Dr. Caroline Leaf – In this podcast (episode #286) and blog, I am going to talk about anxiety. I get asked so many questions about anxiety, what it is, and how to manage it that I decided to dedicate a whole podcast to this topic.
Here are some examples of the questions I have received:
- Why do I feel anxious in certain situations and not others?
- Why does my whole body react (to the point where I feel sick) when I am anxious?
- Why do some situations result in more anxiety than others?
- What do I do when I feel constantly anxious around a loved one or work colleague?
- What do you tell your mind to ward off PTSD-related anxiety when emotionally triggered?
- Can you give insight into how to control anxiety or being panicked when left alone and how to keep your mind at peace?
- Is anxiety genetic?
- Can it be wired in relation to a specific fear?
- What is hypervigilance?
Everyone experiences a level of anxiety from time to time; this is completely normal. Often, there are times in our life where “stuff” really accumulates, and it is okay to be anxious occasionally. However, if left unmanaged, this “stuff” can progress to a point where we feel so overwhelmed with anxiety that our ability to go about daily life is obstructed, especially if it results in debilitating anxiety or a panic attacks.
The key word here is “managed”. How we manage anxiety will be based on how we view anxiety. If we just see anxiety as a “disease” or “biochemical medical illness”, it can be pretty scary! This label can lock us in, potentially shaping the way we see ourselves and our capacity, or stigmatizing our biology—some people may view us as inherently lacking control and potentially unstable or even dangerous to ourselves and others.
But there is another way to look at anxiety, one that I believe is more hopeful, kinder and less stigmatizing. Anxiety can be seen as a warning signal—a helpful messenger. It is telling us there is something going on in our lives that needs attention because it’s threatening our peace and survival. It’s pointing to the narrative that is related to our anxiety, that is what has happened to make us feel this way, rather than just focusing on a biological root as the cause of the anxiety.
Indeed, what we think and experience affects our biology, so of course we will experience anxiety as physical symptoms. The cause isn’t necessarily in the brain, although, of course, physical brain damage or ill-health can affect how we feel and make us anxious. However, if we think the anxiety we are feeling and experiencing is just because we have a damaged brain or body, we can lose hope and a sense of agency, which may make our anxiety worse.
We need to remember that the brain is not a preprogrammed body of grey matter. We do not just “dance to our DNA”, as the popular saying goes. Anxiety isn’t just a broken brain or illness waiting to manifest. Anxiety means that we, as thinking beings, are responding intelligently to threats to our existence.
When there is a foreboding change in our environment, we experience this change through our mind. The mind is the power mechanism by which we experience life, but it is experimental because it’s always hypothesizing and working things out. This means things can get messy, but that’s okay—the point is to look at the messiness of life and learn how to manage, repair and grow through it. This is mind-management in action, which I discuss in detail in my latest book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess.
The experiences we have are then wired into the brain by the mind. Subsequently, the brain sends signals to all the cells of the body that there is a change in the mind and brain, and, in the case of a negative experience, that change is a threat to our survival. This generates an immune system response, and the entire body responds, including the release of cortisol, homocysteine, prolactin, as well as a biological impact on our telomeres and a change in brainwaves. These responses are communicated back to us through our emotions (anxiety), body (heart palpitations, stomach aches and so on), behaviors (such as panic attacks, withdrawal, or hasty decisions), and perspective, which is a warning signal of this imbalance as a threat to or survival and the desire to restore balance in the brain and body.
This is why it is so important to embrace, not suppress, anxiety. We need to acknowledge the abovementioned signals, process what they mean and reconceptualize them – make them work for us instead of against us. When we learn how to do this, we can start to manage, although not necessarily solve, our anxiety. Indeed, sometimes it’s the pure acceptance of the uncertainty of life and the reality of anxiety as a normal part of being human that becomes our reconceptualized understanding—our way of moving forward! Anxiety is a feeling that needs to be understood, not just eradicated.
