxiety can feel overwhelming, all-consuming and never-ending. Here are a few buzz words to help your brain remember: listen, go slow, stay present, get curious, think “rational” and “informed,” be action-oriented.

For additional support to reduce anxiety, click here.

© 2017 Linda Esposito, LCSW.