Living with anxiety is not fun. It gnaws away at your ability to live a fulfilling life, rendering you a perpetual victim of your own brain’s fight or flight apparatus.
Although the reasons for anxiety differ from person to person, there’s no doubt that there’s an epidemic of the condition in the modern world. People struggle to deal with the challenges that 21st-century life brings – it’s just so far removed from our evolutionary past and how people used to live.
For many, the roots of anxiety come from childhood. Those growing up in a world of constant fear – whether because of the violence of a caregiver or other children at school – suffer a lasting impact on the brain’s mechanisms for escaping danger. The threat of violence and social ostracism changes the makeup of the brain, supercharging the amygdala – the part responsible for the fight or flight response – leaving it in a constant state of arousal. Anxiety and panic attacks occur partly because of this system being in the “on” state all the time, even into adulthood when there are no immediate, pressing dangers.
Anxiety can be triggered by anything – the words a person says, a loud noise, or a general feeling of unease about one’s life. Those who struggle with the condition desperately seek ways of controlling it, helping them to get a handle on their lives and move forwards, powerfully and with purpose.
So what does the science say about managing anxiety? Is there anything that people can do to alleviate the symptoms and lead a life free from constant feelings of fear and dread?
- Recognize the problem. Although anxiety is a primal response to danger, it turns out that intellectual consideration of what’s happening in an anxiety attack can help a lot. Those with anxiety, therefore, could benefit from accurately characterizing their condition in their own minds.
The first stage of this intellectual awakening recognizes that anxiety is something that occurs in the reptilian brain – an ancient part of the brain from our evolutionary history. The job of the reptilian brain is to send signals to a person that they might be in danger. These signal, interpreted by a person as anxiety, helped people in the distant past avoid situations where they might get eaten or injure themselves. A man might be walking in the jungle and hear some activity ahead that sounds like a predator, feel anxiety, and then decide to turn around and flee in the opposite direction.Anxiety, therefore, should be a healthy thing. But it can become pathological when it is continuously felt, even when there are no real physical or social threats in the environment. Recognizing what chronic anxiety is – an overactive primeval response to imagined danger – can help to rationalize the condition, reducing some of the mystery surrounding it, and making it less difficult to process.
- Exercise. Exercise is one of the most powerful ways to deal with anxiety and depression naturally, without the use of medication. Exercise helps boost mood because it releases many of the feel-good hormones we associate with happiness and contentment.Stephen Ilardi, the author of The Depression Cure, says that exercise changes the way that the brain looks. It increases the release of chemicals associated with feeling good and also leads to the production of crucial growth hormones which can plummet during episodes of anxiety. Because the levels of these hormones fall, the brains of those with anxiety can shrink over time, leading to things like memory loss. Exercise, therefore, both reduces symptoms of anxiety and reverse the long-term damage caused by the condition.
- Do things that improve your mood. Aside from exercise, there are a lot of things that can improve mood. Many believe that delicious flavors can make a difference to how you feel. And there may be some science to back up ideas like that. According to nutritionist Elizabeth Somer, author of Food and Mood, certain foods in the plant kingdom can provide a natural boost to mood, helping to smooth over severe episodes of anxiety. These foods include wheat germ – a part of the wheat berry with a high amount of fiber – soybeans, citrus fruits, and dark green leafy vegetables.There’s also a significant chunk of evidence that smelling lavender reduces feelings of anxiety by changing the chemistry of the brain — those who inhaled lavender oil and essence report experiencing fewer and less severe episodes of anxiety and depression.Obviously, the way you eat can have a profound impact on mood. Eating foods that make you feel slow and tired are unlikely to do your anxiety any good. It’s best to avoid refined carbohydrates, like sugar and white flour, and keep fatty animal products, like cheese, to a minimum.
- Stay in the moment. Those with anxiety issues can often develop a habit where they ruminate about what might happen in the future. Because anxiety is not a rational process but rather the result of an overactive reptilian brain, these ruminations can generate feelings of anxiety about practically any future situation. A man with anxiety, for instance, might worry about a five o’clock meeting across town because of the noise and chaos of traffic, or the fact that he doesn’t know whether they will enjoy what he has to say. The mind of an anxious person is adept and imagining the worst possible outcome and making it appear like it’s real.It’s worth pointing out that bad things can and do happen. Sometimes the worst does happen. But those with anxiety will benefit by avoiding continually thinking about these low-probability events. It’s much better to practice on staying in the moment, focusing on the immediate task at hand, and generally avoiding thinking about all the terrible things that might happen in the future. It’s a form of self-torture, and entirely unhelpful to your health, happiness, and survival.So how do you stay in the moment? Practice dragging yourself back from thinking about the future every time you feel your mind wandering. Tell yourself that you’re going to think about the next minute, rather than the next afternoon or the next day. Immerse yourself in whatever you’re doing and make sure that it takes up all of your attention.
- Find an anchor. Many people suffering from anxiety find that they can manage their symptoms better with the help of a visual anchor. A visual anchor is something that they can generate in their minds that helps them alleviate symptoms, be it a rushing waterfall, a sandy beach, or the sound of rain hitting leaves in a forest. People who use images associated with calmness and tranquility tend to experience these emotions while visualizing them.
- Humor your fears. When we take our fears seriously, we give them credence. But when we mock or humor them, suddenly they become a lot less scary. Being able to humor one’s own fears openly actually takes a lot of courage. But when you do, you can effectively retrain your brain into seeing your fears as something trivial. Perhaps, for instance, you’re afraid that you’ll lose your partner because of your insecurities. It could be worth getting together with your partner and laughing about just how ironic that is.
A Final Word
Anxiety is a complicated condition that usually has deep roots in a person’s past. It can be debilitating. But with the right approaches, therapy, and modification of how a person thinks, there can be relief. Getting rid of anxiety is no easy, according to psychcentral.com, but there are many things that you can do to get a handle on it and live free.
Note: this post contains contributed content.