Rewire Your Brain with These Simple Neuroplasticity Exercises

Rewire Your Anxious Brain with These Easy Neuroplasticity Exercises

Your brain is a complex, powerful organ. From your infancy on, it is constantly adapting and changing to help you navigate life and the many challenges it brings[1]. However, sometimes a brain can get confused, and to keep you safe, it can make you feel more alert and anxious – even when you know everything will be alright. The good news is that you can train and rewire your brain to deal with anxious situations better. 

By creating a new connection between neurons and paving new neutral pathways, researchers believe that you can train your brain to minimize anxiety. This sounds more complicated, but don’t worry. This article will help you understand what makes you anxious, understand your stress response, and learn more about neuroplasticity exercises to rewire your brain[2].

Why am I so anxious?

You are driving to work on a Monday morning when you suddenly wonder, “did I turn off my stove?” Well, you try to trace your steps from that morning but cannot remember turning your stove off. Perhaps you did… what if you didn’t? 

That’s when your anxiety starts to build as you picture your stove catching fire. Just then, the driver in front of you slams on the breaks; you quickly hit your breaks hard while clutching the steering wheel tightly! Your entire body is activated with an adrenaline surge, and your heart is pounding, but you are still safe. You take a few deep breaths and probably exclaim, “that was close!”

It seems anxiety is all around us. Considering the events in the scenario illustrated, there are two ways anxiety can begin: through what you think about, and your reaction to your environment. That means there are two distinct areas of your brain that initiate anxiety – the cortex and amygdala[3]

The cortex is the thinking part of your brain that helps you to reason and engage in complex thinking such as mathematics and logic. The thoughts originating from your brain’s cortex may be the cause of your anxiety. That means learning how to rewire your brain through neuroplasticity exercises can help you prevent your cognitive process from initiating or worsening anxiety. 

On the other hand, the amygdala pathway creates the powerful physical impact of anxiety on your body. Its numerous connections to different parts of your brain allow it to mobilize different body reactions within a fraction of a second. In less than a tenth of a second, the amygdala can trigger an adrenaline surge, increase heart rate and blood pressure, create muscle tension, and more. 

Remember, the amygdala pathway does not initiate thoughts you are aware of and usually works faster than the cortex. Therefore, it produces a variety of anxiety responses without your conscious control or knowledge. If you feel your anxiety does not make logical sense or stem from a clear apparent cause, you are probably experiencing the impact of anxiety arising from your brain’s amygdala pathway. Examples of such anxiety include unexplainable nervousness, having aggressive impulses, or the desire to avoid a certain situation. 

Understanding the stress response

Whether psychological (like persistent worry about losing your job) or environment (like a looming work deadline), stressful situations can trigger a cascade of stress hormones that produce psychological changes. 

To improve your ability to enjoy life and survive, your body has developed a special survival mechanism that engages whenever you believe you could be in danger. This system is known as the fight or flight response. It is also known as the emergency response or stress response[4]. Here are the common aspects of the stress response;

Anxiety 

There’s a tight brain-body connection. The moment you ‘truly believe’ you could be in danger; your body produces a stress response as if you are in actual danger. This is because your brain interprets your thoughts as reality. In this case, anxiety begins or worsens because of a thought that frightened you.

Fear response

Fear is a motivational state often aroused by certain stimuli that give rise to escape or defensive behavior. It signals danger, motivational conflict, or threat and triggers the appropriate adaptive response. This is why your brain learns to fear various situations you have previously been exposed to stress or pain and consequently show avoidance behavior when you reencounter those situations[5].

Phobias 

Phobia is a type of anxiety that could cause you to experience extreme, irrational fear about a place, object, situation, or living creature. When you have a phobia, you are likely to avoid what your brain considers dangerous. Note that the imagined threat is often greater than the actual threat (if any).[6]

Obsessing

Obsessions are persistent and recurrent thoughts, images, or impulses that cause distressing emotions like disgust or anxiety. Most people with obsessions recognize that the impulses or thoughts are often a product of their minds and are unreasonable or excessive. Sometimes, the distress caused by such intrusive thoughts may not be resolved by reasoning or logic but finding a way to rewire your brain may be helpful. 

Anxiety disorders

Anxiety is considered a normal reaction to stress and can benefit you in some situations. For instance, it can alert you to dangers and help you prepare and pay attention. However, anxiety disorders are different from the normal feeling of nervousness and involve excessive fear[7]. Remember, anxiety disorders are manageable, and this could help you overcome this stress response, have sense of ease, and better health.  

Transforming the “stress response” to a “challenge-response.”

If you think you can’t handle a situation, you feel fear and probably want to flee. You assume that the worst will happen. This is a known stress response[8]. It can be critical for your survival, but if it is based on distorted or unrealistic perceptions, it can lead to a chronic threat response. On the other hand, when you believe that you have all of the resources needed to meet the demands of a situation, you assume that you will succeed. You rise to the challenge and ultimately relax or feel at ease. This is known as challenge-response. Here’s how to transform your stress response into a challenge response. 

