Did you know that our thought patterns, values and beliefs are all programmed in the brain by the age of seven? These are our critical years where our brains development is largely influenced by our external environment. This includes biopsychosocial factors such as our biological characteristics (genetics), behavioural factors (beliefs and values), and social conditions such as cultural influences, family dynamics and level of social support. These shape and contribute to our current worldview.
What does this have to do with anxiety? Well, these factors play a role in how we see our world around us, and how that plays out in our thought processing of what we fear and avoid. However, we now know that the brain has the ability to change internal programming through growth and reorganization (brain plasticity). What does that mean? Depending on how we use it, our brain has the ability to rewire itself in order to learn, grow and heal. Basically, we can change our thought patterns and behaviour to change our emotional state to a happier one! We can understand the cycle of anxiety and how to learn to reduce anxiety by rewiring the neural programming to feel less anxious.
Changing The Anxiety Pathway
Just like you, I have had my struggles with anxiety. For starters, I would like to say you are not alone in how you feel and feeling anxious is totally normal! Many biological, psychological and social factors influence our levels of anxiety. When we find ourselves encountering something new, our brain will say, “avoid that!”. Our bodies react accordingly by producing adrenaline, increasing our heart rate and producing shallow breaths. This reinforces the anxiety response and avoidant behaviour when faced with the same situation.
How do we learn to change this pathway? We can bring upon change by learning, participating in new experiences and forming new memories. If we feel anxious and fearful, but go through with the situation anyways, oftentimes we will find that the experience was more anxiety provoking in the mind than the actual event or situation itself. Now, the brain has learned to develop a new memory that this anxiety provoking situation was actually manageable, and not as bad as you thought it would be. When you are approached with this situation again, you will grow confident in facing it and now our brain will say, “I did it before, I can do it again! There is no real threat here”. The more we engage in this avoided action, the less fearful it becomes because the brain has laid out a more positive pathway between our emotions and that specific situation.
For example, Radha got a new job and is fearful of making phone calls. She avoids this task for a while and asks her coworker to do it. One day, her supervisor asked her to make a phone call. She took a deep breath and made the call. She learned that it wasn’t so bad after all! The more she challenged her anxiety thoughts, the less her brain was focused on anxiety and negative outcomes. Her brain rewired to a positive sense of achievement and adaptability.
Two Ways to Challenge Your Anxiety
- Try something new every week and spend at least 15 minutes doing this to build new pathways in the brain. You are learning to effectively adapt to new things!
- Do something that you are fearful of. When we challenge the fear, the brain is creating a new learned positive memory to this feared situation. Your brain changes quicker when you engage in a new scary habit. Start small, with something that is a little bit out of your comfort zone.
As the saying goes, the only way out is through. So… sit with it, breath into it, reflect on it and challenge yourself!
You will be glad that you did!
Rasna Saini is our Short-Term Therapist (Intern) and is completing her Masters’s in Counselling Psychology at Yorkville University. One of Rasna’s areas of interest includes anxiety. Rasna uses evidence-based modalities and an integrative approach in order to help her clients receive treatment that is personalized to their unique needs.