Although due much in part to genetics, anxiety is shaped in many cases by environmental factors such as one’s own negative thought processes, developing neural structures geared towards negative thinking and an unflattering sense of self. People who tend to be constantly stressed release higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response, breaking down muscle tissue and eating away at the brain’s hippocampus, a region responsible for storing memories. Studies have shown that people who routinely feel stressed (such as women suffering from acute or traumatic stress) can lose up to 25 percent of their hippocampus’ volume with difficulty in retaining memories.
If stress leads the brain to form new neural connections geared towards anxiety, then relaxation should have the opposite effect. Recent research has shown that people who regularly participate in relaxing activities display an enhanced expression of certain genes that calm down stress reactions in the body. The calm-based neural structures do not only leave them less prone to symptoms of anxiety, but make them more resilient when they do experience it.
One of the most effective ways to shift one’s cognitive settings to a less anxiety friendly one is mindfulness meditation. Practicing mindfulness has shown to not only reduce the symptoms of anxiety and stress, but cause changes on a neurophysiological level, helping the brain develop thicker layers of neurons in the attention-focused regions such as the prefrontal cortex and insula (a tiny region near the center of the brain that is responsible for feelings and bodily sensations). Some studies have also shown mindfulness to boost activity in the left prefrontal cortex (a region responsible for suppressing negative emotions) as well as minimizing activation in the amygdala (a region that controls the mind’s “alarm system” and fight-or-flight response).
Easy practices to reduce anxiety
Anxiety comes unexpectedly, often seeming impossible to control at the time. However, there are ways of getting in the habit of remaining calm and self-confident, making anxiety less likely to be triggered. One of the simplest and most effective ways of using mindfulness to reduce anxiety involves focusing on the present moment, recognizing one’s feelings. Even for those who suffer from severe stress and incessant worrying would realize that they usually feel okay at any present moment, which is more than enough most times to take the mind off its focus on negative emotions. Focusing on the future leads to worrying and planning, while focusing on the past only leads to regret and over-analyzing.
Another simple mindfulness technique includes feeling safer. Due mostly to evolution’s shaping of the brain to be in a perpetually semi-anxious state (most likely for survival reasons), most people overestimate danger, resulting in excessive worrying as well as less patience and even stress-related health conditions. Techniques to engender a sense of safety include focusing on being around someone who cares about you and reflecting on times when you felt the strongest and most secure. Breathing exercises in conjunction with focusing on how exactly the emotions feel in the present moment will make it easier to go back to them when in an anxious state.
Lastly, letting go of one’s anxious thoughts is an effective, albeit difficult mindfulness technique to master. Everyone carries a lifetime’s worth of resentment and disappointment with them; being able to acknowledge those emotions and put them aside is probably the only effective solution short of memory loss as far as overcoming one’s anxiety triggers goes. Although focusing on letting go will often lead to more attention on anxiety, thus increasing it, an effective trick involves taking note of the natural way our minds notice and release thousands of smaller thoughts throughout the day. For example, paying attention to how one checks their email or people crossing the street can be applied to more anxiety-inducing situations.
Sovereign Health’s team of expert staff has a litany of experiences in the treatment of anxiety-based disorders and application of mindfulness-based techniques to treat it. In addition to several locations in s southern California, we also offer treatment in locations such as Arizona, Florida and Utah. If you have any questions, feel free to browse the rest of our site or read patient reviews on their experiences in our treatment programs.
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