Understand the root of your fears

To overcome your fears means going within yourself to discover the root cause of the disturbance. Your fear of what’s happening or may happen isn’t unfounded, and it’s true that life can shift at any moment. However, you don’t want to live in fear. So, when you feel this emotion arising in the form of restlessness, worry, or anxiety, try to invite it into the light of awareness. Ask yourself, what are you scared of? Then look deeper to determine if something besides the fearful thought or fearful situation may be causing your fear. 

The promise of neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is your brain’s ability to rewire itself by creating or paving new neural pathways whenever stimulated to change or adapt. As mentioned earlier, your brain is ever-changing, ever-growing, and ever-improving. 

For example, when a person suffers a brain injury and loses their ability to speak, there’s a chance they may regain speech with the help of therapy. This is possible because specific brain retraining can help the human brain rewire itself by paving new pathways.

Also, researchers believe that negative thoughts that co-occur with anxiety might happen due to impaired pathways[9]. With carefully chosen neuroplasticity exercises, you can rewire your brain to promote positive thoughts that can help improve your mental health. Indeed, you can learn to create a shield between your trigger and reactions so that anxiety no longer arises unexpectedly.. 

3 Neuroplasticity exercises you can do

Anxiety doesn’t have to control your brain and life. Thanks to neuroplasticity exercises, your brain can restructure or rewire itself and ultimately improve your well-being. Here are three exercises you may want to try. 

1. Deep breathing

Your breath is a powerful tool that can help regulate your nervous system. Research findings show that the recommendation to ‘take a deep breath’ may be more than a cliché. Various exercises involving volitional breathing often alter the connectivity between different parts of your brain and facilitate access to internal states inaccessible to other people. 

Deep breathing exercises can help make you feel better when feeling anxious as they activate your ‘rest and digest’ or parasympathetic branch of your nervous system[10]. Also, deep breathing increases the oxygen supply to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting a state of calmness. 

2. Novel activities or skill acquisition

The concept of learning a new skill and neuroplasticity mirror each other. The ability to learn a new activity or skill means that your innate talents, skills, and abilities can be improved or developed with determination. On the other hand, neuroplasticity refers to your brain’s ability to develop and adapt beyond the usual development period of your childhood. 

Having a growth mindset means that you believe you can get better, smarter, or more skilled at a specific activity through sustained effort. This is precisely what neuroplasticity is all about. Additionally, learning a skill adds to your knowledge and skill set, helping you develop feelings of growth and competency. This can alleviate feelings of anxiety. 

3. Novel body movement

When it comes to novel body movements, think of your neuromuscular system like an untouched forest. That means the first time you attempt the body movement will be challenging, just like the first time you hike through a forest. Indeed, there’s a cascade of action potentials sent from your brain’s cerebellum down to the spinal cord and out to muscle fiber, leading to muscle contraction. 

Over time, the repeated sending of these signals begins to pave a pathway to the desired body movement. Just as you would eventually wear down a forest, you will master the novel body movement and require less thought to complete it with precision. Also, engaging in physical activities such as learning a novel body movement diverts you from the things you are anxious about. 

Final thoughts 

Researchers believe that the negative thinking patterns that occur with anxiety could result from impaired or interrupted neuroplasticity processes[11]. For this reason, various exercises that support positive thinking patterns may help ‘rewrite’ the negative patterns and improve your well-being. Though rewiring your brain sounds complicated, it is something you can absolutely do, and re-origin can help.

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References

  1. Cohen, N. J. (2015, May 6). Navigating Life. NCBI. Retrieved January 12, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5639902/
  2. Neuroplasticity in response to cognitive behavior therapy for social anxiety disorder. (2016, February 2). NCBI. Retrieved January 12, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4872422/
  3. The neurocircuitry of fear, stress, and anxiety disorders. (n.d.). PubMed. Retrieved January 12, 2022, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19625997/
  4. Understanding the stress response. (n.d.). Harvard Health. Retrieved January 12, 2022, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
  5. Steimer, T. (n.d.). The biology of fear- and anxiety-related behaviors. NCBI. Retrieved January 12, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181681/
  6. Garcia, R. (n.d.). Neurobiology of fear and specific phobias. NCBI. Retrieved January 12, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5580526/
  7. NIMH » Anxiety Disorders. (n.d.). National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved January 12, 2022, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders
  8. Davis, P. (2018, August 17). What Is Your Stress Response Style? Psychology Today. Retrieved January 12, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/pressure-proof/201808/what-is-your-stress-response-style
  9. Neuroplasticity in response to cognitive behavior therapy for social anxiety disorder. (2016, February 2). NCBI. Retrieved January 12, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4872422/
  10. Cerf, M. (2017, November 19). Neuroscientists have identified how exactly a deep breath changes your mind. Quartz. Retrieved January 12, 2022, from https://qz.com/1132986/neuroscientists-have-identified-how-exactly-a-deep-breath-changes-your-mind/
  11. Albert, P. R. (n.d.). Adult neuroplasticity: A new “cure” for major depression? NCBI. Retrieved January 12, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6488487/

Dr. Diana Rangaves is a pharmacist, philanthropist, and ethics professor turned writer. An accomplished educator, award-winning teacher, and business professional, she uses her powers for good.


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1 Comment

  1. February 22, 2022 at 4:44 pm

    Lindsey

    Excellent article – very helpful, thank you for sharing.

    Reply

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