Here’s the amazing thing about your brain, it’s made to re-wire itself all the time. This is called Neuroplasticity-Scientists used to think that after childhood our brain was pretty much locked in place, but now that we have better imaging technology we can literally see how the brain changes depending on how we use it.
In this post I’m going to talk about one very simple thing you can do to rewire your brain to be less anxious. And it is simple, but it’s not easy, so I’m also going to share 3 steps you can take to make it happen.
So let’s start off with one example of neuroplasticity: In London, the taxi drivers have to take this super difficult exam where they have to prepare by memorizing all the streets and events and locations in this huge city. Researchers took images of their brain before they started studying and after this two year process and were literally able to see the new neural connections- the wiring- that changed in the brain. There’s good evidence that changing how you think (going to therapy) can actually change the structure of your brain and the types of chemicals that it’s pumping out.
Our brain has an amazing ability to re-wire itself, to learn, grow and heal. So let’s talk about how to do that with Anxiety. If we want to change how our brain processes Anxiety we need to Understand 3 Principles of Anxiety:
Understand What is Anxiety- Now this may sound dumb, because you already know what anxiety feels like. But what you need to do is understand your perspective on anxiety. You need to let go of the idea that “Anxiety is Bad”. Anxiety is not inherently bad. Anxiety is uncomfortable. Sometimes Anxiety is disordered. Sometimes anxiety gets in the way. But we all experience anxiety because it is supposed to serve a really important function- to motivate us to avoid real danger. We are supposed to feel anxious when standing on a cliff edge, it helps us be safe. We are supposed feel anxious when we know we have an important test coming up-because that could motivate us to action like studying. Anxiety tells us that something is important to us. Anxiety and Excitement are basically the same chemical reaction in your body- with adrenaline triggering that sympathetic activation and prepping you for action. When we look at anxiety as being an uncomfortable, but acceptable and normal part of life, suddenly we develop new tools to work with it. And that includes working with the other type of anxiety.
Understanding Disordered Anxiety-This is when anxiety seems to take over your life. Anxiety that makes it hard to go to work, to school, or to enjoy life at all. And the harder you try to make it go away, the stronger and stronger it gets, Anxiety is disordered when 1 of 2 things happens:
1- You feel in danger when you are actually safe.(I made a video on this- it’s called perceived vs. Actual safety) For example, I worked with a client who was afraid of radiators. She would feel anxious and sweaty around them and she couldn’t make herself go into a room with a radiator in it. Now radiators are not actually dangerous. But she was having a real physiological response to something that was actually safe. So anxiety can be disordered when you have a “Danger” response in your body but you’re actually safe.
2- The second way anxiety can be disordered is when your anxiety interferes with your ability to function. This is essentially what determines if you meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder diagnosis. When your Anxiety(or attempts to avoid anxiety) stop you from effectively facing life. When this happens you start avoiding school, or calling in sick to work. You stop leaving the house or spending time with friends. Pretty soon your anxiety is taking over your life and stopping you from doing the things you love.
The Anxiety Cycle
So let’s talk about what causes Anxiety to spiral out of control-This is the Anxiety Cycle
(Experience) Every day throughout our day, we have experiences- and we interpret these experiences as either being safe or dangerous.
(Perception) So lets say for example you see a a dog, now each person interprets an experience differently-for some people this would be exciting, and fun, but for some reason you think “That dog is going to bite me!” this leads to feelings of fear, anxiety and maybe even panic. These are uncomfortable feelings and you may even take them as a sign that your thoughts are true.
(Reaction) So you escape, you run away, get out of there!
(Outcome) And- nothing bad happens…
(Reinforcement)Your brain releases a surge of relief, “whew, that was close! The only way I survived was because I ran away! I could have died!
Your brain thinks- “I better do that again! I’m going to motivate my human to avoid that situation by increasing their anxiety about it.” And voila…your anxiety goes up.
Every single time that we avoid a threat, and survive, our brain thinks- “Let’s do that again”. So it lays down neural pathways, this wiring, that reinforces that behavior. And the whole function of emotions is to motivates us to action. (But that’s a whole other video). So our brain, because we’ve convinced it that dog was a threat- takes action into it’s own hands and increases your anxiety level around dogs. Every time that we feel anxiety, then avoid the situation, our anxiety level will go up a notch.
This is Principle #3-This is Essential to understand to beat anxiety- Avoidance Feeds Disordered Anxiety- It literally creates overwhelming anxiety. It trains your brain to believe that things that are actually safe are really dangerous. This whole time you’ve been thinking that you need to get rid of anxiety, when it reality you need to get rid of avoidance.
