Anxiety Relief: You Are Not Bound by Your Biology

Rewire your stress response for peace of mind.

Posted Dec 29, 2019

 Laura Lauch/Unsplash
Source: Laura Lauch/Unsplash

“I’m wired this way. I’ve always been a worrier!”

“My thoughts are constantly racing.”

“Everyone in my family is anxious.”

If these thoughts resonate with you, you are not alone.

Nearly 20% of the adult population in the United States is diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Not included are the undiagnosed and untreated members of society.

According to large population-based surveys, up to 33.7% of the population are affected by an anxiety disorder during their lifetime.

While it’s a fact that biology and hardwiring play important roles in your stress response, you can rewire your brain to respond with intention the next time fear and anxiety threaten to hijack your brain.

To increase stress hardiness and psychological durability, three areas are found to be critical, according to researcher Suzanne Kobasa and colleagues.

  • Commitment. Are you mindful of what’s happening around you? How connected do you feel to yourself, others, the community, and your value system?
  • Control. Are you able to let go of those situations outside your control and resist the impulse to become overwhelmed and distracted? Are you confident in your ability to withstand problems? Do you refuse to see yourself as a victim?
  • Challenge. Can you suspend frustration and instead, adopt a flexible mindset, viewing setbacks as opportunities to grow and learn?

Research on stress and anxiety consistently shows problems don’t cause stress, but how you identify and think about a problem determines the impact that stress will have.

Martin Seligman, a pioneer in the understanding of how people explain ideas, observed that pessimists tend to blame themselves for “bad” events and are prone to catastrophizing. Not surprisingly, an overly negative evaluation can lead to worse health outcomes. On the other hand, optimists favor the good in situations and see themselves as having agency over outcomes. This leads to paying attention to controllable aspects of a situation and resisting the urge to give up easily. Optimism is correlated to protective health factors, as well.

Mental health is achieved through intentional focus on making emotional well-being a priority. Those that value feeling calmer and in-control carve out time daily. Sure, good genes and stable, reliable caretakers are factors, but we can’t choose our families of origin. We can, however, choose how to spend our time and energy.

Here are five practices that not only help you let go of anxiety’s nemesis—trying to control outcomes—but also support a healthier inner life and effective problem-solving skills.

  1. Create a consistent sleep schedule where you fall asleep and wake up at the same time, even on weekends. A predictable routine helps to regulate your body's clock and could help you fall asleep and stay asleep through the night.
  2. Wake up and spend five minutes reflecting on what’s going well in your life. Too often, we arise and zero-in on deficits and all the items remaining on the to-do list. How we wake up sets the tone for the rest of our day.
  3. Meditate. Many anxious souls have a hard time sitting in silence. I often hear the following in therapy: "Meditation makes me feel more anxious and slow, deep breathing doesn’t help calm down." It could be that you’re more attuned to how anxious you are during meditation, and you just need more practice. Intentional focus on slowing the mind and body paves the way for rational thinking, and we can’t problem-solve if we’re emotionally and physiologically charged. Through meditation, you learn to pay attention to what you pay attention to which is critical to self-awareness.
  4. Assess your coping skills for dealing with stress. We often resort to autopilot without realizing unhealthy habits. Let’s say you're stuck in a cycle of dead-end relationships. Rather than give so much of yourself in the beginning, ask yourself why you feel the need to convince this person how wonderful you are. Over-sharing and being ever-reliable may have worked in the past, but now you're looking for a commitment. Mature love looks for character traits that promote stability and sustainability, not overcompensation.
  5. Take charge of your thoughts. As Marianne Williamson stated, “You must learn a new way to think before you can master a new way to be.” Getting curious about your thought process enables you to have a healthy skepticism about what others say, including the stories you tell yourself. For example, “Everyone around me is getting married, I’m never going to find the one,” becomes, “Maybe I’m dating the wrong type. Perhaps I could re-examine what traits are deal-breakers.” Catching automatic, pessimistic thoughts in their tracks and reframing them leads to balanced emotions and healthier actions.

Though your DNA and hardwiring may cause your thoughts to race more quickly and dial toward catastrophic, you are not beholden to your biology. You may have to work smarter to find inner peace, but this doesn’t have to be a struggle. You may even find that opening yourself up to mindfulness invites a more authentic experience of the world around you and frees you up from habitual reactions.