How to Beat Anxiety
If you’re reading this then you know anxiety. You know the feeling in your chest, the pounding heart, the restless thoughts, and the panic. You know that you should not worry about certain things, but you can’t seem to stop. It goes on and on no matter how illogical you know it is.
This is the way of life for many, and it was for me for way too long. I remember going to the doctor in my teens thinking that I had an ulcer. Just thinking about worrying made me worry more. It was a viscious loop, but I broke it. If you want to know how, read on.
How Anxiety Begins
It all begins with some stimuli, real or imagined, hitting your senses. The senses send signals to your brain, or more precisely, the thalamus. The thalamus then forks the signal to two different places. One signal goes straight to the amygdala, which sends a signal to the hypothalamus to start the fight or flight response. This is a survival mechanism, and is often on overdrive in those suffering from anxiety. It assumes that the stimuli is dangerous, and moves to protect you.
At the same time, the other fork of the signal is sent from the thalamus to the sensory cortex. The sensory cortex forwards the data on to the hippocampus, which assigns the stimuli meaning, or figures out more possibilities than just fight or flight. Instead of just assuming danger, the hippocampus looks a bit deeper. It looks for other stimuli that might be related, and if it determines that other stimuli are the proof that the original stimulus is not danger, it sends a message to the amygdala, which then sends a message to the hypothalamus to shut off the fight or flight response. This often happens in a fraction of a second. Pretty amazing, huh?
The Dude Abides
When the hippocampus agrees that there is true danger, the hypothalamus, which is already in action, is not turned off. The hypothalamus has turned on the sympathetic nervous system, and the adrenal cortical system when you first sensed the stimuli that might be danger. This then goes buck-wild when there is no signal to stop.
The sympathetic nervous system uses your nerve pathways to send signals to activate some pretty crazy things. It activates the adrenal medulla, which releases norepinephrine, and epinephrine (adrenaline). These combined hormones and neurotransmitters prime your body for massive action. Your heart rate increases, attention heightens, oxygen is force-fed to the brain, glucose is released from energy stores, and blood flow is increased to skeletal muscles. Your army moves close to the castle to protect their king.
Simultaneously, the hypothalamus sends signals to the adrenal-cortical system, which releases CRF into the pituitary gland. This tells the pituitary gland to go ahead and unleash its army of about 30 or so hormones into the bloodstream, to help prepare the body for action.
The Crazy Hormones
Epinepherine, norepinephrine, and about 30 other hormones then go to work increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, dilating your pupils to take in more light, constricting your viens in order to send more blood where it’s needed, tensing your muscles, smooth muscle relaxation for increased oxygen intake, digestion and immune system temporarily shut down to free up more energy, and your brain focuses on the big picture (survival), while ignoring smaller, more detail driven tasks. This is why you can’t concentrate well when you are anxious.
How to Beat Anxiety by Turning it Into Calmness – This is cool!
The Relaxation Response
Luckily, we have a natural ability to shut off the fight or flight response. Learning this will really teach you how to beat anxiety. Normally, this kicks in as soon as a danger has passed. It works to reverse everything that the sympathetic nervous system turned on, and return your body and mind to a balanced state where you naturally repair yourself. This is called the parasympathetic nervous system (part of the autonomic nervous system to which the sympathetic nervous system is also a part.)
You can activate this system on your own with some practice. There’s a book called, “The Relaxation Response” by Dr. Herbert Benson that goes into extreme detail about this process. You can also find many easy calming techniques here, which can trigger the parasympathetic nervous system and calm you down, for free.
Self-Treatments for Anxiety
There are also two systems that work well for many who suffer from worry, anxiety, and panic. One is called Panic Away, and the other is The Linden Method. Both use some mindful training techniques to alleviate your anxiety. Many people have found these helpful. Feel free to check them out and see if they work for you. I believe they both have money-back guarantees of like, 30-60 days or so.
There are also some bio-feedback devices that are more expensive. The Heartmath line of products, the Muse, which is really gaining traction, and The Wild Divine series are three that come to mind. Both the Muse and the Heartmath products are portable, and both can tie into your smartphone. The Wild Divine is a video game style system that uses a USB device to control things on-screen. Wild Divine is my favorite for a number of reasons, personally, but the Muse seems to be becoming a strong contender, cause it’s portable.
Of course, you don’t need any of these if you can use mindfulness and practice the exercises on your own. These things may just help speed things along for you. The best technique is the one that calms you down. Whether that’s just watching your breath, software, a system, a device, or whatever. The most important thing is to find what works and use it.
Anxiety sucks, but luckily there are plenty of ways to deal with it, including seeking professional help, which is beyond the scope of this article, but highly recommended if the self-help doesn’t work. Chronic anxiety is serious. There is no shame in seeking professional help.