Changing how you think about things in therapy can change the structure of your brain and the chemicals that it’s pumping out. So how can we change our brain to help process anxiety?
The purpose of anxiety
The purpose of anxiety is to help us to avoid real danger. Having ‘clean anxiety’ is a helpful and beneficial part of our life. For example, we are supposed to feel anxious if we are standing on a cliff edge, to help keep us safe. It motivates us to take action.
If we start to view anxiety as uncomfortable but acceptable, and a normal part of life. we can develop tools to work with it.
When it becomes ‘disordered anxiety’
This is when the anxiety seems to take over. It’s when it becomes hard to go to school, to work or to enjoy life at all. The harder you try to make it go away, the stronger it seems to get. Anxiety is said to be disordered when:
- We feel in danger when we are actually safe
- Anxiety interferes with our ability to function. This could be when anxiety or attempts to avoid anxiety stop you from effectively facing life
Understanding the Anxiety Cycle
This is where:
THOUGHTS lead to FEELINGS lead to BEHAVIOURS lead to RUMINATION as a cycle.
Firstly, we interpret a situation as dangerous
At the start of this cycle are feelings of fear, anxiety, panic – uncomfortable feelings and you may take these as a sign that your thoughts are true.
For example, you see a dog, and for some reason, you think that the dog is going to bite you. You start to sweat, get panicky, feel out of breath.
Secondly, we take action to escape and avoid the situation
Continuing with the dog example, we’re scared so we run away.
So we avoid the situation, and nothing bad happens. The brain thinks – great – it releases chemicals as a surge of relief. You think, I only survived that because I ran away. The brain thinks, I’ll do that again, it kept me safe. So the brain thinks, I’ll get them to avoid that situation again in the future by increasing anxiety about it. Every time we avoid a perceived threat, our brain thinks, great – I’ll do that again. Neural pathways (‘wiring’ in the brain) are reinforced to continue the avoidant behaviour.
So avoidance grows anxiety
Avoidance increases anxiety and can shrink our world. Avoidance can make your world small, scary, and unhappy. But every time you avoid something and survive, your brain increases anxiety in that area.
Continuing with the dog example, we might avoid any situation where a dog might be present e.g. not visiting friends who have a dog, avoiding the park. You miss out on good relationships and might even stop socialising.
Interrupting the anxiety cycle
With our actions and behaviours
If we allow ourselves to feel our anxiety and we are actually safe – if we stick with it, we can experience our emotions without running away. If you do this and survive, your brain learns, wow, that’s a relief, I was safe. Let’s do that again. Gradually your emotional muscles and tolerance of being able to stick with difficult feelings and sensations increases. Gradually your anxiety will decrease.
How can we make this process easier?
1) Exposure Hierarchy
If you think of something that scares you and break it down into really small steps. Start with the very easiest one. You will find that if you learn to tolerate the feelings of anxiety you will manage to do that first easiest step. This starts building the new wiring of success in overcoming that anxiety. Slowly build-up to the next step and continue. It’s important not to rush straight in with one of the harder steps as this will likely feel too challenging and might be overwhelming, leading you to give up. Start small, repeat your successes and slowly work your way up the steps. Acknowledge your progress, celebrate your successes.
2) Changing your rules
This is the willingness to do something even if it’s uncomfortable. If you go with your old rule – I’m going to do this until I get too anxious – then you are actually inviting your anxiety to make the decision for you and your brain will know that you can escape. This will actually increase your anxiety and avoidance. So instead choose one of the easiest steps in your hierarchy and decide to stay with whatever uncomfortable feelings come up either for a) a pre-set amount of time, or b) until your anxiety reduces by about half. Grounding and mindfulness techniques can be useful here as aids to help be with your feelings if this is new to you.
3) Face your fears
Do it. Go and get anxious. See if you survive. Spoiler alert – you will!
So hopefully this summary can help you see how it is possible to break the chain of the anxiety cycle with changes to our behaviour. It isn’t easy, it might take time, and support through the process can be really helpful. When we start to realise that we can get back in the driving seat, it becomes possible to make changes that support the way we want to live our lives. And as ever, working with a counsellor can really help to explore your patterns of behaviour, alongside a wider consideration of all the aspects that make you you.
Credit: Based around information from Emma McAdam, Rewiring the anxious brain