This article brings together a concise summary of what scientists and researchers now know about how anxiety works in our brains, and importantly, what are the most effective and efficient ways to deal with it. Much has changed over the last 15 years: many of the old approaches are gone, having been found to be too painful or clumsy for clients, or just plain ineffective.
The bad news is that we now know why there is no instant cure for anxiety. It would require such significant modifications to your brain it will be impossible to do.
The good news is that we can do a lot to ease anxiety. We can do this relatively quickly and easily. Long gone are the needs for strong medications for the rest of your life, or many decades of therapy. Often a genuine lasting resolution to your anxiety issues can be achieved in a modest number of sessions combined with some developing of new skills on your part.
We are going to start this summary with perhaps the most radical idea in modern therapy:
1. You are not broken!
The assumption was that people with anxiety disorders must be broken or have something wrong with them. Unfortunately, sufferers of anxiety disorders often share this view. However, no matter how hard people have looked, no matter the number of different pharmaceuticals or therapeutic approaches, few people have achieved lasting recoveries based upon fixing a perceived problem. Where people have made good recoveries from anxiety, it’s because the approaches inadvertently used some of the ideas reported in this article.
Professionals felt that if only they could find what is broken, then they could help their clients. So lack of success to find a root cause for the anxiety just encouraged them to dig deeper into a client’s past or to increase the strength of medications they prescribed.
There are some very rare medical conditions linked to anxiety that are too complex to be discussed in this article, and that require a medical doctor to diagnose.
What we now know is that anxiety and anxiety disorders are a by-product of our brains’ journey through evolution. Trying to fight against the way our brains have evolved to work generally only makes anxiety worse.
The quite literally revolutionary change in treating anxiety has been to go from trying to fight, overcome or destroy anxiety to working with our brains inline with how they’ve evolved to work. This has resulted in a genuine and lasting resolution for many people.
Perhaps the failure of the past approaches of trying to fix people can be summarised as:
“There’s no problem harder to solve than a problem that doesn’t exist.”
The next sections outline what we now know and importantly what can be done to help.
2. Habitual thinking
Once you have learned to ride a bicycle or tie your shoelaces it becomes easier to do it next time. The same is true of habitual patterns of thinking. Our brains evolved in a way so that when we have thoughts, it then becomes easier to repeat these same thoughts over and over again.
With anxiety, the repeated questioning, wondering, catastrophising, et cetera, are patterns of thinking that you may be familiar with. Our brain spots that we have the same thoughts over and over again so makes it much easier for our brains to have identical thoughts in the future. This makes it more likely that you will fall into these thought patterns again at a later date.
We know of no mechanism for removing these habitual processes from a brain. However, there are reliable and proven ways to help yourself quickly spot when you’ve fallen into the habitual thinking patterns and this makes it easier to step out of them.
One of the keys to being able to step out of these destructive thought processes is to be capable of identifying quickly what is happening, that is, to understand that you have been caught in a repeating thought process.
With anxiety, our thoughts are rarely about what is happening to us right now. So if you can bring your focus back to the here and now you are more likely to be able to step out of the thought processes.
We also know that whatever we try to resist in our minds generally results in it becoming stronger. So the more you resist the unpleasant or exceedingly painful anxiety sensations and feelings, the more energy you give the anxiety and the more likely it is to grow. This means that you need a tool to help you be able to look at these thought patterns whilst there happening and not let them push you around.
Both of these processes are sometimes referred to as mindfulness. Mindfulness though is a term that has been somewhat abused. Even if you have explored it for yourself previously you may have found it difficult to connect the idea of counting breaths or paying attention to aspects of the body, with what is needed to step out of anxious thinking.
Read More: Mindfulness – what can it do for you?
An additional learning step is needed to be able to put our minds elsewhere when our brains become caught in habitual anxiety thought patterns.
Currently the method preferred here at Mindfulness Mavericks is called Unified Mindfulness. There is a free online training that you can access at the Unified Mindfulness website. However, whilst it is high quality mindfulness training, it does not target anxiety specifically. You will need the skills from this free training and learn to apply it to your thoughts and feelings when you’re having periods of anxiety.
Mindfulness has many benefits. Those who frequently practice mindfulness meditations will actually grow the parts of the brain associated with controlling emotions. Not only that, but mindfulness meditation can physically reduce the part of the brain responsible for physical anxiety sensations.
As a result of mindfulness giving us the tools to step out of habitual thinking, we are presented with a greater freedom to choose the direction we take in our life.
The last few decades have seen the development of an approach called ACT. This stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. It is more than just a combination of mindfulness, coaching and choosing to move in direction in line with your core values. It is an approach that has had significant positive research results to justify using it in the place of just about any other therapeutic intervention. This is why it is one of the approaches we use here at Mindfulness Mavericks.
Read More: Modern Therapy
3. Emotional memories
For thousands of years people have been aware that there are some memories that carry a very large emotional charge. Sometimes the feelings and sensations from the past can make themselves felt present in a situation today, distorting our response to what is going on now.
These emotional memories also tend to shape how we respond to the world. So if you have behaviours or thought patterns that just don’t seem to make sense then most likely it is an emotional memory that is behind it.
Emotional memories are formed within our brains as a response to a particular event we experienced. They were the brain’s best attempt at giving us a survival advantage and made perfect sense to our brains when they were formed. Today’s circumstances are different and the memory may no longer have a useful role for you.
