Your heart beats faster. Your muscles tense. Your hands are clammy, and your stomach is tied in knots – just as you’re about to give a big presentation.
All of a sudden, you feel a surge of panic. What if the audience doesn’t like your presentation? What if you forget something important? What if, what if, what if…
We’ve all experienced anxiety at some point. It’s a perfectly normal part of being human that evolved over millions of years. Commonly referred to as the “fight, flight, or freeze” response, anxiety is essential when needed – but constant anxiety can keep you on edge all the time.
In this article, we’ll delve deep into anxiety and its effects on your brain and overall health. I’ll also discuss 7 methods you can implement today to restore calm and peace to your mind.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is simply a pattern of connections in your brain that has been reinforced and strengthened.
Your brain is always forming connections. Like tiny information highways, these connections are how your brain cells, or neurons, communicate with each other. Connections are formed by learning a new skill or new information – and connections are reinforced and strengthened every time that new skill is practiced.
When your body experiences any kind of physical or emotional stressor – like mental or emotional stress, illness, inflammation, sleep issues, etc. – the stress response is triggered in your brain.
Also known as the fight, flight, or freeze response, the stress response sets off a whole host of biochemical processes in your brain and body. These changes help you successfully deal with the stressor and get past the “danger.”
It’s important to remember that this is a completely automatic biological response that you have no control over. In fact, it’s a basic and necessary survival mechanism that all animals share, and it keeps us alive.
Normally, the stressor passes and those biochemical processes return to baseline. However, when stressors become very intense or chronic, they don’t have a chance to return to baseline. Instead, as your body continues to respond to the stressor, your brain is “learning” and a maladaptive neural connection is created.
The more the cycle continues, the more that connection is strengthened. The result is a faster and more efficient fight, flight, or freeze response. So what started out as a highly effective and necessary survival mechanism gets “pruned” into an uncomfortable, even harmful, pattern that’s often labeled as an anxiety disorder.
So anxiety, at its core, is a learned pattern that has been created in your brain over time. Fortunately, this pattern can also be un-learned – keep reading to learn how.
What Effect Does Anxiety Have On Your Brain?
Let’s take a step back and look at what’s going on in your brain when you feel anxious.
As mentioned previously, the fight, flight, or freeze response is a near-instantaneous, yet carefully orchestrated survival mechanism in your brain that enables you to react quickly to threats. These brain regions – the amygdala, medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), and hippocampus – are all key structures involved in stress, fear, and anxiety.3
The almond-shaped amygdala acts as a communication hub, quickly processing the situation and sending out a distress signal to the hypothalamus.
Think of the hypothalamus as the command center of your brain. It communicates with the rest of your brain through the autonomic nervous system, which then floods your body with the hormone adrenaline. If the danger persists, the hypothalamus instructs your body to produce the hormone cortisol to keep up the stress response. When the threat passes, cortisol levels return to normal.4
Normally, the mPFC controls amygdala activity, which prevents inappropriate emotional responses to the situation.
However, if you’ve “practiced” the fight, flight, or freeze response for too long, this control becomes defective. The result is an overactive amygdala and damaged hippocampus. Research has linked both of these features to numerous psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders.3,5
A major study published in 2015 found evidence that anxiety can actually increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, especially in people with early signs of cognitive impairment.6
So it makes sense to get a handle on anxiety now before it gets out of control. Fortunately, there is good news. There are many things you can do to loosen anxiety’s grip on your life.
Here are 7 things you can do to start reducing your anxiety today.
1. Listen to a relaxing song
Do you remember your favorite song you used to listen to while studying for an exam? You might have had it on repeat for hours because it helped you focus or relax.
You probably didn’t think much of it at the time – after all, you don’t need science to tell you music just feels good.
Turns out science does back the use of music to reduce stress and anxiety and to restore health.7
Neuroscientists conducted a study to find out which songs reduced stress levels in participants attempting to solve complex puzzles. Based on the results, they came up with a list of the 10 most relaxing songs:8
- “Weightless” by Marconi Union
- “Electra” by Airstream
- “Mellomaniac (Chill Out Mix” by DJ Shah
- “Watermark” by Enya
- “Strawberry Swing” by Coldplay
- “Please Don’t Go” by Barcelona
- “Pure Shores” by All Saints
- “Someone Like You” by Adele
- “Canzonetta Sull’aria” by Mozart
- “We Can Fly” by Rue du Soleil (Café Del Mar)
The top song on the list – “Weightless” – reduced participants’ overall anxiety by a whopping 65%. Interestingly, the song did what it was intended to do. Marconi Union worked with sound therapists to construct a song that slows your heart rate, reduces blood pressure, and lowers anxiety.8
It’s hard to believe that music can have such profound effects on your brain and biology, but science confirms it. That’s great news for music lovers.
2. Get Your Heart Pumping
Exercise to reduce stress and anxiety might be a bit obvious, but only because it’s so effective.
Exercising doesn’t just serve as a distraction from what you’re worried about. When you start exercising, your brain recognizes the exercise as a stressor. It releases various chemicals including serotonin and endorphins, which block the feelings of pain and discomfort while increasing your feelings of pleasure at the same time.
Physical exercise has also been shown to activate the regions of your brain responsible for controlling the amygdala.9 This means regular exercise could help suppress the feeling of anxiety and promote happiness. Even better, the effects of exercise are immediate and long-lasting. The feelings of euphoria last for hours after you exercise.
