How to Rewire Your Anxious Brain: A Complete Guide

How to Rewire Your Anxious Brain: A Complete Guide

More than 40 million American adults live with anxiety, making it the most common mental health condition in the US[1]. Medications and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help ease anxiety symptoms, however, they typically don’t eliminate the root of your fears. The majority of people don’t realize that there is another possibility to manage anxiety. You can actually rewire your anxious brain to help eliminate anxiety triggers.

A whole book was written on just this topic, called Rewire Your Anxious Brain by Catherine M. Pittman and Elizabeth M. Karle. The book goes into depth on the “surprising level of flexibility and potential for change in your brain, including changing its tendency to create problematic levels of anxiety.”[2].

This article is a guide to that rewiring. It explores the use of neuroplasticity to help people with anxiety increase their quality of life. In short, we’ll be looking into the role of the brain’s neural pathways, how to change them, and why that’s important in anxiety management or reduction.

A Complete Guide to Rewire Your Anxious Brain

Research shows that the anxious brain displays an activity imbalance in its emotional centers, also known as the limbic system[3]. The limbic system includes the hippocampus, which plays a role in managing stress response and negative feedback. Negative feedback happens when a person’s experiences differ from what their brain has established as ideal. In turn, the brain tries to correct the situation, which can lead to overactivity that expresses as anxiety.

For example, the anxious brain often creates negative feedback loops subconsciously. A trigger like back pain can lead to emotional stress, which then leads to negative thoughts and predictions about the future, which then cause muscle tension. The muscle tension then loops back to causing more pain and fatigue on top, which restarts the cycle.

Another part of the limbic system is called the amygdala. It processes external emotional stimuli and creates a subsequent behavioral response. In particular, fear, aggression, and defensive behavior originate in the amygdala.

Two key regions of the extended amygdala complex associated with anxiety are the CeA and the BNST. These two regions work together to create states of anxiety and fear[4]. After a delay, the brain releases a hormone known as CRH. Research suggests CRH is distributed widely across the brain. CRH then interacts with different neurotransmitters to create the stress response.

If you have anxiety, the connection between your amygdala and prefrontal cortex gets weaker and weaker. The result is a diminished ability to process information rationally[5]. So, when you begin to feel anxious, your body reacts by becoming hyper-alert. This causes your brain to go into fight-or-flight mode, triggering the release of a flood of hormones to try to help you cope with danger. After the triggering situation has passed for those without an anxiety disorder, the brain returns to its normal, calm state.

However, if you do have an anxiety disorder, it is more difficult for the brain to go back to its calm state. Instead, the initial release of stress hormones leads the brain to release even more. Feelings of anxiety then compound. When stress hormones flood the brain repeatedly, the baseline anxiety level can increase, making the resting state moderately anxious. If this continues, then the resting state of the brain can increase again to be severely anxious. This is a negative feedback loop in action.

Here’s an example of this. Imagine a situation where someone tells their close friend something they said hurt them. Instead of making a mental note to avoid repeating this hurtful behavior in the future, the person feels anxious. Then their body begins to tense up. They start to think about all the other things they’ve said that could have felt hurtful as well. However, their hyper-alert brain is now irrationally translating non-hurtful things into hurtful things now, compounding their anxiety. Every time they think of or see this friend moving forward, they already feel anxious. The result is an increasingly anxious resting state for their brain.

A moderate to severe anxiety resting state can be extremely unpleasant and isn’t an ideal way to live. Rewiring the anxious brain can help to provide a calm resting brain state and increase your quality of life.

Definition of Anxiety and its Different Types

Anxiety at large is the feeling of unease, worry, and fear. It’s common for people to feel anxiety from time to time periodically. However, anxiety disorders cause people to feel intense and persistent levels of worry and fear about routine situations[6]. Anxiety disorders interfere with daily life, as they tend to be difficult to control and are not proportional to actual danger. Sometimes, the anxiety builds so excessively to cause a panic attack.

There are five main types of anxiety disorders[7]. The most common is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). GAD consists of chronic anxiety characterized by excessive worry without reasonable provocation. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) causes a state of uncontrollable unwanted thoughts and repetitive behaviors.

Panic disorder causes random and repeated episodes of overwhelming fear coupled with physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath, and chest pain. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that develops after a frightening situation or event that includes the occurrence or threat of serious physical harm. For example, violent attacks, military combat, life-threatening accidents, and natural or human-initiated disasters can all lead to PTSD.