Until very recently it was assumed that these memories were permanent, and nothing could be done. We now know a lot can be done and we can free a person from their grasp.
The challenge today is that these memories can be triggered far too easily.
We now know how to remove the emotional punch from these memories. The general term for this approach is Memory Reconsolidation. Here at Mindfulness Mavericks our chosen tool is called Havening Technique. Once such a memory has been identified it is a relatively short task to remove the emotional component, and so free a person from its grasp. When working with clients undoubtedly the biggest challenge is accurately identifying specific memories that are causing the issues today.
Often emotional memories are also linked to habitual thinking. Generally it requires working on both to get a lasting resolution to anxiety issues.
4. What may really be behind anxiety disorders
We are seeing such a dramatic rise in the number of people afflicted by anxiety disorders that it begs the question why? What is behind it?
The assumption that it is genetic or that people are broken or some other explanation seems totally inadequate. Why today are so many afflicted?
Researchers are now starting to find out the answers. The biggest collection of causes is associated with people losing connections with meaningful lives. A meaningful life has meaningful work, connection with nature, lack of good quality friends, lack of living a valued life, lack of a meaningful and compelling future, and this is just to mention a few.
These are the types of issues that require lifestyle changes, and as such they can be difficult or time-consuming to achieve. In a high demanding multi-job financially tight environment trying to sort these big issues out is likely to be very difficult. Even though these areas are not quick to resolve they can produce the most dramatic lasting results.
Life coaching is often seen as the major tool to address this range of issues. They help people adjust their lives quickly and efficiently. Life coaching is one of the subjects that we have been offering for decades because it can produce lasting changes. If people knew exactly what to do and how to do it then odds are they would have done it. This is a life coach come in, helping you put together new strategies, new ways of thinking and taking appropriate action, following through and continuing till you have achieved your desired changes.
5. What can help
Once again researchers have identified several areas that can help people with anxiety disorders. Sorting these areas out does not address the issues you’ve already read about in this article, however if you’re prone to anxiety then changing some of these areas will result in you having less anxiety attacks.
- Good quality and quantity of Sleep.Getting enough quality sleep seems essential. If you’re getting enough time in bed but the quality is not there then perhaps you need to sort this out. Simple, cheap and effective resource that we often recommend is Paul McKenna’s book I Can Make You Sleep.
- Reduce Stress. This is something you’ve probably heard a lot about. As somebody’s stress levels increase they are more likely to have anxiety disorders. Mindfulness and meditation have both been shown to be very effective in reducing stress levels. Also working with a life coach if can be a great way of reorganising your life to reduce stress levels
- Getting appropriate exercise. Yes it had to be here. We don’t mean going down the gym and pumping iron. Regular movement, and getting your heart rate up to the point where you are on the edge of breathlessness for most of us is highly effective.
- Take regular breaks.Taking short regular breaks even for five minutes can have measurable beneficial effects.
6. What can make things worse
Most of the things that seem to make it more likely that you will have an anxiety attack work through a very similar mechanism. A part of our brain often referred to as the flight or fight centre is highly connected to the rest of our body. It is the bit of the brain that seems to be responsible for the sensations and feelings of anxiety. It is also monitoring the body for distress. If something is out of normal it can trigger the flight or fight centre which then can lead to an anxiety attack.
Here are some of the things that can trigger the fight or flight centre. Many more items could be added to this list and only a few of these items below are likely to be relevant to you.
- Stimulants. Simple stimulants like coffee and energy drinks change how our bodies work. This can send a message to the flight or fight centre that something is not right. This then can lead to an anxiety attack.
- Low blood sugar. Many people seem to skip meals thinking it will help them, usually to lose weight. If our blood sugar runs low this is a warning sign to the primitive parts of our brains. Again, this can trigger an anxiety attack. Diet is another area that has been turned on its head. We now know that a low carbohydrate diet, which means a higher fat diet, is beneficial. Just search the internet for low-carb diets.
- Dehydration. Once again drinking enough water is essential. Long before you feel thirsty there will be signals being sent to the flight or fight centre to say something is not right.
- Food intolerances. Many people are now identifying that certain foods don’t quite get on with them. Often this can be referred to as food intolerances. It is below the level of a full allergic reaction. If you have an increased heart rate approximately 90 minutes after eating something, it could be that a food intolerance is responsible. Once again this is an alarm signal being sent to the primitive brain to say something is not right.
- Physical tension in the body. Learning to relax by doing some simple stretching mobilisation exercise, or enjoying a luxury such as a massage, can reduce body tension and reduce the strength of signal that tells the brain something is wrong.
Where to from here?
What is now known about anxiety, how it sustains itself, how it’s triggered and how it’s influenced shows that it is far more complex than one simple issue. Having a broad approach is generally the most effective way forward. Dealing with emotional memories, learning to step out of habitual thinking, learning not to be pushed around by the stresses and strains of life all takes time. However, what is anxiety costing you in your life? What missed opportunities are there? What effect is it having on your relationship with other people?
Because we now know far more precisely what is going on in your brain, there is much more you can do to help yourself. However, sometimes you do need a guiding hand. Hopefully you will consider contacting us. We work with clients from all over the world – mostly via Skype. Here in Sheffield UK, we also run workshops and see people in person.
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