How to Rewire Your Anxious Mind with Neuroplasticity
If you have ever wondered if it was truly possible to change, we are here to demonstrate that it is. Albeit with a lot of work and time.
It is possible to change anything from patterns to being able to manage your anxiety response to both the outside world and your own thoughts. Many people suffer from anxiety, and some studies have shown that the numbers have risen considerably compared to past generations.
While anxiety isn’t inherently bad, it can become a problem when it prevents you from living your life. It is always recommended that you seek out professional help when it comes to mental illnesses but today we will discuss a few things you can do on your own to help you with your anxiety whether that be anxiety towards a specific thing or generalized.
With some practice, persistence, consistency, and time you might be able to rewire your brain completely to the point where anxiety doesn’t dictate your life anymore. And all of this by challenging, changing, and facing your thoughts and your fears.
This article is for information and educational purposes only. It is not meant to diagnose anything, it is not medical advice, nor is it meant to replace professional help or advice. If you are in need of help or advice, please contact a mental health professional.
Now, let’s see how you can change your anxious brain with neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change, rearrange, modify, and adapt its function and even structure throughout life and in response to certain events. As humans, our brains are shaped by both internal and external factors. A few years ago, it was believed that the brain stopped developing and changing after childhood but studies have shown that the brain does retain a certain level of neuroplasticity throughout the life of the person.
In fact, the brain is made to rewire itself all of the time. And, much like the body, it is made to heal or look for ways to heal itself naturally.
For the first years of our lives, we are subject to be influenced by external factors until we grow to a certain age where we can decide for ourselves if we are going to continue being influenced by those factors or not. If the answer is no, then we begin the process of unlearning certain things.
By unlearning these things, concepts or beliefs we are, in essence, rewiring our brain to think a different way and make different decisions. The brain begins to make new neurological connections that reshape itself and make it work the way you want it to work.
Something similar happens when we work on rewiring the anxiety in our body and brain. We do have to unlearn certain things and learn new ones that will eventually replace those old paradigms. But what exactly do we have to unlearn and what do we have to learn new? Let’s find out.
Rewiring the Brain
What is Anxiety?
Emma McAdam, a licensed marriage and family therapist says that the first step into rewiring your brain is looking at what anxiety is.
“This may sound dumb because you already know what anxiety feels like but what you need to do is understand your perspective on anxiety”, McAdam explains in a video.
McAdams, the creator of Therapy in a Nutshell, says that, despite what we may think, anxiety isn’t actually bad. Healthy anxiety, for example, is what keeps us from falling from a ledge, what motivates us to study for an exam, and what keeps us away from danger.
“Anxiety is uncomfortable, sometimes anxiety is disordered, sometimes anxiety gets in the way but we all experience anxiety because it’s supposed to serve a really important function”, McAdam says, “to motivate us to avoid real danger and…take action”.
McAdam continues, “Anxiety tells us that something is important to us. When we look at anxiety as being uncomfortable but acceptable and a normal part of life, suddenly we develop new tools to work with it”.
What is disordered anxiety?
After looking at our perspectives on anxiety, the second thing that McAdams suggests we look into is disordered anxiety. This is the type of anxiety that seems to take over your life and doesn’t let you function.
“Contrary to the popular belief that anxiety is disordered when it’s more severe, anxiety is actually disordered when one of two things happen”, says McAdams, “Number one, when you feel in danger when you’re actually safe and, number two, when it interferes with your ability to function”.
For the first thing that happens, McAdams gave the example of one of her clients. This particular client was afraid of radiators and could not go into a room that had a radiator due to her starting to shake and sweat. Radiators are not inherently dangerous, but this client had an anxious reaction even though she was essentially safe.
When it comes to the second thing that signals that you are suffering from disordered anxiety, McAdams gives examples of a few things that can happen due to the anxiety or the avoidance of that anxiety, like not going to school, calling in sick from work until you no longer go, avoiding friends until you lose contact, avoiding family, etc.
What causes anxiety to spiral out of control?
The simple explanation is the avoidance of what you fear or makes you anxious, is what causes anxiety to spiral out of control because it keeps igniting your fight, flight, or freeze response.
As we evolved, humans developed an alert system that helped us survive when we perceived danger. This is called the fight, flight, or freeze (FFF) response. When this alert activates it gives us different options to choose from in order to deal with the situation at hand. After the situation is over, the body and mind, naturally go back to a calm state.