Why? We cannot ignore the connection between our perceptions and our understanding of our experiences to our biology. This link, otherwise known as the mind-brain-body connection, helps us to predict what we need as individual organisms to cope, or to modulate our biochemistry, physiology and our behavior to make sure our body has just enough resources to deal with both acute and chronic life challenges. For example, when we find ourselves in an anxiety-inducing situation, the brain signals the kidneys, telling them that we are going to need a healthy blood supply for the acute situation we find ourselves in. Consequently, the kidneys start pumping in salt water, which constricts the blood vessels and raises our blood pressure.
However, if we are on alert every second of the day, especially during a chronic situation, this experience will be wired into the brain repeatedly, which can become a habit if this occurs over 9 weeks (for more on this my book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess). Essentially, during this time the mind is continually sending a response to the brain and body that something scary is going to happen, which can result in hypervigilance if left unmanaged, putting the brain and body into an emergency state.
To cope with these feelings, our level of alertness and various bodily activities must respond to this state of being. Using the same example above, this means the brain is continually telling our kidneys that we need more blood supply, so the kidneys are continually pumping in salt water to constrict the blood vessels, which can have negative repercussions, such as high blood pressure, if we do not learn how to manage this response. If we’re constantly living in a high-alert state, the natural mechanisms of the brain and body stay in high alert, which can have all sorts of mental, emotional and physical consequences.
Of course, many people suffer from anxiety, and there are manifold reasons why someone may experience anxiety, such as divorce, poverty, racial inequality, bullying, and war. Getting to the root of these reasons is essential when learning how to manage anxiety. There are also a few surprising reasons why we may be experiencing anxiety, such as:
1. Bad digestion:
The gut microbiome, which is the world of bacteria living in our digestive system, doesn’t just exist to help us break down food. There is a constant conversation going on between the brain and gut, which also has its own amazing neurons, just like the spinal cord! This relationship is incredibly important when it comes to our mental health, which is both directly and indirectly affected by what we eat.
In fact, a growing body of research shows that certain gut bacteria not only influence thought processes and the physical structure of the brain, but also that our thought processes and physical structure of the brain affect our gut bacteria. As I told all my patients in my clinical practice (and anyone who asks me today), what we eat affects how we think, and how we think affects what we eat and how we digest food!
So, watch what you eat—try to avoid too much processed food, eating too fast, eating on the go and eating too much, all of which can contribute to increased anxiety levels!
When we multitask, we end up with what I call “milkshake thinking”, which is the opposite of mindfulness. Every rapid, incomplete, and poor quality shift of thought makes a “milkshake” with our brain cells and neurochemicals, which is the opposite of how the brain is designed to function. When we consciously try to jump rapidly from one task to another, we essentially cloud our ability to concentrate and think deeply, which impacts our ability to do a task well, leading to unnecessary levels of anxiety in our life.
This is why I always recommend choosing to focus on one thing. Where you direct your mind is a choice, one that can affect you in either a positive or negative direction. This is especially the case with multitasking. You can reduce the anxiety that comes from decision fatigue—the feeling of being overwhelmed by the plethora of “would” or “could” choices we all face daily—by choosing, in the moment, to stay focused on a task and disregard less urgent demands. When you do this, you actually build up your mental strength and resilience, which will help you better deal with disappointment, failure and the daily anxieties of life!
3. The search and reward circuit:
There is a special circuit in the brain that helps us search for food, comfort, love, relationships, friendships, peace, and so on, called the search and reward circuit. (Much of the research in this area of neuroscience has been done by Peter Sterling.) When we experience these positive experiences, dopamine is released and we can relax until we start the next search. Essentially, we are built to seek out a way of life that rewards us with a dopamine rush—the little searches and little dopamine rushes drive us to seek these rewards, which has a cumulative effect. Often, we are driven by these frequent, small surprises, and if we don’t find them, we can get agitated or anxious. This is especially true if we are in a chronic, unmanaged stress state—we don’t experience this rush as much as we need to, which can make us anxious.
