Neuroscience and Anxiety: Why You’re Anxious and What to Do About It
You’ve got a big deadline coming up, you’re about to have a big talk with your significant other and you need to beat traffic to make your flight home. All of these things might make us uneasy, but when you have anxiety, it can make these threats seem a lot scarier.
Anxiety can strike even when we know a threat isn’t objectively frightening. Realistically, public speaking isn’t going to kill you, but the vast majority of adults fear it. Why do our brains do this to us—and what can we do about it?
The fight-or-flight response
Anxiety is part of the brain and body’s fight-or-flight response, designed to protect us from predators. While we’ve largely moved past the days of hunting, gathering and warding off large animals from the safety of a cave, there’s still plenty to fear. Not only is the world suffering social, economic, health and climate crises, but we’re all glued to the small computers we carry around in our pockets and purses. It’s practically impossible to get away from various stimuli reminding you that there are big problems out there. That’s enough to put anyone on edge.
It can be incredibly frustrating to deal with anxiety, especially when you know that you’re objectively fine. Try to cut your brain a little bit of slack, though. It’s only trying to protect you from the world.
In fact, some people are so anxious that the idea of relaxing makes them even more nervous. If you’re someone who’s very attuned to shifts in emotion, you might suffer from this phenomenon: your brain copes with your anxiety by never letting you fully relax. It’s like constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop—to protect yourself, your brain maintains a base level of anxiety. That way, when the other shoe does drop, you won’t experience a severe shift.
That’s an exhausting emotional state to remain in all the time.
Why you want to retain some anxiety
Of course, you don’t want to completely eliminate anxiety. It’s part of your brain’s way to keep you on alert when there’s actual danger—not just perceived danger. For example, Gavin de Becker’s book The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence, details how our anxiety and intuition can protect us from threats we may not consciously recognize. We might get a “bad feeling” about that really nice guy who lives across the hall, or get an irrepressible urge to protect our drink in a bar.
It’s in our best interests to retain a healthy level of anxiety. The problem is when you can’t tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy anxiety.
How to calm the anxious voice in your head
Luckily, there are a few ways you can calm that anxious voice inside your head. As neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D. explains to MindBodyGreen, you need to “turn it down” so that it can serve its protective purpose.
One way to do this is activating your parasympathetic nervous system by deep breathing. This can be tough to do when you’re in the middle of a panic attack, but sticking with it for five minutes can make a big difference in your physical experience of anxiety. There are plenty of apps to guide your breathing and help you get through anxiety, if you’re not good at staying focused on your own.
Another way to feel better fast is to get up and take a walk, do a few jumping jacks or otherwise get some exercise. Although it’s hard to want to exercise during an anxiety attack, getting your blood pumping will deliver serotonin, dopamine, oxygen and adrenaline to the brain—like showering your brain in feel-good chemicals. Even a walk around the block will trigger this process.
Finally, take a minute to be mindful of your anxiety. Resist the urge to stuff it down and focus on something more pleasant. What is it trying to tell you? Chances are, your anxiety is trying to say something to you, whether that’s “you need more rest” or “making this flight is very important to you.” The key is to “turn down the volume” on your anxiety, so that you receive the important message, not the “we’re all gonna die!” distortion.
Turning it down
The techniques above will help you get through anxious thoughts in the short term. If you continue to have trouble processing your anxiety, consider neuroscience-backed techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy. Investing in your brain now will pay dividends later.