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Heal Anxiety by Retraining Your Brain

Simple strategies that loosen anxiety's hold on your brain.

Key points

  • Once a fear response is locked in one's brain, it resists new information and wants to reinforce itself.
  • Retraining an anxious brain requires giving the limbic system new information.
  • Ways to reduce anxiety include approaching fearful situations in small increments and examining fearful thoughts.
Elisa Riva/Pixabay
Elisa Riva/Pixabay

This post is an adapted excerpt from my new book, The Resilient Life: Manage Stress, Reduce Burnout, and Strengthen Your Mental and Physical Health.

Do you struggle with anxiety? I get it, because I’ve experienced it myself. And I have good news for you: Your brain has a marvelous ability to change and adapt to new information. And you can actively play a role.

Reduce anxiety by teaching your brain new things

I used to get triggered by certain situations, or certain things related to those situations. Sometimes, after the situation was over and the active threat was gone, I would still feel keyed up, on edge, and reactive.

On a neurological level, the fear center of my brain (the limbic system, driven by the amygdala) hadn’t clued in that the threat was gone. My brain was afraid to let its guard down. It wanted to protect itself from any potential future threats, even if there really weren’t any.

Once we’ve locked in a fear response in our brain, it resists new information and wants to reinforce that fear circuit. I’ve heard experts liken the amygdala to a small fearful child, and it is very difficult to convince that child of the truth.

You can heal and retrain this entrenched system in your brain by giving the limbic system new information. Ideally, you would do this with the help of a counselor, but if the symptoms are relatively mild, you may try this on your own.

The following concepts have been really useful to me and the patients who I have worked with:

1. Start small and be brave.

If there’s something you’re avoiding, set yourself up for small wins. Be brave. It will show that “little child” in your brain’s fear center that the “unsafe” assessment isn’t accurate. And though it may sound like it, I’m not just talking about phobias here (if you do have a specific phobia, please work it through with a professional). This also works for everyday anxiety-provoking situations in which avoidance becomes a habit.

Pay attention to all the good feelings that come from your small wins. It’s time to re-educate your brain that certain activities are fun, really quite safe, and worth whatever small risk might be involved.

2. Acknowledge the fear but put it in perspective.

When fear comes up, take a step back. Think of it as your brain responding to a trigger. You can observe this more objectively versus letting the fear response overwhelm your rational mind.

Say something to yourself like, “This is just my fear system talking; this isn’t really me.”

Or: “My limbic system thinks this situation is a threat, but it’s wrong. I’m safe. I’m ok.”

Another good one: “This feels scary but I know that I need to do this in order to help my brain to heal and enjoy my life again.”

Take a breath to calm your system. And again—really celebrate the triumph and pat yourself on the back for being brave and conquering your fears.

3. Shift a fear pattern by directing your attention to good things.

On road trips in my local area, I often have to drive through a steep, twisting road. When my husband was driving, I used to sink down so low that I’d practically be under the dash, eyes tight shut and praying out loud. If I was driving, I’d go so slowly that I’d almost come to a stop.

I eventually had enough of this and decided to apply some neuroscience principles. I needed to teach my brain to have a different response. I decided to intensely focus on what was good.

This high road overlooks a beautiful lake. I forced myself to stay upright as the car descended and take in the beautiful view. I found different aspects of the view to focus on. I would even say, out loud, with deliberate delight: “Isn’t this place so gorgeous?”

These days, I actually enjoy this stunning part of the drive. It really worked.

When your anxiety gets triggered, intentionally focus on what’s joyful and good around you. If you’re actually safe, feel the safety. Let that get into your bones. It will get into your brain, too, and will start to change (and heal) your limbic system’s erroneous narrative about anything you might be irrationally afraid of.

4. Live a calm and calming life.

If you’re in a season where you’re feeling anxious, be kind and gentle with yourself. Don’t force yourself to do things that have nothing to do with the source of your anxiety but make you feel more stressed.

I won’t watch really scary or violent movies. I’ve worked in an ER. I don’t need that in my entertainment.

Practice mindfulness or other mind-body practices that calm your nervous system down. Remember to breathe, especially if you’re stressed. If there are people in your life who you find really stressful, maybe you don’t need to see them in this season.

5. Rewire your brain with the truth.

Think of your brain as a machine that can get stuck in a pattern of error that needs to be rewired.

Write down a fearful thought that’s holding you back or making your life miserable.

Where did that fear come from? What’s true about it? What’s not true about it?

What are the probable negative outcomes or losses you might experience if you give into the fear again?

What are the probable positive outcomes if you step past your fear and move forward?

Usually, the answer is clear. When looked at in the light of reason and objective facts, this is a reasonable “risk” to take. So, you take it (and continue to talk to a counselor or your journal as fears come up).

Feel that fear. Feel all the fears. Do that thing anyway.

© Copyright 2022 Dr. Susan Biali Haas, M.D.

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