The problem comes when you try to avoid the situation, the feelings associated with it, or are unwilling to accept the situation as it is. The other problem comes when you do not know if the situation is dangerous or not, or if you do not know why the anxious response is getting triggered.
“Every single time that we avoid a threat and survive, our brain thinks ‘Let’s do that again!’ So it lays down neuropathways, or wiring in your brain, that enforces that behavior”, says McAdams.
When you avoid it, it gives your brain temporary relief. This then makes your brain think that you survived because you avoided the situation. So, the next time you’re in a similar situation your brain spikes up your anxiety.
“Avoidance makes your anxiety worse. Avoidance feeds disordered and anxiety. It literally creates anxiety”, expresses McAdams.
On the other hand, if you aren’t able to know whether or not the situation is dangerous or where the stressor is coming from, then your brain gets stuck. Because you have no straight answer, your brain defaults to ignoring, suppressing, distracting, or avoiding the feeling that the anxiety is creating in you.
Avoiding a direct situation, an unknown anxiety trigger, being unwilling to feel your emotions or accept the current situation will keep you stuck in the anxiety cycle. You will therefore block your mind’s and body’s attempt to calm themselves naturally.
In time, this unsolved anxiety cycle will have you retreat from the world and render you unable to function in your life. It will also keep you away from your family, friends, and things that you love to do.
When you’re not paying attention and trying to push away your anxiety, there will come a time when the body and brain will bring your anxiety to a shouting level so that you listen. Those are manifested as anxiety or panic attacks.
“Avoidance feeds anxiety and shrinks your world”, says McAdams, “It can make your world small, scary, and unhappy”.
While all of this seems grey and dismal, there are a few things you can do to break this cycle, as well as other things you can do to deal with anxiety out of the cycle.
How to break the cycle
McAdams explains that there are two places within the anxiety cycle where you can consciously intervene.
“The first place is with our actions”, says McAdams, “When we feel anxiety but we’re actually safe if we stick with it, stay there, and experience our emotions without running away and we don’t die. Our brain says ‘Phew, I guess that not all dogs are dangerous. Let’s do that again’. And it sends a surge of relief that leads to a gradual decrease in anxiety over time”.
If you can sit with the emotions without running away, this lets the brain know it’s not actually dangerous. It also serves to increase your emotional muscles or the ability to feel sensations that are uncomfortable without needing to escape them all of the time. Doing this exercise constantly helps the brain lay out new neuropathways that tell us that we don’t need to be anxious all of the time because we are not in danger.
“It literally changes your brain’s chemistry”, says McAdams, “Your brain starts releasing less cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress hormones”.
The second place where you can intervene in the cycle is with your thoughts. Changing how you think about the situation or belief will also help create new neuropathways. Here what you can do is research or inquire more about the situation. Find out if your beliefs about it are true or not. How are your thoughts distorting the situation in your head? You may also look into cognitive distortions.
Changing thoughts is easier done when you are not in the heights of anxiety but when you are in a calmer state and not facing what triggers us. Another thing that helps is finding out why it triggers us in the first place. Was it something that happened? Was it due to an outside influence? Was it a lie that someone told you? Pinpointing the source will help you deal with it.
“There’s good evidence that shows that changing how you think can change the structure of your brain and the types of chemicals it produces”, says McAdam.
Things you can proactively do to change your wiring
In the second installment of her Rewiring Your Anxious Brain series, McAdams discusses a few things that you can do in order to start changing your anxiety and thus your brain neuropathways.
- What matters to you & Change your rules
The first thing she mentions is to choose something that matters more than the fear or the stress that triggers your anxiety. Write down how you want to beat the anxiety due to this thing that matters more, and how you would like to experience the anxiety in order to let it go.
“Courage is not the absence of fear but choosing something that’s more important than fear”, states McAdams, “Say to yourself that ‘I will do this even if it makes me anxious, for x amount of minutes or until my anxiety decreases by half’. Instead of saying,
‘I will do this until my anxiety spikes’ because the latter only invites or motivates more the anxiety to come in.
The second thing is to practice willingness, grounding, and self-regulation activities. Be willing to sit down with your fear until it lessens or for a certain amount of time. In the long run, it will tell your brain that the initial fear or danger that it perceived was not real at all, at least not all of the time.
Practice grounding techniques like meditation or walking barefoot on the earth to learn how to come into a calm state of mind. Find, and practice self-regulation activities to learn how to manage your emotions in both normal and anxiety-driven circumstances so that you can eventually become more logical than emotion-driven and not automatically react by avoiding.
