How to beat anxiety and worry
Anxiety disorders affect between 14% (Australasia, Europe) and 18.1% (US) of us. Anxiety affects us physically, emotionally, and cognitively. While occasional, short bursts of anxiety are adaptive responses to acute challenges, for most of us it is low-grade, diffuse, chronic, and very unpleasant. Anxiety ruins your experience of life.
Here are some practical insights and tips to master anxiety, fear and worry.
Typical anxiety presents in six categories with incidence of excess worry:
- Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD): 100% worry
- Panic disorder: 40% worry
- Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): 50% worry
- Specific phobias (e.g. spiders): 50% worry
- Social phobias: 40% worry, and
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): 60% worry
If we add the debilitating effect of anxiety in physical and mental illness, anxiety is a curse on our human potential. Anxiety affects us physically (defence reaction and behavioural agitation), emotionally (uncomfortable feelings of fear, doubt, anxiety and “stress”), and cognitively (worry, exaggerated concerns, mental blocks, and disturbed memory).
Resilience is the ability to master our response to challenge. If we can be calm, focused and connected in our response to adversity, we are resilient. However, resilience fails if adversity leaves us strung out (body), emotionally closed (emotion), and preoccupied with floods of worries (mind). It is helpful to understand how adversity triggers each system and what we can do to restore calm, focus and connection.
Calm Amygdala and Body
Life experience loads us with conscious and non-conscious memories. Triggers such as a snake, height or a test can trigger non-conscious images in the amygdala. The amygdala reacts with speed and fury (hijack), triggering a physical defence reaction (freeze, flight or fight). This reaction is fully in play before we can feel or think about it.
The Amygdala hijack leaves us with elevated heart rate, blood pressure, adrenaline and a shunt of blood from mind, skin and gut to legs (for running). We share this reaction with animals. In humans the brain is left hyper-aroused. While we may not feel the fear, our mind rapidly seeks upcoming threats, crowds out rational thought, and retreats from goal-directed behaviours. Our freedom to think, feel and act is curtailed. Calm is the solution.
- Improve sleep, exercise and blood glucose control (nutrition) – a foundation but hard
- Learn and practice slow, diaphragmatic breathing
- Connect through nature, rest, physical contact, or counselling
- Expose yourself to the trigger while focused on breathing or another task (this is exposure therapy leading to extinction of the defence response)
Connect Emotions and Feelings
Think of emotion as the physical bridge between the amygdala and the mind. In a state of fear our face, voice, muscles, viscera, hormones and circulation changes. Emotion is easy to see and record by another but not easy to see in ourselves. We can, though, learn to name the feeling with practice. Feelings are emotions made conscious in the mind.
It can work in reverse. If we think about a frightening event, we might feel fear but we will definitely activate the amygdala to some degree and trigger the defence reaction. Fear can thus create a reinforcing loop triggering worried thoughts and endlessly reactivating the amygdala.
This is precisely why the concept of emotional intelligence and positivity is so powerful. When we make our emotions conscious, we can reflect, correct, self-calm and restore resilience. Awareness of emotion allows the mind to work on the situation with skill. In combination with a practiced technique for calming ourselves, we can break the reinforcing loop. Emotion with feeling allows us to connect with our environment and within ourselves.
- Explore and describe what you feel – journal, reflect or talk
- When you notice fear, immediately focus on a calming image, memory or thought
- When you notice fear, use your relaxation / breathing practice / biofeedback
- The more you consciously build and experience feelings of calm the less fear you feel
Focus your Thoughts
Anxiety comes with worry. Worries are thoughts about future threats. They may or may not be conscious. When anxious, our minds exaggerate the risk of threat, focus repetitively on unlikely outcomes and seek to avoid risk. This cognitive element of anxiety disables your mind profoundly.
- The physiology of anxiety (cortisol) literally poisons the brain, damaging the hippocampus (memory) and prefrontal cortex (attention and working memory).
- The focus on future threats crowds out ability to think and decide
- The repetitive nature of worry is exhausting and disrupts sleep requirements
We have quite literally lost our minds when we worry. Further, because working memory is flooded by future worries; we cannot deal with the present moment, let alone work out how to solve the worry problem. Slow, relaxed breathing and meditative practice helps restore the mental workspace. The challenge is to focus on what matters.
- Reduce the cycle rate of worry by repeatedly bringing your attention to here and now
- Learn to identify worry labels such as “what if I lose..?”
- Reinforce practical beliefs such as “in the unlikely event I do lose, it is not a problem.”
- Focus on a slow, smooth exhalation as you switch from worry to present moment
- Resolve to work on one current priority for defined and focused periods.
- Meditative practice is very helpful.
When you learn how to melt your worries away, your life force will be massively boosted, sleep returns and a strange feeling of joy will take hold of your day. You mind will feel fresh, clear and decisive. You will be open the possibility of flow again.
Mystics believe the goal of enlightenment is to stop the turbulence in consciousness. Anxiety, fear and worry are preventable and treatable forms of turbulence in consciousness in body, heart, and mind. You are lost to the future. Spiritual practice is to come back into the present with calm, focus and connection.
Insight stimulated by Anxious, Joseph LeDoux, 2015.