In previous columns, we explored how anxiety is an essential human emotion though it can hold us back from enjoying our lives and achieving our potential. The first step to master anxiety is to understand its origins: your environment, physiology, habits of thought and habits of action.
Living with the stress of poverty, violence and abuse can foster a sense of helplessness – that we don’t have control over our lives. We all share in the responsibility to support those in need and collectively stand up to abusive behaviour.
How we see our circumstances influences how they affect us.
In any situation, we must recognize that which is beyond our control – what we have to accept for the moment. We must then actively search for what we can change - and accept our responsibility for positive change.
The modern brain is subject to the negativity bias. Through evolution, we are more sensitized to search for what’s wrong and we are quick to spot the negative – what’s wrong with our situation, with others and our selves. We have to actively seek out the positive (on average five positives for each negative) to balance this bias.
What is the positive potential in your situation? What can you learn? What are your strengths?
Some of us feel wired for anxiety. Our sympathetic nervous systems are forever running on overdrive; our hearts race, blood pressure rises and muscles tense in response to life itself.
In an attempt to calm our nerves and alter our mood, we can self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. This has led to dependence on prescription opiates and sedatives, alcohol abuse and the life-threatening use of recreational drugs.
Anxiety can also be managed with prescription medications. The short-acting benzodiazepines, such as lorazepam and clonazepam can temporarily relieve panic attacks and flying phobia. However, they can be addictive, and with regular use, they lose their effectiveness.
Daily medications, including SSRIs, such as escitalopram and fluoxetine or SNRIs, such as venlafaxine can reduce anxiety by changing the levels of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin in the brain.
Yet there are effective drug-free ways to calm our bodies and minds.
There is power in deliberate, mindful breathing. When we inhale, we stimulate the sympathetic nervous system; when we exhale, we stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. The latter is important for calming. As you focus on slowly exhaling over four seconds with each breath for a minute or so, note how both body and mind relax.
Cardiovascular exercise, such as running, cycling, swimming or dancing for an hour each day, has been shown to reduce anxiety and improve mood. The regular practices of yoga and mindfulness meditation can slow down a habitually stimulated body.
Self-hypnosis is very effective in calming the mind and body. You can also use it to lay the groundwork of deliberate positive neuroplasticity – visualizing on a conscious and subconscious level the state you wish to achieve.
Habits of Thought
Our life experiences and our life stories create the foundation of our core beliefs – what we believe to the true about who we are, others and our relationships with them, and how the world works. Core beliefs that foster anxiety include a conviction that life is dangerous and unpredictable, others are against you and wish you harm, your thoughts and emotions are beyond your control, and you do not have the resources or support to meet the challenges of life.
Our core beliefs give rise to our habitual self-talk – the ruminations that take us away from the present moment – the only place where we can enjoy happiness. Unhealthy self-talk that feeds anxiety includes catastrophizing (imagining the worst possible outcomes), mindreading (the assumption that others are judging you harshly), fortunetelling (expecting things to turn out badly), minimizing (underestimating your ability to cope) and maximizing (emphasizing the enormity of the challenges you face).
Anxious self-talk feeds anxiety that in turn leads to more anxious self-talk in an endless vicious cycle. You can break the cycle with empowering self-talk. My situation is not so daunting. I can make a difference. It’s not the end of the world. I have the ability and resources to do well. I’ve been successful before. I can do it again.
The practice of mindfulness can keep us centred in the present, instead of leaning to the future, worrying about an imagined future or replaying negative past experiences. Mindfulness teaches us to accept what we can’t change, accept that everything changes anyway and not to identify with our thoughts and moods as if they were an unchangeable part of who we are.
Cognitive behavioural therapy guides us in choosing more balanced, empowering thoughts and thereby alleviating our anxiety and elevating our moods. The Canadian Mental Health Association’s Bounce Back program is a free, self-directed cognitive behavioural therapy resource. For more information, check the website at cmha.bc.ca/programs-services/bounce-back.
Habits of Action
Anxiety not only makes us uncomfortable in different situations; it can make us want to avoid them all together. It can constrain us from venturing beyond our comfort zones. The opposite action approach from dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT), encourages us to do the opposite of the action urge of anxiety (which is avoidance). When we do the opposite and confront our fears, the anxiety will eventually dissipate. Begin with small successes just beyond the limits of your comfort zone. With practice and perseverance, you will expand a once restrictive zone of comfort.
All of the above methods to master anxiety exploit the principle of neuroplasticity. As Dr. Donald Hebb, eminent Canadian neuropsychologist said, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” This explains why our habits seem hardwired and difficult to change. Yet it also explains how the diligent practice of new habits of thought and behaviour will become your new way of being. You can transform your brain and master anxiety.
Davidicus Wong is a family physician and his Healthwise columns appear regularly in this paper. For more on achieving your positive potential in health, see his website at www.davidicuswong.wordpress.com. For useful resources for managing anxiety, see the anxietybc.ca website and download the free Mindshift app.