The characteristics of Social Anxiety Disorder include intense anxiety and immoderate self-consciousness in standard social situations. In extreme cases, a person with Social Anxiety Disorder experiences these symptoms in all situations where they’re with other people.

How Does Anxiety Affect Different Aspects of Your Life?

Anxiety can wreak havoc on your life in a variety of ways. It can cause a disruption in sleep, often a consequence of racing or nagging negative thoughts. It can leave you with trouble focusing on what you need to focus on. Instead, your mind is glued to thoughts of the past or the future. Along the same lines, anxiety can lead to forgetfulness. When your brain is hyper-alert and consumed with fear, it’s easy for even important things to slip your mind.

Anxiety can lower your immune system, as it takes a toll on your whole body[8]. This is because when you’re anxious, your cortisol production increases, which can take energy away from the body’s immune response. As a result, many people with anxiety get sick more often. Lowered self-confidence is another common effect of anxiety disorders, as it can lead to you doubting yourself and your ability to manage everyday situations.

Because of anxiety’s impact on the entire body, it can lead to physical health issues[9]. If you have an anxiety disorder, it’s common to experience digestive issues such as loss of appetite, diarrhea nausea, and stomach cramps. It can cause headaches as well as joint pain, back pain, and general muscle tension. Furthermore, excessive anxiety can raise your blood pressure and heart rate, causing cardiovascular issues that increase your risk of stroke and heart attack.

Your relationships, both personal and professional, can suffer as a result of anxiety disorders. Anxiety can cause you to lash out emotionally at times, which can negatively affect relationships. The stakes often feel too high with anxiety, even for normal situations. In severe cases, anxiety left unaddressed can cause some to self-alienate out of fear, disappointing others, or rejection.

Signs and Causes of an Anxious Brain

Anxiety makes you feel worried and restless, often with a sense of panic or imminent danger. However, there are also less direct signs your brain is anxious. [6] If you notice yourself consistently having an elevated heart rate, breathing rapidly, sweating without cause, or trembling, you might have an anxiety disorder. Moreover, feeling tired or weak, having difficulty concentrating on things outside of your current worry, or having trouble sleeping, an anxious brain could also be the culprit.

The root causes of anxiety are widespread. It could be connected to an underlying health issue, such as diabetes, heart disease, chronic pain, or a respiratory disorder. Other common causes for anxiety are the experience of trauma, illness-related stress, other mental health issues, or misuse of drugs or alcohol. Anxiety can also be genetic or related to your personality type. Regardless of its source, rewiring your brain from a severely anxious resting state to a much calmer one is possible.

How to Rewire Your Anxious Brain

The human brain is a wonder to science. Its ability to change is extraordinary, which means an anxious brain does not have to stay in that anxious state forever. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt and create new pathways and connections[10]. It can change connections that already exist as well as form new neural connections  when it learns something new.

Every time you learn something, your brain’s wiring can potentially change. The brain’s neuroplasticity is stronger in children and weakens as you age. This is why children have an easier time picking up new skills or recovering from an injury. Nonetheless, the brain’s neuroplasticity never stops. With enough effort and repetition, it’s possible to rewire the brain at any age.

According to Rewire Your Anxious Brain by Pittman and Karle, “New connections in the brain often develop in surprisingly simple ways…In some research, just thinking about taking certain actions, like throwing a ball or playing a song on the piano, can cause changes in the area of the brain that controls those movements.”[2].

The first step to rewiring your anxious brain is all about mindset. You must disassociate your symptoms and your condition with who you are. You are not your thoughts or your feelings. Your emotions are chemical compounds. Your anxiety symptoms are bodily responses.

Next, you have to begin seeing yourself as a healer. You can hack into the connections and pathways that exist in your brain and change them. A big part of this is choosing what to focus on at any given moment. Instead of focusing on the negative, switch it to something positive. You have the power to do this. And the more you practice this, the easier it becomes. 

In his book Rewire Your Brain, Ph.D. John B. Arden states, “So much hinges on these two abilities: by learning to be calm and positive, you can improve your ability to focus, face challenges, reach your goals, and be happy.”[11]. Learning to be calm and positive is all about shifting your focus in real-time.

For example, if you see a spider, your anxious brain might automatically begin to think about how it might be poisonous, and if it bites you, it could cause you serious harm. In that moment of negative thinking, you have to consciously shift your focus to something else. That could be how spiders eat bothersome mosquitoes or how the global ecosystem needs those spiders to function properly. Making this shift enough will train your brain to go to the positive thoughts, automatically eliminating the anxiety.