4. Not daydreaming enough:
When we don’t give our minds a break and let them just wander and daydream, we can end up feeling really anxious and stressed out. This kind of thinking is not just “nonsense” or “distracted” thinking. When we daydream, we essentially reboot our mind, as talked about in Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. These moments give your brain a rest and allow it to heal, which increases your clarity of thought and organizes the networks of your brain by balancing alpha activity, helping create an optimal state of relaxation and alertness and bridging the divide between the conscious and nonconscious mind. This, in turn, puts you in a state of peacefulness, readiness, meditation, and beta activity, which is important for processing information, being alert, working through something challenging, focusing, and developing sustained attention. This balanced energy, in turn, increases blood flow to the brain, which helps it function better and helps you deal with mental challenges and manage anxiety.
The opposite happens if you don’t take regular thinker moments. Not giving the mind a rest and letting it daydream can reduce blood flow by up to 80 percent in the front of the brain, which can dramatically affect cognitive fluency and the efficient, associative thinking required at home, school or in the workplace. Cumulatively, this can lead to unprocessed thoughts and nightmares, affecting your overall quality of sleep, performance and mental health.
To do a thinker moment, simply close your eyes and let your mind wander. Daydream, listen to some music, take a walk outside, even doodle. These moments can be anything from a short ten seconds to a full hour. As you take a thinker moment, you may be surprised to notice what thoughts and feelings pop up from your nonconscious during these moments. Don’t panic, as this is perfectly normal! Just take note of them and then plan on addressing them later—try to avoid ruminating on them and letting them interrupt your internal rest time.
5. Chaotic thinking:
Due to the mind-brain connection, what we think both indirectly and directly impacts our mental and physical health, including our anxiety levels—we shouldn’t just let thoughts and feelings run through our mind unchecked. To this end, I recommend making deliberate and intentional mind management a lifestyle. I do this using my Neurocycle mind-management technique, which I discuss in detail my latest book, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. The Neurocycle is a way to harness your thinking power through mind-management that I have developed and researched over the past three decades; any task that requires thinking can use it, which means everything can, because you’re always thinking! This de-stressing, self-regulation technique can really work with any issue, and can be done anywhere, any place and at any time—all you need is you.
First, calm the brain down by breathing deeply. I recommend breathing in for 5 counts and out for 11 counts, and repeating this technique 3 times (for around 45 seconds).
Then, GATHER awareness of the emotional and physical warning signals your body is sending you, such as tension in your shoulders. Embrace these signals, don’t judge them or try to suppress them. (Spend around 30 to 45 seconds doing this.)
Now, REFLECT on how you feel: ask, answer and discuss why you are feeling the way you do. Use specific sentences, like “I feel this anxiety because …”. Do this for around 1 minute.
After reflecting, WRITE down what you feel and why for around 1 minute. This will help you gain clarity into your thinking and behavior.
Then, RECHECK what you have written, looking for your anxiety triggers and the thought patterns you may have developed to cope with your chaotic thinking. For example, you may notice that you start snapping and speaking louder when asked something simple, as though this was the straw that broke the camel’s back and released all your pent-up anxiety.
Lastly, take action. I call this step the ACTIVE REACH. This can be a positive statement that validates your feelings or an action, such as having more “thinker moments” in your life, where you switch off to the external and onto the internal and just let your mind wander and daydream for around a minute. This helps calm down anxious thinking and reboot your mind.
At the end of the day, perceiving anxiety as a response and warning signal to an underlying cause gives us the motivation to become thought detectives and deconstruct and reconstruct our thinking. When we learn how do this, we can start rewiring the brain and managing the physiological responses (like anxiety attacks) that have become linked to our traumatic experiences. This empowers us to take control of our own narrative, instead of letting our toxic stress and anxiety dictate our lives.