- Build emotional muscles
The third thing is to build emotional muscles by facing your fears one at a time. This will create resilience in you, which you can later use to face the scariest of your fears or a difficult event in life.
Be willing to sit with your emotions, and acknowledge them no matter how uncomfortable they feel. Don’t judge or criticize, just observe them and let them pass.
- We’re all imperfect
Fourth, let go of perfectionism. Rewiring your brain is a process that will probably see you fail at first many times. But, if you keep practicing it, eventually it will bear its fruits. Like, McAdams says, your goal is to learn and grow, not be perfect because there is no such thing as being perfect in this world.
- You can do this
There will definitely be a little voice in your head saying that you won’t be able to do this or face your fears. That is not true. You actually can do this. It only requires effort and time on your part. That effort might include ignoring or putting that voice in its place as it only contributes to spike your anxiety. Let go of believing that you can’t handle it.
- Change how you perceive situations
This is done by changing how you view certain things, places, events, memories, etc. As we said before, it is better done when you are in a calm state of mind.
- Do one small step everyday
Schedule yourself to do one small step in the direction of rewiring your anxious brain. This can be done by making an Exposure Hierarchy. An Exposure Hierarchy is created by taking one thing that scares you and breaking it down into tiny steps or parts that you can do.
For example, if you’re afraid of large bodies of water, you can start by imagining yourself near or in a large body of water until you’re not anxious anymore or for a certain amount of time. After that is conquered, you can start looking at pictures of large bodies of water, repeating the same technique. Later, you can willingly drive up and park near a large body of water and stare at it. Until eventually you are able to walk up to the water and maybe, even dip a toe in it.
Start by doing the easiest thing first. Also, write down your goals and accomplishments every day. Looking at how far you have come will motivate you to keep going.
- Stay with your fears until you’ve calmed down
It’s ok if you feel anxious but stick with it. Face your fears, as that is one of the most straightforward ways to rewire your brain into believing that this situation is actually safe and not dangerous.
- Get support
Whether that is a therapist, a friend, or a family member it’s ok to get support to help you through this journey. A family member or friend can accompany you to a specific place, like the beach, while you face your fear of the water. Or the dog park, while you face your fear of dogs.
The therapist can help present to you and lead you through some exercises that will help with your anxiety and neuroplasticity.
- Be compassionate with yourself
The same way you are kind, and actively work to help others face their fears or heal their pain, do that with yourself.
“Everyone thinks that anxiety is caused because you don’t care about things”, says McAdams,” But it’s quite the opposite. Anxiety is being paralyzed by caring too much”.
So be kind to yourself, it’s ok to care. Everything will be alright.
Write it out
If you start feeling anxious and are in a place where you can write, like your house or room, what you can do is to write it out. Instead of choosing a distraction, which is a form of avoidance that then continues the anxiety cycle, write about it. Write what you’re feeling and what’s going on with you. You can also talk to a friend about it.
But, sit with your feelings and take the time to process your thoughts. If you don’t know where to start, McAdams suggests following these steps:
1- Notice: your feelings and emotions
2- Name: those feelings and emotions
3- Slowdown: Slow down and think about what you were doing or thinking about before you became anxious. You can pinpoint the source of your anxiety this way.
4- Clarify if you’re actually in danger and if there is some action to take.
5- Decide to act or ground: Do you need to take action in any way in order to reduce this anxiety or can you just take a few minutes to actively ground and calm yourself?
The most important thing you can do when breaking the anxiety cycle is to stop avoiding, let yourself feel your feelings, whatever they are, and let your body calm itself. This will let your brain know that it is ok, and it doesn’t need to activate its anxiety response so often.
We hope these techniques help. Let us know in the comments how it went for you. Don’t forget to check out our YouTube channel for more tips and tricks to help you with your anxiety.
Therapy in a Nutshell. (2019a, April 25). Rewiring the Anxious Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Anxiety Cycle: Anxiety Skills #21 [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTuX_ShUrw0&t=610s
Therapy in a Nutshell. (2019b, May 17). Rewiring the Anxious Brain Part 2: 10 Skills to Beat Anxiety: Anxiety Skills #22 [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fb-clvcX7fI
Therapy in a Nutshell. (2020, May 28). Anxious But You Don’t Know Why? Rewiring the Anxious Brain Part 3 [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJ8W5IZ8j7Q