How Anxiety Hijacks Your Brain

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Have you ever struggled with anxiety?

That feeling like everything is going to go wrong and there is nothing you can do about it?

Or, you spend so much time and effort trying to make sure that NOTHING goes wrong at all?

Well, you're not alone.

Anxiety is one of the tops reported mental health issues faced by millions of people around the world.

Turns out, anxiety is pretty much universal- unless you happen to be living in a Buddhist monastery.

Anxiety has been a serious topic of discussion since, well forever, and has been explored and debated in religious circles, philosophy lecture halls, and medical board rooms.

But have there been any conclusions about it?

Any breakthroughs that can eliminate anxiety?

As it turns out, those Buddhists might have hit the nail on the head a couple of thousand years ago, but let's look at what the most up-to-date neuroscience has to say about it first.

Today we are going to look at how anxiety hijacks your brain, why it feels so intense, and what you can start doing today to find your inner Zen and ditch anxiety.

Anxiety Therapists in Colorado

Joel Harms, MA, LPC

Joel Harms, MA, LPC

Colorado
(720) 449-4121
Julianna Miller, LPCC

Julianna Miller, LPCC

Aurora, Colorado
(720) 449-4121
Bethany Cantrell, LPC

Bethany Cantrell, LPC

Colorado Springs, Colorado
(719) 602-1342
Jasleen Karir, SWC

Jasleen Karir, SWC

Aurora, Colorado
(720) 449-4121
Melody Reynalds, LPC

Melody Reynalds, LPC

Colorado Springs, Colorado
(719) 345-2424
Jessica Titone, LPCC

Jessica Titone, LPCC

Colorado
(720) 437-9089
Jackie Erwin, LPC

Jackie Erwin, LPC

Colorado
(719) 345-2424
Jessica Gutierrez-Gaytan, SWC

Jessica Gutierrez-Gaytan, SWC

Colorado
(719) 345-2424
Kimberly Nefflen, LPCC

Kimberly Nefflen, LPCC

Colorado Springs, Colorado
(719) 602-1342
Katherine Miller, LPCC

Katherine Miller, LPCC

Colorado
(720) 449-4121
Dominique Schweinhardt, MA, LPCC, LPP

Dominique Schweinhardt, MA, LPCC, LPP

Colorado Springs, Colorado
(719) 602-1342
Sarah Munk, LPC

Sarah Munk, LPC

Colorado
(719) 345-2424
Jennifer Wilson, LPCC, NCC

Jennifer Wilson, LPCC, NCC

Colorado
(720) 437-9089
Mallory Heise, LPC, LAC

Mallory Heise, LPC, LAC

Colorado Springs, Colorado
(719) 602-1342
Jennifer Luttman, LPC, ACS

Jennifer Luttman, LPC, ACS

Colorado
(719) 345-2424

Neuroscience

To kick things off, what does neuroscience say?

Well, anxiety starts in the Amygdala; the amygdala is a very, very old region of the brain (from an evolutionary perspective) that essentially does one thing, alerts the rest of the brain to fear.

The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped, mass of nerves in your brain that is the origin point of all your anxiety.

The amygdala responds to sense data (sight, smell, sound, touch, taste) and rings a powerful alarm that goes straight to the seat of self-perception, the Dorsolateral Pre-frontal Cortex (DLPFC).

From there the brain turns on the sympathetic nervous system which causes a whole variety of bodily sensations; increased heart rate, shortness of breath, muscle tension, sweaty palms, etc.

Essentially this experience is your fight or flight response and normally is reserved in situations of fear.

What's crazy is that all of this can happen just by thinking about a situation that evokes fear, the anticipation alone is what activates all these things despite being completely safe.

While this is happening all you can think about is how to avoid the potential danger or fear, or escape the immediate cause of that fear.

This is how anxiety hijacks the brain.

It pours all your focus and energy into a hyperfocused state in an attempt to get you to physical safety.

The problem is, you're already safe, the threat is only in your mind.

The Good News

It's not all bad news though.

And this is where the breakthroughs come in handy.

Not only can you re-take control from your hijacked brain, but you can prevent it from getting hijacked, to begin with.

The trick is to decrease the activity of the amygdala.

If the amygdala is calm and less active, then that means less anxiety; less anxiety means more room for feelings like satisfaction, calm, and even joy.

So, what does neuroscience tell us about calming the amygdala? A lot!

There are several different ways to achieve this goal, and they're quite easy and don't too much time.

All we have to do is become Buddhist monks!

Just kidding, we just have to borrow some of their techniques like mindfulness, breathing meditation, and focus.

Buddhists have known for centuries what modern science is finally proving through experimentation and measurements.

Meditation, of pretty much all varieties, has been proven to decrease anxiety by specifically quieting the amygdala.

In addition to lowering blood pressure, improving focus, decreasing depression, lowering heart rate, and benefitting essentially every single chronic illness known to mankind.

So, how do you start?

The Solution

Here's the best news of all, it's SUPER simple.

I'll give you a couple of different approaches to get you started.

The first is a focus meditation:

  1. Sit in a quiet room in a comfortable position where you won't be distracted and set a timer for 5 minutes
  2. Either close your eyes and focus on your heartbeat, or keep your eyes open and focus on a single point in front of you
  3. Breathe
  4. You'll notice that your mind will wander to other thoughts, that's fine, just gently, kindly, bring your focus back
  5. Repeat this until the timer goes off

This next one is a breathing meditation:

  1. Sit in a quiet room in a comfortable position where you won't be distracted and set a timer for 5 minutes
  2. Inhale and notice how your stomach moves out
  3. Exhale and notice how your stomach moves in
  4. Count each exhales as 1 and try to count to 10 exhales while being attentive to each breath
  5. If you get to 10 you can start again from the beginning

That's it!

These are the two simplest, most effective forms of meditation that will decrease the activity of the amygdala and decrease your anxiety.

Practice makes perfect so do this every single day and enjoy how you slowly start to take control of your brain back and prevent it from getting hijacked in the future.

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Conclusion

Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time.

Awkward social gatherings, company or school presentations, meeting someone new, going out on a first date, the list goes on and on.

Now you know what is happening in your mind that is creating that anxiety.

The amygdala is freaking out and telling you that you're in danger when you really aren't.

The answer?

Find your inner Zen.

The more often you meditate using either the focus or breathing meditations offered above, the less anxious you'll feel in the moment and the less anxiety you'll have over the long run.

Anxiety is a natural part of life, but being helpless isn't.

You can prevent your mind from getting hijacked 5 minutes at a time, you just need to take it!

The meditations above are just the beginning; there are tons of different meditation styles and techniques so get curious and do some research.

Find the types that work best for you.

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May 24th, 2024

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