Your question: How do I train my brain to stop anxiety?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. 

To some extent, anxiety is necessary for everyday life. Anxiety is a warning signal that tells your body that it is facing a potential threat and that it should act accordingly. Therefore, when you feel anxious, it is normal to experience physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, sweating and muscle tension, and emotional symptoms such as fear, worry and irritability.

Anxiety becomes a problem when it is chronic, that is, when it becomes too intense and recurrent. It is necessary to understand that to a large extent anxiety is caused by anxious thoughts that do not necessarily have logic. You can be calm at work or at home and suddenly a thought appears generating an intense worry that triggers your anxiety symptoms.

Because of how upsetting it is, it is understandable that you want to learn how to control anxiety. To do this you need to understand how anxiety works in your brain. Although you cannot “train” your brain to stop feeling anxious forever, as it is part of life, you can train your mind to alleviate anxious symptoms and prevent them from consuming your life.

What does it feel like to have anxiety?

Psychology (1) has studied anxiety as a complex phenomenon, which has specific characteristics that affect people in different areas. Some characteristics of anxiety are:

Cognitive symptoms: fear of losing control; fear of death; fear of “going crazy”; fear of negative evaluation by others; frightening thoughts.

Physiological symptoms: increased heart rate, palpitations; shortness of breath, rapid breathing; chest pain or pressure; choking sensation; dizziness.

Affective symptoms: nervous, tense, wound up; frightened; sadness; irritability.

How does your brain act when you have anxiety?

The amygdala is the part of your brain responsible for detecting situations, things, animals and people that are frightening, intimidating or threatening. The amygdala sends a signal to the rest of your brain that you are in the presence of something or someone that could harm you (2).

When the amygdala locates the potential threat, it causes your brain to trigger neurotransmitters and hormones in your body that generate a state of alertness and arousal. Primarily, cortisol and adrenaline are related to feelings of anxiety.

Then, your body starts to feel like chaos. You feel tachycardia, sweating, muscle tension, headache, stomach ache, fatigue and other annoying physical symptoms because your body is preparing to face that threatening situation that the amygdala detected.

Your brain is overstimulated when you feel anxiety, because it senses that you are in danger. All these physical and emotional sensations triggered by anxiety are normal, and respond to the warning signal activated by the amygdala.

How to control your anxiety?

To train your body and mind to cope with anxiety symptoms, it is necessary to become aware of what elements in your life make you feel anxious. Also, you should consider seeing health professionals, such as psychologists and physicians, if your anxiety worsens over time.

Emotional journaling

Journaling about your experience with anxiety allows you to express your emotions in a private space and identify patterns that may be causing your anxiety attacks. In this journal you will write during the day each time you experience anxiety, indicating the related facts: what was happening at the time, who you were with, and what you felt. This will allow you to determine if, for example, your anxiety occurs more frequently at work, and therefore, you need to reduce the pressures and workloads to reduce your anxiety.

Breathing and relaxation

Inhale through your nose for three seconds, exhale through your mouth for another three seconds. This while you close your eyes and feel how slowly the tension in your body decreases. You can apply this exercise for at least 10 minutes a day at different times, and just after experiencing an episode of anxiety.

Question your thoughts

Anxiety is inevitably related to your way of thinking, so you need to modify it in order to reduce anxious symptoms. When you have automatic thoughts that overwhelm you, you should question them and modify them for a positive and functional one. For example, if during work you have an abrupt thought that tells you “you are useless”, you should respond to it internally by saying “I do the best I can to improve in my work, and although I am not perfect, I learn to be better every day”. In this way every negative and hurtful thought that appears during the day, you must confront it and replace it with a more positive and functional one.

Physical exercise

Physical activity is necessary because it allows you to train both your body and your mind. Whether in a gym, playing a sport or from the comfort of your home, physical exercise helps you release hormones and neurotransmitters related to happiness, allows you to feel more focused and helps you drain negative emotions.

In my experience…

Learning to manage anxiety is a complex but not impossible task. Knowledge is power and allows us to better understand our own experiences to make positive changes in our lives. You have the strength and ability to cope with your anxiety problems by training yourself to deal with the overwhelming feeling of anxiety and learning that anxiety is also a part of life.

I believe you have the ability to improve and heal these feelings of discomfort you are experiencing now. The fact that you are seeking professional help through this medium proves it to me, and I applaud you for making that decision and being on track to improve your mental health and overall, your physical health

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