One study of more than 19,000 participants found that those who exercised at least 4 hours a week actually reported less anxiety.10
Another found that regular exercisers had a lower risk of being diagnosed with anxiety disorders than sedentary individuals.11
3. Practice Mindfulness
An anxious mind is often a chaotic one. That may be why mindfulness practices are some of the most effective ways to reduce anxiety.
Many people think meditating involves sitting around doing nothing – but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Mindfulness involves actively training your mind to be fully present in each moment. You learn to become aware of your present thoughts and emotions without judgment.
When you allow yourself to acknowledge feelings of worries or irritations, your mind learns to create space around your concerns. This prevents your concerns from overwhelming your mind so you can focus on what’s important. You might not be able to change your situation, but mindfulness can help you change your response.
Evidence shows that mindfulness-based practices can reduce worry and rumination, or the continuous thinking of the same thoughts over and over.12,13
Practicing mindfulness for just 30 minutes a day can help you restore your calm and inner peace.14
4. Write Down Your Thoughts in a Journal
Anyone who kept a journal as a teenager would likely confess that it became their “best friend.” It was a place to store all your worries, fears, and struggles without judgment – a safe haven of sorts in what could be a harsh world. The world might have seemed clearer after “getting everything out.”
If you stopped journaling once you reached adulthood, it might be time to return to the practice. Think about journaling as a healthy way of expressing your emotions. Journaling helps you organize your thoughts and emotions, making them feel more manageable.
Journaling can also help you find clarity in the constant stream of thoughts and emotions you face daily.
Science also supports the mental health benefits of journaling. Several studies have demonstrated that journaling – written or visual – can help reduce anxiety.15,16
5. Eat an Anti-Anxiety Diet
A healthy diet does more than keep excess weight off your body. The health of your brain is intimately connected to your gut.
That’s because your gut bacteria produces hundreds of neurochemicals – including 95% of the “happy hormone” serotonin.17
So a happy gut means a healthier brain. Research studies show foods rich in the following nutrients can help reduce anxiety:
- Magnesium, found in leafy greens, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains18
- Zinc, found in oysters, crab, beef, pork chop, lobster19,20
- Omega-3 fatty acids, found in nuts and oily fish like mackerel and salmon21,22
- Probiotics, found in kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles23
- B vitamins, found in meat, seafood, eggs, legumes, and leafy greens24
Avoiding caffeine, sugar, and alcohol will also help manage your anxiety and keep inflammation at bay.
It’s also important to add in snacks containing protein and healthy fats throughout the day. This keeps your blood sugar stable. Drops in blood sugar will stimulate the release of cortisol, which can trigger the fight, flight, or freeze response. So this is critically important, especially if you experience anxiety.
Good choices are animal protein (meat and fish) and healthy fats like avocados, nuts, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, and nut butters.
Try adding some of the foods listed above to your anti-anxiety toolkit.
6. Kick Your Online Addiction
There’s no question that the Internet has opened up a new world of possibilities. Humans are social creatures, and the Internet allows us to interact and strengthen our social connections.
On the flip side, we’re spending more and more time online – and that comes at a cost. Numerous studies have found a strong link between social media addiction and psychological disorders, including anxiety and depression.25,26
The thing is, abstinence isn’t necessary to gain control of your online habits. Here are some strategies you can use:
- Challenge yourself to limit the time you spend on social media and stick to it. Some apps also block your access to social media once you hit your limit.
- Delete social media apps on your phone or disable notifications.
- Delete news apps, which are overwhelmingly negative, from your phone.
- Place your phone on the other side of the room.
- Develop a morning routine that doesn’t involve your phone.
- Dedicate some time to learn a new hobby or skill.
When it comes to online habits, it’s not an “all or nothing” conversation. Try out some of the strategies above or create a pattern that allows you to spend more time on things that matter.
7. Try Neurofeedback Therapy
Neurofeedback is an evidence-based brain therapy that helps your brain un-learn the patterns that are perpetuating your anxiety. Also known as EEG biofeedback, it takes advantage of your brain’s ability to adapt and change using the same means as learning a new skill – practice, repetition, and feedback.
Neurofeedback works by monitoring your brain’s electromagnetic patterns. It then sends that information back to your brain in real time.
By mirroring itself, neurofeedback allows your brain to self-correct – clearing out patterns that are too fast or too slow, and encouraging more balanced and efficient patterns.
The result? A calmer, more focused you.
A 2019 study showed that neurofeedback can significantly enhance the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, leading to a sustainable reduction in anxiety.27
A single neurofeedback session gives your brain hundreds of opportunities to correct itself and be rewarded. In fact, 75% of patients see results after just one visit and with a series of treatments, the benefits can last a lifetime.
To learn more about neurofeedback and how it can help you, visit our page What is Neurofeedback Therapy?
Anxiety Doesn’t Have to Control Your Life
It’s important to remember that anxiety is a natural human response. However, if anxiety is affecting your daily life, or interfering with your relationships, there are solutions! You can learn to manage anxiety in healthy ways so that it doesn’t control your life.
NeuroLogic has helped hundreds of people break free from anxiety to live a fuller life. Schedule a free Discovery Call today to learn more about how we can help you.
Don’t wait to get the help you need.