Anxiety is a defense mechanism meant to keep us safe from harm. Many of you are familiar with the fight or flight response – the body’s automatic physiological reaction to a danger or threat. In a nutshell, our brain is gearing up our body to survive. One sneaky little problem: the brain can’t differentiate between a real threat and a perceived threat. With anxious thoughts, a child turns on her automatic, built-in fight or flight response system, soaking herself in stress hormones and the body reacts as it should except for some that fight or flight response works itself into overdrive. This is how a child/teen/adult lives with anxiety: on high alert with a view that benign situations are actually opportunities for danger even though no real threat exists.
If you think about the brain in terms of mechanics, you can work around the machine and learn to create new wiring. Neuroplasticity is a fascinating topic in the field of neurobiology, which essentially works on the premise that the brain is plastic and, therefore, malleable to reconstruction. Studies have proven the brain throughout life can grow, change and alter itself through thoughts, emotions, exercise and experience.
I look at Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy as the fundamentals of neuroplasticity at work. CBT is a brief, directive form of therapy that is based on the theory that our thoughts cause our feelings and, ultimately, our behavior and if we can reframe our thoughts; we can change the way we feel and act in our lives. With that being said, let’s look at five options to reduce anxiety in yourself or your loved one.
Normalize thoughts: People, young and old, must understand that intrusive thoughts (unwanted thoughts or mental images) are a normal part of being human. What differentiates an anxious person from a non-anxious person is the simple fact that a person with anxiety will attribute meaning to an intrusive thought where no meaning truly exists. As a result, these intrusive thoughts incorrectly deemed meaningful will create feelings of mild to severe anxiety. An anxious person will begin to fixate (ruminate/obsess) on a thought that in regular circumstances would pass through the brain like a train running through a station.
Trying to stop a thought or push it away actually encourages the thought to hang around. A technique often employed by therapists is thought immersion. Essentially, you help the child invite in the troubling thoughts until they no longer view the thoughts as a threat. Understanding his/her brain is a separate entity and something he/she can control helps give the child permission to steer the ship if you will. Knowing they can slowly breathe through any troubling thought (or sing the thought out loud to a song) will significantly help the child. Learning that a thought is not reality (and you can use that statement as a mantra to repeat silently) can be immensely helpful for the child who feels they are wrong for thinking “bad thoughts.” Normalize, normalize, normalize any thoughts that create anxiety.
Keep the hands busy. The art of hand movement creates anxiety reduction. Your brain has difficulty with hand movement (bilateral, coordinated movements especially) and other tasks such as worrying . Repetitive, rhythmic hand movement helps pull the brain out of worry mode. Technically, you are forcing your brain to switch gears or at the very least you are “distracting” your brain. Try any activity that engages your hands and your mind. The choices could be endless: knitting, writing, drawing, painting, gardening, or playing basketball. The idea is to recognize the anxiety, acknowledge it and then actively engage the brain in another activity.
Exposure Therapy. I am quite sure you have heard of this specific type of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy but most likely in relation to the fear of spiders and rats. Exposure therapy works to “expose” an individual to the feared situation/subject while utilizing calming techniques with a trained professional to desensitize the person. In other words, an anxious child will avoid situations that create anxiety. Exposure therapy helps the child to confront the avoidance behavior and lay new wiring in the brain. It’s easy to forget that a person must learn to fear and, therefore, the same person can unlearn it. It just takes a bit more work.
Exercise, exercise, exercise. Not a whole lot to say here. All research and experience points to daily exercise as one of the greatest treatments for anxiety reduction. And there is a bonus: you don’t have to be an Olympic athlete! You just need a few minutes of hard output every day. Some say as little as 5-10 minutes. Can’t get your Jane Fonda on? No problem. A brisk walk will do the job. It reduces stress hormones, creates new brain neurons, releases feel-good endorphins and restores normal sleep patterns. I need not say more! Or maybe I will add just one more tidbit: start where you can and do what you can.
Breathing. Yeah, I know. Genius, right? But breathing has its place in therapeutic healing and there is a reason why it is so effective. It comes down to the automatic response we all have except this time we can utilize it for good. I’ll let Harvard explain: One way to reduce stress and anxiety is “to invoke the relaxation response through a technique first developed in the 1970s at Harvard Medical School by cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson. The relaxation response is a state of profound rest that can be elicited in many ways, including meditation, yoga, and progressive muscle relaxation. Breath focus is a common feature of several techniques that evoke the relaxation response. The first step is learning to breathe deeply. Shallow breathing limits the diaphragm’s range of motion. The lowest part of the lungs doesn’t get a full share of oxygenated air. That can make you feel short of breath and anxious.” Don’t worry if you get it wrong. It takes a little practice. For small children, have them practice using a bubble wand with slow, long breaths. It will help them better understand what they need to do with their breathing and have a little fun while they are doing it.
Before you head off, don’t forget you would do yourself a whole lot of good to include these foods/drinks in your family’s diet to help reduce symptoms of anxiety: Wild Alaskan Salmon, walnuts, ground flax seeds, dark greens, avocado, eggs, turkey, oatmeal, chamomile tea, green tea, small amounts of 70% dark chocolate, and berries. If these foods aren’t a possibility for you, please don’t stress. Just try to eat as many unprocessed foods as you can.
And while you are adding anxiety reducing foods, go ahead and take away: caffeine, refined sugar, simple carbohydrates, and alcohol – food and drinks known to jack up anxiety.
You do not have to live a life in a state of chronic anxiety. It may take time and it will take hard work. Healing is possible. The body’s natural state of being is good health. You just have to help it along the way.
Want to learn more about small changes you can make to reduce stress and anxiety in a big way? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for information on Danielle’s Mental Wellness Class Series.