Don't let anxiety take control.
If you’re the child of anxious parents, you probably inherited their attitudes, by nature and by nurture. Your brain is full of fearful thoughts. Worry is a daily companion, no matter how many people tell you it’s silly.
No, your worrying won’t keep the plane in the air, but it feels like it does. Warning your kids of all the dangers you can imagine won’t keep them safe, but it feels like it will. Imagining the worst doesn't really prepare you for it, but you "can’t help it." It feels self-protective. All this worry is a heavy weight on your shoulders, but you’re stuck with it, right?
If I told you that you don’t have to be stuck with it, you probably wouldn't believe me. Or that getting rid of anxiety doesn't necessarily require traditional anxiety treatments, like medication.
It is true — though how to go about it may surprise you. So how can you get rid of your anxiety?
You can change your life — and overcome your anxiety — by changing your brain.
But how does this work to get rid of anxiety, and more importantly, how can you rewire your brain?
You already know that it doesn't help if I tell you your fears are ungrounded. If anything, that makes you hold them tighter. Before you could even hear what I’m saying, we would need to agree that it’s a scary world out there, and your fears have some truth in them. Anxiety is, after all, part of our self-defense toolbox.
Then we could share a reality check. That means we walk together, through the story in your mind, and compare it with hard facts. (It’s MUCH more dangerous to get into your car and drive than it is to board and fly on a plane. But how different they feel!)
Once facts start to filter into your thoughts, you could begin to realize that your worry is more of a problem than the problems you’re trying to manage with worry . That’s an important start, as it’s the first step to realizing where the source of your misery actually lies. It lies in your anxiety-trained brain.
Your brain is full of connections, thoughts telling you how dangerous life is.
The more you follow these thoughts, the deeper and stronger those connections become. They’re like deep ruts in a country road — you fall into them without intending to.
Neurons are the cells make those connections. They’re the cells that fire together as our brains work. They’re an odd kind of cell; they don’t multiply by dividing, as our other cells do.
For a long time, scientists took this to mean that we’re born with a certain number of neurons, and we don’t get any more. Therefore, once our brains were fully formed, sometime in our twenties, they would not change. We got what we got, and that was that.
As recently as 1998, scientists discovered that, while neurons don’t divide, there is a source in the brain which produces immature cells, which can grow into new neuron cells . So we have plenty of new material to make new connections. They’ve shown up in the brains of 80-year-olds.
Our brains can change.
There are ways to re-train your brain so that you aren't a slave to your "old" beliefs.
There’s a sort of "rule of thumb" regarding neurons: "What fires together, wires together." That’s how those old ruts are created, and that's basically how we can create new paths. We can practice thinking new thoughts when the old ones pop up.
I’m not going to tell you it’s quick and easy. Important things seldom are. It's unlikely you can do it on your own.
The mental and emotional habits you have are there for good reason: At some point in your life, they worked for you. We tend depend on "trial and success" more than we realize. If something works, we do it again. And again. If you want to undertake a change in your very brain, you need a lot of support, from a therapist, from a focused program , and/or from a group of like-minded people.
You’ve already noticed that your anxiety-ridden thoughts feel "natural." This means that anything new is likely to feel "unnatural." If you've always said to yourself, "the plane is going to crash," you’re unlikely to jump right in to "flying is usually safe!"
But when you share your fears with others who respect your process, you will begin to notice a difference between what your habits tell you and what your senses do. Maybe this group, with people who have your same problem, might know where you’re coming from and might have some useful information. Maybe this person can understand how you feel, and also help you see a little differently.
So let’s assume you’ve decided you want to do this.
To make changes in something as deeply personal as your own brain , you will need to adopt awareness and patience.
Before anything can shift, you need to be aware that you are actually doing something that feeds your anxiety. Your fears are formed in thoughts that you originated. You are telling yourself scary stories, making you much more anxious than facts would require. Other people can help with this because they can recognize your scary stories even before you do.
Building a "new" brain is dependent on practice. The more you practice the new, the less power the old has.
When you become aware that you are practicing — again! — the old habit, you have an opportunity to do something else. I recommend having a few handy reminders in your toolbox. Thoughts like, "maybe that’s not so, in this case," or "can I really predict the future?"
The "tools" need to be simple, and they need to be kind . Scolding yourself for worrying, or judging yourself for it, will actually make it stronger. Awareness, by itself, helps you change. Once again, it’s good to have others involved with you, who can hear, and accept, whatever your fears are.
It’s important to realize that you come by your dysfunctional thinking honestly. You learned it at a time when you needed it. And you’ve been practicing it ever since. Those neurons are very solidly wired together.
I come back to the value of being kind to yourself. Would you berate a friend for having a habit? I don’t think so. Your struggling self needs to know that every small step you take, even when it’s simply recognizing "old" behavior, is worthwhile.
Meditative and mindfulness practices are wonderful for increasing your awareness, acceptance, and patience. They’re a central part of many re-training programs.
It’s interesting that, even before science supported the method, people were changing their brains. Just because it worked. Twelve-step recovery programs are an example. Many of their "tools" are similar to those I’ve mentioned.
They rely on one another, especially when the "old" thoughts and feelings get too strong. They practice new ways of thinking, with little sayings that become familiar quickly, so they’re easily available when the "old" thoughts come. They recognize that the process is a long one, and must be undertaken every day, one day at a time.
And the results go far beyond being able to go without their drug of choice. "Practicing the program" changes their brains. They’re likely to be happier people than they were before they ever became addicted.
I understand this is a bit of a mouthful for someone who’s "just anxious" or a "worry wart." After all, it’s not like an addiction, that threatens your life. But it does affect the quality of your life. If there comes a time when the irrational fears become too much, know you have a choice. Your brain doesn't need to be run, or overrun, with terrifying scenarios.
And you are worth the investment of time, effort, attention, and patience. You are worthy of a happier life .
"It’s a simple program; you just have to change completely." — Alcoholics Anonymous