Psychologically speaking, the most significant factors that will keep you from realizing the happiness and success to which you aspire are anxiety and excessive stress. Both of these contribute significantly to depression, as well.
Over 44 years of clinical practice and university teaching, I’ve heard people say time and time again, “I’m an anxious person; I was born that way.” Or they might say, "I don’t do well under stress.” Or perhaps they say, “I get psyched out really easily.”
Indeed, social anxiety inhibits your ability to make friends and engage with other people. Performance anxiety inhibits your ability to perform academically and athletically. Stage fright can cripple performers.
But here is the good news: According to Dr. Daniel Amen, in his 2013 TEDxTalk, “You are not stuck with the brain you have. You can make it better.” While Dr. Amen’s statement sounds like hyperbole, there is actually considerable evidence that not only is he correct but that you may be able to cultivate some degree of “immunity” from excessive stress. Think of it as a form of “psychological body armor.”
Neural pathways in your brain are malleable. Research has shown that your brain is highly responsive to both environmental stimuli, as well as to your thoughts and emotions (Volkow, 2010). This phenomenon is referred to as neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity allows the brain to create functional neurological pathways and networks, as well as to reorganize previously existing pathways and networks in order to create the neurologic infrastructure for virtually every aspect of human behavior. This has important implications not only for adult learning, but also for our understanding of stress and anxiety and how to better manage them.
Tuning of the Human Nervous Systems
A musical instrument can be tuned sharp and over-responsive. It can also be tuned down to be less reactive. So too can your nervous systems be “tuned.”
Based upon elegant research investigations in the 1960s, the brilliant physiologist Ernst Gellhorn concluded that, based upon one’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences, the human nervous systems are capable of being “tuned” so as to be irritable, hypersensitive, and over-responsive. This is especially true for the sympathetic nervous system responsible for the “fight or flight” response. This hyper-sensitization he called “ergotropic tuning.”
So the more negative thoughts you have, the more negative experiences you have, the more negative emotions you experience, and the more you worry about things, the more likely you are to actually train your brain to experience stress and anxiety reactions with less and less provocation. He cogently argued that such hypersensitivity was the foundation for the development of crippling anxiety and a host of psychological and physical stress-related disorders.
But the good news is that Gellhorn also concluded that your nervous systems could be desensitized. This he called “trophotropic tuning.” It suggests that we should have a far more optimistic view of what we once thought were intractable stress and anxiety disorders—even if you think you were “born that way.” If neural patterns of excessive stress can be acquired, they can be altered and more positive functional neurologic pathways can replace them. More specifically, it suggests that highly sensitized mechanisms causing anxiety and stress may be effectively desensitized. The only question is: “How?”
3 Basic Steps in Creating Psychological Body Armor (PBA)
Changing the structure and function of your brain is not as hard as it sounds. Listed below are three simple steps that may assist you in desensitizing your brain’s inclinations for anxiety and stress arousal and building psychological body armor (PBA).
- Realistic expectations and optimistic beliefs. Setting realistic expectations, preparation, and rehearsal are important aspects of building PBA. The highly neuroplastic hippocampal structures of the human brain seem to be implicated in the rise of anxiety reactions when the reality you experience does not match your expectations. Dr. Donald Meichenbaum (1985) developed a structured approach to preparing people for stressful situations. Through expectation setting, preparation, and rehearsal, you will find your sense of optimism increases. Your optimism may then actually become a positive self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Mindfulness. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn (1990) popularized this concept. Think of mindfulness as being present in the moment. Mindfulness is a form of awareness that is achieved by focusing your attention on the present moment, acknowledging what is going on around you, while at the same time calmly acknowledging your thoughts and feelings about that moment. The opposite of mindfulness is inattention, distractedness, and not being engaged in the moment. Think of it as mindlessness. Research on mindfulness as shown it to be associated with a reduction in perceived pain, as well as reductions in stress and hypersensitivity,
- Regular practice of the Relaxation Response. The Relaxation Response may be thought of as a trophotropic state. It is a state of calm and relaxation characterized by a resistance to irritability, stress, and anxiety. Dr. Herbert Benson (1974) was the first to systematically study the response. Research has shown it can be induced by techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, meditation, and prayer. While practicing the Relaxation Response will give you a sense of calm and relaxation while you are practicing, with continued practice you can actually develop increased resistance to stressful events, thoughts, and feelings. Think of it as cultivating a form of “psychological immunity.” Patients routinely remark, “The things that used to bother me don’t bother me as much anymore.” Research beginning at Harvard University and Harvard Medical School and subsequently spanning over 30 years has shown you can develop stress resistance so as to reduce stress arousal in response to stimulants, physical challenges, and even demand in academic situations with just several weeks of consistent practice. This is exactly what Gellhorn postulated, though he was likely unaware of the most likely mechanisms for this neural down-regulation existing as reduced receptivity at postsynaptic membranes (see Everly & Lating, 2013 for reviews).
The three steps enumerated above are not the complete story of creating PBA, but they are the foundations. Physical exercise can increase cognitive functioning, enhance neuroplasticity, and engender a post-exercise state of calm, while alterations in your diet can fuel the development of PBA by reducing oxidative stress and fibrogenesis.
Just as you can wear physical body armor to reduce the likelihood of physical injury, evidence suggests that you can create your own psychological body armor to protect you from anxiety and excessive stress.
© 2018. George S. Everly, Jr., Ph.D.
Benson, H. (1974). Relaxation Response. NY: Morrow.
Everly, G.S., Jr. & Lating J.M. (2013). Clinical guide to the treatment of the human stress response. NY: Spring.
Gellhorn, E. (1968). Central nervous system tuning and its implications for neuropsychiatry. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 147, 148–162. https://doi.org/10.1097/00005053-196808000-00007
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living. NY: Random House.
Meichenbaum, D. (1985). Stress inoculation training. NY: Pergamon.
Volkow, N. (2010). As interviewed in Cerebrum. Feb 18, 2010. A decade after The Decade of the Brain. http://dana.org/Cerebrum/Default.aspx?id=39428