Effective Strategies for Taming Anxiety

Nov 12, 2023
strategies for taming anxiety, image of a woman with a sledgehammer knocking down a wall

Last week, we talked about anxiety in the brain and how there are two different pathways that lead to it, one involving The Caveman (emotion center) and one involving The CEO (logic center). If you missed it, I highly recommend you go back and read it first because we're building on that information.

Today, we're talking about effective strategies for taming anxiety. 

This huge topic could easily fill a book  Don't worry, though! I'll keep it brief, distilling it down to the key take away points.

 

System Level Strategies

Anxiety originates in the brain, which is part of your biological system. That means that, fortunately or not, certain lifestyle habits that keep your system in tip top shape are also wildly important for keeping anxiety at a manageable level. To that end, if you experience anxiety (and who doesn't?), be sure to:

  • Exercise 
  • Get good sleep
  • Eat real (as in low or not processed) food
  • Hydrate

It's easy to dismiss these factors, but I've had a number of patients get a tremendous amount of relief when they started exercising regularly, and I am convinced that sleep is one of the most under-rated tools available to make our minds function well. 

 

Calming the CEO

With a solid foundation in place, you're ready to actually start training your brain to be less anxious. The CEO is the part of your brain (prefrontal cortex) that thinks your way into anxiety by anticipating negative outcomes. Therefore, one of the most effective CEO-based strategies is rational thinking.

If you understand that our brains are wired toward negativity AND that they take shortcuts to speed up their information processing, then you know that you can't believe everything you think.

Seriously. The biggest source of fake news is inside your head!

Learn to pause and question your automatic thoughts. Recognize when you're jumping to conclusions and expecting the worst. Then ask yourself key questions like:

  • Where's the evidence for and against this thought? 
  • Do I know this for sure? 
  • What are 3 other possible explanations or outcomes?
  • What's the realistic worst thing that could happen? Could I handle it?
  • So what if...will it really matter in a week, a month, or a year? 

Recognizing your thoughts, questioning whether they are both accurate AND helpful, then reframing them to be more realistic is a technique called cognitive restructuring or thought challenging. It takes a lot of practice, but it's a powerful tool for minimizing anxiety.

That said, in my experience, rational thinking is a 50/50 thing. That's because a lot of anxiety is driven by The Caveman.

 

Taming The Caveman

As we established last week, The Caveman doesn't speak English. That means you can't reason with it or use language to change it. Instead, there are two main tactics: relaxation and exposure.

 

Relaxation

Relaxation strategies like deep breathing (the physiologic sigh is my current go to breathing technique for rapid relief) and progressive muscle relaxation (systematically tightening and relaxing your muscles one by one - just google "progressive muscle relaxation" for tons of guided options or check out our Stress Management mini-course for ours) can help settle your amygdala - The Caveman. 

Relaxation strategies work by activating your parasympathetic nervous system, the branch that is responsible for countering your fight-or-flight system. Keep in mind that one deep breath is not going to erase anxiety, but with practice, you can help calm your anxiety response.

 

Exposure

This is hands down THE most effective strategy for training your brain to be less anxious. Think of exposure as facing your fears. 

When you listen to your Caveman by avoiding or escaping the situations it deems bad - that is, when you treat the resulting anxiety as a true alarm instead of a false alarm - you're actually reinforcing the anxiety. You're essentially saying, "Good job, Caveman! Keep it up!" All but guaranteeing more anxiety in the future.

Instead, with exposure, you're doing the complete opposite. You essentially take your Caveman into a situation that it deems bad or unsafe. It's going to freak out, sounding the alarms and triggering anxiety. Then - and this is the key - you hang out in the situation, using your actions to show your brain that there is no real threat and that it can chill out. 

Exposure is one of those "actions speak louder than words" and "experience is the best teacher" kind of situations. We have to show our Caveman that it has it wrong. Over time and with repetition, our Cavemen learn, and they will recode the situation as not bad.

 

Mindfulness

Our other powerhouse of a tool for quieting anxiety is mindfulness. Simply put, mindfulness is training your attention to focus on the present moment without judgment.  

Mindfulness helps quiet anxiety produced by both our Cavemen and CEOs. It does double duty!

When The Caveman pipes up, the CEO literally goes offline (part of the reason you can't logic away anxiety). Mindfulness not only helps the Caveman calm down, but it also helps strengthen the mental muscle that pulls the CEO back online. 

Pair exposure WITH mindfulness and you'll have a one-two punch ready to knock anxiety nearly out.

 

"Each of us must confront our own fears, must come face to face with them. How we handle our fears will determine where we go with the rest of our lives. To experience adventure or to be limited by the fear of it."
- Judy Blume

 

 

 

Written by Dr. Ashley Smith

Co-founder of Peak Mind

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