This time of year, changes to our routines can bring on more stress, so the schools counselors have been meeting with middle and upper school students to teach them strategies for handling stress. Now more than ever, we are supporting students and parents with strategies to support their wellbeing and to maintain a positive internal emotional baseline. Research shows that if we learn more about something, we can equip ourselves with the tools to persevere when changes in routine create adverse feelings.
CAN YOU REWIRE YOUR BRAIN?
Yes, you can rewire your brain to be less anxious through a simple process. Understanding the anxiety cycle and how it can spiral out of control is key to learning how to dial down anxiety and rewire neural pathways to feel safe and secure.
Our brains are made to rewire themselves constantly. This is called neuroplasticity. We’ve used counseling class meetings to teach this concept to upper and middle school students with the goal of achieving growth-oriented mindsets pertaining to academics as well as life experiences.
Neuroscientists used to think that after a certain time in childhood, our brains were pretty much set in their ways. But with improved imaging technology, we can now see how the brain’s neurons and pathways change depending on how we use them. There’s reliable evidence that adapting how you think (being flexible minded) can actually alter the physical structure of the neurons in your brain and the types of brain chemicals it produces.
In class meetings we spoke about a strategy people can use to rewire their brain to be less anxious by default. It is simple — but not easy.
In regards to anxiety and our brain’s ability to adapt, learn, grow and heal, we should first understand different types of anxiety so we can understand how our brain operates when we are anxious.
Anxiety: Most individuals probably already know what anxiety feels like and there tends to be the idea that “anxiety is bad.” There is value, however, in knowing that anxiety is not inherently bad or good, but rather that it is useful in a functional sense.
Anxiety is uncomfortable, but it serves a crucial function to motivate humans to avoid impending danger. We are expected to feel anxious when standing on the edge of a cliff; it helps us to stay safe. It is important to feel somewhat anxious when there is an important test coming up because feeling that way typically motivates us to take action, like studying. Anxiety tells us that things are important to us. When we reframe anxiety as an uncomfortable, but admissible and ordinary part of life, we suddenly undertake new ways of working with it.
Disordered anxiety: This is when anxiety gets in the way of daily activities and reduces the quality of life. When anxiety is so high and happens so often that it makes it hard to go to work or school, that’s disordered anxiety. It can make a person feel in danger, when in reality they are safe, or it can impact a person’s ability to function as needed because of their anxious feelings and body responses.
THE ANXIETY CYCLE
Every day, we have experiences that we interpret as either being safe or dangerous. For example, when a person sees a dog, it could be interpreted as a happy, fun, easy or safe event. But for other individuals, it could incite feelings of fear, tension and anxiety. These are uncomfortable feelings, so the person will attempt to escape the perceived danger. The outcome is that nothing bad happens, so the brain releases a surge of relief as a reward. This reinforces the fear and the response. The brain thinks, “That worked, I better do that again. I’m going to motivate my human to avoid that event by increasing their anxiety about it.” And voilà… your anxiety goes up.
Every time we avoid danger and survive, our brain thinks, “Let’s do that again.'' It sprouts and strengthens neural pathways, which rewires and reinforces that self-preserving behavior. When we feel anxiety for a stimulus or situation that is not actually dangerous and then avoid the situation, our anxiety tends to increase in a way that can affect our daily interactions and prevent us from maintaining a high quality of life.
Avoidance feeds into disordered anxiety. It can create overwhelming anxiety. It trains our brains to believe that things which are actually safe are very dangerous. Individuals typically think that they need to get rid of anxiety, when in reality they need to get rid of avoidance.
There are a lot of ways to avoid. There’s physical avoidance (not going to a party, to school or to work); there is also emotional avoidance (not committing to a relationship). Other distractions, including social media, anger, not taking ownership and even not learning coping skills, can be avoidant.
Looking at the cycle, there are two places we can intervene to stop the anxiety from spiraling out of control. The first place is with actions, when we experience anxiety, but we are actually safe. We can remain in the situation and experience our emotions without running away. If the outcome is not the negative experience our brain anticipated, it learns that the stimulus is not actually dangerous and sends out a surge of relief. This can lead to a gradual decrease in anxiety and an increase in emotional resilience — the ability to feel emotions and sensations that are uncomfortable without the need to escape them every time. Your anxiety gets better.
As this happens, the brain lays down new neural pathways resulting in the individual feeling that, “Not all dogs are dangerous. I don’t need to feel anxious around dogs,” and it literally changes your brain chemistry by releasing less cortisol, adrenaline and other stress hormones.
THREE STEPS TO REWIRE YOUR BRAIN
This is the most streamlined way to change your brain to have less anxiety. But it is not easy! If it were easy, most individuals would have already done it. The following steps can help individuals break down the process even further and make it more user-friendly.
Make a gradual-exposure plan. Take one thing that scares you, and break it down into baby steps. Start by valiantly facing the easiest one first. And here’s the part that most people miss: Individuals go too far too fast and then panic, escape or never do it again and that fear is reinforced. Make a gradual-exposure plan, and write down as many tiny steps as you can think of.
Change your rules: Being brave does not mean not having fear, but choosing that doing something is more important than avoiding fear. This is called willingness, allowing yourself to do something although it makes you uncomfortable. If you make a new rule for yourself that you’re going to do something until you get anxious, then your brain will respond, “Okay let’s do that, then I can escape.” It will increase your anxiety around that event. When we say, “I’m going to do this unless it makes me too anxious,” then we are inviting anxiety to make decisions for us. Choose an easier or smaller activity to start with, then stay with it for a certain amount of time, or until the feelings of anxiety decrease by half during the exposure.
Do it. Face it. Get anxious and see if you survive. (You will.)
Using the dog example, start by taking 10 minutes to imagine yourself being near a dog until that practice no longer makes you highly anxious. You might work with a friend who has a gentle dog to plan the next steps. You might plan to view a dog through a window and stay there until the extreme anxiety lessens. Next, you might plan to be in the room with a tiny dog on a leash. Try letting the tiny dog on a leash get closer to you or sniff your hand. Try petting a tiny dog on a leash, then try taking the leash off. Little by little you get to the point where you can go to a dog park and stay there for 30 minutes. It’s okay if you feel anxious and uncomfortable; if you stick with it, the brain learns that dogs are safe, you are okay, and your anxiety will decrease.
The simple solution to relieving anxiety is to face your fears that are irrational and they will decrease. This may seem way too simple, or way too impossible, or too scary. But psychologists have created a way to break that large process into small steps and provide skills which you can learn to make it easier.
Gradual exposure is a research-backed approach which has been shown to actually help reduce anxiety and treat anxiety disorders. It does this because it quite literally changes the brain, rewiring and reinforcing neural pathways and changing the release of chemicals to ease our anxieties.