A quick search on the web for statistics on rising anxiety around the world screams trouble. It is fast becoming a thick smog within and all around us that we do not recognise until it is too late.
While in the short term, the anticipatory stress response helps us cope by fighting or creating foresight to escape trouble, in the long term, it damages our core. Whether it is visualising a confrontation with a giant reptile, or a more diffused dread of something terrible about to happen, feeling like this all the time impacts our health and the quality of our life. The health loss and cost in terms of impact on the brain, body, mind, relationships and productivity is significant.
Experts predict a daunting increase in cases of anxiety disorders within the next decade. I believe it has already begun. I wish to create awareness and most deliberately alarm you, about our near-constant alarm response.
Instead of allowing this to lead us into a global mental health crisis, we can actively intervene to make things better with some arrows still in the quiver.
There are many approaches to reducing anxiety and preventing or treating anxiety disorders. Mindfulness, conscious cognition and neuro-plasticity are three empowering and healing tools. The key common factor is self-work.
The cognitive approach
Imagine you open up your picnic basket in the park. You pull out a peach and notice it is dented on one side and the other side is an oozing brown pulp. You immediately decide you don’t want to consume it and put it in garbage. This is because on observation, you know this apple is unhealthy and even risky to consume. Unfortunately, we don’t practise conscious observation of the thoughts we consume, even if they are rotten, unhealthy and risky for us. This is understandable, because we don’t get to hold and see our thoughts.
What if I told you we can? Becoming conscious of our thoughts, by listening to what we say to ourselves, we can consciously shed off some of our cognitive rigidities and unconstructive thinking. These are the ‘musts’, ‘shoulds’, ