The Missing Weapon in Your Anxiety Battle
I know first hand how real and crippling anxiety is. And when I say crippling, I mean it quite literally. I know what it’s like to be so tortured that is feels like your stomach is being ripped to shreds and all you can do is curl up in a fetal position to try and mitigate the excruciating pain. I know what it’s like to try and regulate your restless breathing, desperately grasping at some measure of relief from the racing and pounding in your chest. I know what it’s like to feel as if a 90-pound weight just dropped in your gut while a debilitating nausea washes over you.
The first time I experienced this type of physical distress, I had no idea I was dealing with anxiety. I thought there was something physically wrong with me. At one point, it got so bad that I drove myself to the ER because I didn’t know what else to do. They took samples, drew blood, scanned my abdomen, asked me loads of questions, and ran a slew of tests. And after all that, they walked back in and essentially told me, “we can’t find anything wrong with you”.
I didn’t know what to feel in that moment, so I guess I just felt everything all at once. I was angry that I had just spent thousands of dollars for no answers; ashamed that I’d be seen as dramatic over what was apparently “nothing”; and scared because this pain was so real, only for there to be no discernible diagnosis to help make sense of it.
Eventually, I learned that what I was dealing with was anxiety. When that realization hit me, I thought to myself, if all the physical distress is just a symptom of what is happening in the mental and emotional realm, I undoubtedly have the ability to shut this down, and I was determined to do so.
Anxiety has wanted to creep in many times since that bout, but it has never again progressed to the level of physical compromise. I strongly believe the reason for this is because I made a decision that day that my well-being would be a result of my choices, not my reactions.
The most tragic paradigm the anxiety-ridden can hold is the one that believes it all begins with emotions and that the onset and progression of those emotions are something you don’t have control over. This is unquestionably false, as backed by many scientific researchers. Every bout of anxiety has a thought-driven ramp-up, and if we can train ourselves to become more self-aware at these beginning stages, we will be able to detect the onset of these emotions much faster and moderate them more deliberately.
The Weapon You Didn't Know You HadHave you ever been in a major traffic backup? It’s down to one lane, everyone is trying to snake around an accident, and you’re at the mercy of this congested bottleneck. It’s a big mess, but then a policeman shows up to direct traffic and everything begins to run a little more smoothly.
This is exactly how your brain works to manage anxiety. The accident is the area of your brain that’s producing heightened emotional activity (the amygdala); the traffic represents signals fired off as a result of the increased activity; and the policeman is responsible for signaling back toward the action to help process it and clear it out (the prefrontal cortex). 1 2
When anxiety is rampant, you can pretty much bet the policeman didn’t show up to work that day. As long as the accident goes unattended, it will continue to inhibit the flow of traffic. That is to say, when the heightened emotional activity goes unchecked, it creates a pileup of negative emotions that eventually becomes unmanageable without its counterpart reporting for duty.
The policeman (our prefrontal cortex) is arguably the most critical component in managing anxiety. So, the question then becomes, “do you have the ability to employ this region of your brain to help regulate the overactive emotions?” And the answer is an enthusiastic YES! To do that, we have to circle all the way back to the origin of the turmoil, which is our thoughts.
Over the past few of decades, scientists have begun to discover overwhelming evidence that our thinking can quite literally enlarge certain areas of the brain or engage new ones that may be less active or even dormant.
A neuroscientist by the name of Alvaro Pascual-Leone of Harvard proved this when he led a group of scientists to study the brain activity differences between two groups of people. Both groups were given a simple piano piece that could be played using just their right hand. Group A practiced playing this piece every day for five days. They then had their brains examined using neuroimaging and found that the motor cortex, the area responsible for moving fingers, had expanded in size. This was not surprising as other experiments had resulted in similar findings. However, Group B was instructed to practice the piece by simply imagining their fingers moving across the keys. They never actually touched a piano. The brains of the Group B members were examined, and to their surprise, the motor cortex had increased in the virtual pianists the same as it had in the actual pianists. This means the simple act of thinking altered the physical structure and function of their brains. 3
This is one of the greatest findings because it means that by mere thought, you can exercise a targeted region of your brain to the degree that it actually becomes a more active and productive member of your well-being.
Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist and behavioral psychologist, asserts that “well-being is a skill”. 4 Those who are emotionally and mentally healthy are not so by happenstance but rather by intentionality. In other words, they work at it. There is significant emotional and mental investment required in training your mind to counterbalance the negative tendencies that cause anxiety. However, with consistency and intentionality, you’ll see that you actually have vetoing power over the emotional and physical havoc that anxiety can cause.
What this looks like in my life is anytime I start to over-deliberate, create worst-case scenarios in my mind, or begin to feel the onset of physical distress, I stop and tell myself that I have a choice to not go down this path. I literally imagine I’m at a fork in the road and picture myself choosing the route that does not lead me into turmoil. I know that sounds funny and maybe a little too easy, but what I really want you to see is that this isn’t just gimmicky optimism. I am training myself to deliberately engage the prefrontal cortex of my brain so it sends signals back toward my negative emotions and forces them to quiet down. I’ve done this dozens of times and so far, I have an almost perfect success rate in not allowing anxiety to progress any further.
Once you’ve begun to practice this, my hope would be that you'd move from a reactive cycle to a proactive rhythm where your emotions require very little moderating because you’ve reprogrammed how you think altogether. In other words, you have less car accidents to begin with.
Just being able to communicate that you have this sort of capacity puts me on top of the world for you. You don’t have to live a life ashamed that you’re not in control and fearful of when anxiety will attack next. You have the freedom and power to break that cycle and shape a life that you’re proud of and can thrive in.
- Davidson, Richard J. “Anxiety and affective style: role of prefrontal cortex and amygdala.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. Link to Article. Accessed 27 May 2018.
- Deisseroth, Karl. “Amygdala circuitry mediating reversible and bidirectional control of anxiety.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. Link to Article. Accessed 27 May 2018.
- Begley, Sharon. “The Brain: How The Brain Rewires Itself.” Times. Link to Article. Accessed 26 May 2018.
- Davidson, Richard J. “Why Well-Being Is a Skill That Can Be Learned.” Huffington Post. Link to Article. Accessed 26 May 2018.