Now there are lots of ways to avoid: there’s running away and physically avoiding, but there’s also emotional avoidance- if you have social anxiety you might still go to the party, but only if you get drunk ahead of time. Or you might be in a relationship, but scared of getting hurt so you don’t allow yourself to let the other person in. You stay emotionally distant or you protect yourself by not committing. Social Media, Anger, Blame, distraction, and even “Coping Skills” can be avoidant.
Regardless of the type of avoidance, it increases your anxiety and worse- it shrinks down your world. So with the Dog example, you might start avoiding situations where a dog might be present, not going to friends homes or the park. And your world shrinks, you miss out on good relationships, or stop going to parties. And your world gets more and more constrained. Avoidance can make your world small and scary and unhappy. But every time you get anxious and avoid something, and survive, your brain increases your anxiety in that area.
Now looking at this cycle, we have two places where we can intervene, where we can stop that anxiety from spiraling out of control. The first place is with our actions, when we feel anxiety but we are actually safe, if we stick with it, if we stay there, experience our emotions and sensations without running away. And again, you don’t die, then your brain learns “Phew, what a relief. I guess that not all dogs are dangerous! Let’s do that again!” and it sends out a surge of relief. This leads to a gradual decrease in anxiety over time, and a gradual increase in your emotional muscles- your ability to feel emotions and sensations that are uncomfortable without needing to escape them all the time. You get better at feeling.
As you do this your brain literally lays down new neural pathways saying “Not all dogs are dangerous. I don’t need to be anxious around dogs” and it literally changes your brain chemistry, releasing less cortisol and adrenaline and other stress hormones.
This is the most straightforward, way to re wire your brain to have less anxiety. But I get it. This is super hard-if it were easy, you would have already done it. So I’m going to break it down into 3 big steps for you.
Now on a side note- The second place in this cycle to intervene is with your thoughts, changing how you think about the dog, and this can be a powerful and effective treatment too- but it can also get really complicated, and it works best before you’re anxious rather than during. I talk about some ways you can change your thinking in other videos, but in this video we’re going to talk about the most straightforward way to rewire the anxious brain- through action.
So how to do it: Three Steps
Step One: Make an Exposure Hierarchy- I’ve made an entire video about this. But basically you take one thing that scares you, and your break it down into teeny tiny steps, and you start by courageously facing the easiest one first. THIS IS THE PART MOST PEOPLE MISS They jump in too fast and then panic, escape or never do it again and that fear is reinforced. Make an Exposure Hierarchy, write down as many tiny steps as you can think of.
Step Two: Change your rules: Now courage doesn’t mean the absence of fear, but choosing that something is more important than avoiding fear. In ACT this is called willingness- allowing yourself do something even though it makes you uncomfortable. If you make a rule for yourself “I’m going to do this until I get too anxious” then your brain will be like cool- let’s do that, then I can escape. So it will make you really anxious. When we say, I’m going to do this thing unless it makes me too anxious, then we’re just inviting anxiety to make all our decisions for us. So when it comes to exposure, you choose an easier activity to start with, then stay with it and watch it for a certain amount of time, or until your anxiety decreases by half during the exposure.
Step Three: Do it. Face it. Go get anxious and see if you survive. (You will):
So with the dog example: Start by repeatedly imagining yourself interacting with a dog-and you practice this every day for 10 minutes until that activity no longer makes you very anxious. Then you might work with a friend who has a dog to set up the next steps. Seeing a dog through a window and just staying there. And you do this every day for ten minutes, until your anxiety decreases. Then being in the same room as a tiny dog on a leash. Then touching a tiny dog on a leash. Then petting a tiny dog on a leash. Then petting a tiny dog off a leash. Then moving up to a bigger dog on then off a leash. Then little by little you eventually get yourself to the point where you can go to a dog park, sit down, and stay there for 30 minutes. It’s ok if you feel anxious. It’s ok if you feel uncomfortable or you sweat or you shake or whatever…but you just stick with it and pretty soon your brain learns-it’s cool, most dogs are safe. You’re ok. And your anxiety will decrease.
So there’s the simple solution to Anxiety, face your fears and they will decrease. This may seem too simple, or too impossible, too big of a leap. So therapists have devised a way to break that leap down into a bunch of tiny steps, a bunch of skills that you can learn to make it easier.
Now…if you want to go more in depth into that, let’s do it, let’s talk about the more detailed process of how we do this, the specific skills that help us move from anxiety avoidance to power over our anxiety.
Because I’m trying to cram so much information into this topic, I’ve decided to split this post up into two parts, so check out part two for the 10 skills you can develop to face fears. Gradual exposure therapy is a research backed approach shown to help reduce anxiety and treat anxiety disorders. It does this because it literally changes the brain, re-wiring the neural pathways and changing the release of chemicals in the brain.