Five ways to hack your anxiety

Anxiety is normal. The inability to relax is not. Stress and anxiety are part of being human, an ancient response to a threatening situation known as fight or flight. This response helps keep us safe, giving us the speed to jump away from a hurtling car, or the strength to rescue a drowning child. However, 40 million Americans suffering from anxiety disorder cannot turn off this biological mechanism. They move through life with mild to severe feelings of a lion on the loose, or other types of impending doom. Our survival story has evolved – today’s threats are deadlines at work, traffic jams, social gatherings, or a broken cell phone.

So why do we still act like prey? Can we learn to reset the fight or flight response by hacking our nervous system?

Why hack your anxiety?

Chronic anxiety-related stress, due to elevated levels of the adrenal hormone cortisol, can detrimentally affect your learning and memory, immune system, bone density, weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart disease. Women are twice as likely to be affected than men. Although the exact cause of this gender difference is unclear, observations include differences in brain chemistry, genetics, and work-life pressure. Anxiety is costing a lot of money, $42 billion/year, one-third of the country’s total mental health bill. For our health and happiness, it’s time to understand our over-active fight or flight response.

A quick biology lesson on anxiety
Your autonomic nervous system regulates your body’s processes including organ function, breathing, sweating, and even pupil dilation. It operates in two modes:

Mode One: OMG My Life Is Threatened. The sympathetic nervous system controls your fight or flight response. As you perceive a threat, distress signals tell your autonomic nervous system to coordinate your superhuman ability. Your heart rate and breathing quicken and your senses sharpen… you’re running on all cylinders.

Mode Two: Just Livin’ Life. The parasympathetic nervous system is the brake to your fight or flight response. It controls your needs of “rest and digest” and “feed and breed”, plus states of deep relaxation called the Relaxation Response. The vagus nerve is the all-star of this operating mode, quickly calming your organs after superhuman status.

Anxiety disorder is the result of the inability to pump the brake
An overactive sympathetic nervous system leads to anxiety disorder. As long as there is a perceived threat, the gas pedal stays pressed down, releasing cortisol to keep the body revved, a feeling often called on edge, or anxious.

Why are we feeling irrationally threatened?

Fear stories. We are surrounded by stories of fear, in movies and in the news. Terrorist attacks. Airplane crashes. School shootings. Disease. While it may be beneficial to know what’s happening in the world, these stories are sensationalized and emotionalized. If a program generates negative feelings like anger, disgust, or sadness, it will impact how you interpret life events and how much you worry. For example, watching an airplane crash on the news may trigger a fear of flying. One study found that watching the news leads to persistent negative feelings that didn’t easily dissipate. The only release from the induced anxiety was deep relaxation.

Achievement. We live in a society that highly values success. From a young age we are exposed to the idea that our happiness is dependent upon achievement in our careers, relationships, and affluence. Our behavior is often driven by external rewards like money, fame, and approval. The inner conflict arises when there’s a discrepancy between where you think you should be in life and where you are.

Cities. There are higher rates of mental disorders, including anxiety, in cities. An international study found that people living or raised in cities show distinctly different brain activity. The amygdala – the area of the brain that communicates distress to the autonomic nervous system – is more sensitive than country folk. The lack of nature in an urban environment exacerbates anxiety disorder. This study found that city dwellers who took walks in a park had improved brain function and better moods. City dwellers who walked along a highway showed no improvement.

Social Media. Social media worsens anxiety disorder by creating an environment of comparison that affects self-esteem and self-consciousness, especially with societal definitions of achievement, competition, success, and perfectionism. Social media is known to be more addictive than cigarettes.

Five Ways To Hack Your Anxiety

  1. Avoid sensationalized fear stories. Protecting yourself if you choose to stay informed about world news is essential for your well-being. Choose your sources wisely. Opt for unbiased news reporting with integrity and lack of emotional exploitation. Read the news rather than watch it. Seeing words about a plane crash will induce less of a stress response than watching the fiery plane explode into shards of nothingness. Ask yourself why you desire to stay informed. How does it help you and the world? Ultimately, we cannot avoid uncomfortable, negative stories, especially in the age of social media, but we can avoid sensationalism. Remember, your best shield of armor is the regular practice of the Relaxation Response.

  2. Learn the Relaxation Response. There are many practices available to elicit the Relaxation Response including yoga, meditation, knitting, painting, massage, and more. Although quality studies are limited, yoga appears to regulate the stress response. One possibility for yoga’s positive effect on anxiety disorder is its syncing of breath and movement. Breathing is the only function of the autonomic nervous system that is both voluntary and involuntary.

  3. Physical exercise. Many studies show the link between exercise and mental health. Beyond burning up stored stress, exercise may affect your self-efficacy, your belief in your own ability to complete tasks and reach goals. One study found that if you trust in your physical ability to handle potential threats, real or not, you will experience lower levels of anxiety. The study conveyed that a physical practice like martial arts will lead to a greater sense of self-mastery, reducing anxiety more than riding a stationary bike.

  4. Care for your gut. Science is validating the fascinating link between gut and brain health. Your gut is a network of neurons that impact our mental state. 90 percent of the fibers in the vagus nerve (the brake pumper, the all-star of the parasympathetic nervous system) carry information from the gut to the brain, not the other way around. In one study, participants who took a prebiotic for three weeks paid less attention to negative information, suggesting a healthier, less anxious response to negative stimuli. This group also registered lower levels of cortisol. Your gut’s health is influenced by the food you ingest, so eat real food.

  5. Psychological exploration. Redefine concepts like success, perfectionism, and approval. Explore whatever you seek externally and why. You have the power to re-write the concepts that drive your life. Meditation is a great place to begin. It teaches you to let thoughts pass by without judgement, making it less likely to attach to negative thoughts (like a need to achieve) and more likely to treat yourself with kindness and less self-judgement.

Remember: it’s okay to let go of who you think you are. Brene Brown, an American scholar, author, and public speaker with one of the most watched TED talks says, “vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage. Vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and change.”

[Title image by Topher McCulloch]