When you repeatedly shift your focus from negative to positive, this is when you will start to see results. By switching your focus to positive thoughts, something big will slowly begin to happen in your brain. Your brain will begin to replace old neural pathways (negative thought loops and anxious ways of thinking) with new, calm ones. These brain changes can bring a flood of new physiological responses throughout your body so you’re no longer living in a constant state of anxiety.

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Common roadblocks and how to overcome them

There are a couple of reasons why more people don’t utilize their brain’s neuroplasticity for healing themselves of anxiety. First of all, the majority of the population doesn’t realize this is an option. The commonly known “solutions” for anxiety disorders are medication and CBT.

Furthermore, the study of neuroplasticity is relatively new. Thus, many people who know about it lack the confidence that they can use it to help themselves. After all, if it were as “easy” as changing your mindset from negative to positive, why isn’t everyone doing that to heal themselves? Likely, this is due to the general societal belief that traditional medicine is the best or only way to reach physical or mental health.

The thing is, rewiring the brain isn’t exactly “easy.” It takes adopting the growth mindset, where you see challenges as windows of opportunities to change. This isn’t necessarily as simple as a decision, either. You will probably have to work to change the way you think.

It takes optimism, consistently directing your focus to the positive instead of the negative. It takes commitment because the changes in the brain don’t happen overnight. You have to repeatedly shift your focus and shift your focus until your brain begins to naturally think positively.

The roadblock many people get to and don’t move past is not seeing changes soon enough and giving up. They don’t realize that rewiring their brain happens gradually over time. You have to be compassionate and encouraging with yourself for it to work. Positive self-talk goes a long way. Finally, you really have to trust in your own ability to heal yourself. You can change your brain. You can heal yourself of your anxiety. Believe in the process and flow.

It can be challenging to trust that these modifications of how and what you think will actually rewire your anxious brain. As such, having a guide is often invaluable. re-origin® is a neuroplasticity program based on the latest neuroscience. It provides a step-by-step system, utilizing your ability to rewire your own brain. For those with an anxiety disorder, it’s an actionable way to help yourself reestablish homeostasis and reclaim your mental health.

References

  1. National Alliance on Mental Illness. (n.d.). Anxiety Disorders. https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions/Anxiety-Disorders
  2. Pittman, C.M. & Karle, E.M. (2015). Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic, and Worry. New Harbinger Publications.
  3. Martin, E. I., Ressler, K. J., Binder, E., & Nemeroff, C. B. (2009). The neurobiology of anxiety disorders: brain imaging, genetics, and psychoneuroendocrinology. The Psychiatric clinics of North America.
  4. Knight, L.K. & Depue, B.E. (2019). New Frontiers in Anxiety Research: The Translational Potential of the Bed Nucleus of the Stria Terminalis. Frontiers in Psychiatry. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00510/full
  5. Woo, E., Sansing, L.H., Arnsten, A.F.T., Datta, D. (2021). Chronic Stress Weakens Connectivity in the Prefrontal Cortex: Architectural and Molecular Changes. Chronic Stress. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/24705470211029254
  6. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2018). Anxiety disorders. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anxiety/symptoms-causes/syc-20350961
  7. US Department of Health & Human Services. (2021). What are the five major types of anxiety disorders? HHS.gov. https://www.hhs.gov/answers/mental-health-and-substance-abuse/what-are-the-five-major-types-of-anxiety-disorders/index.html
  8. Bae, Y.S., Shin, E.C., Bae, Y.S., & Eden, W.V. (2019). Editorial: Stress and Immunity. Frontiers in Immunology. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fimmu.2019.00245/full
  9. Kang, H.J., Bae, K.Y., Kim, S.W., Shin, H.Y., Shin, I.S., Yoon, J.S. & Kim, J.M. (2017). Impact of Anxiety and Depression on Physical Health Condition and Disability in an Elderly Korean Population. Psychiatry Investigation. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5440426/
  10. Fuchs, E. & Flügge, G. (2014). Adult Neuroplasticity: More Than 40 Years of Research. Neural Plasticity. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/np/2014/541870/
  11. Arden, J.B. (2010). Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. http://dspace.vnbrims.org:13000/xmlui/bitstream/handle/123456789/2901/Rewire%20Your%20Brain.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

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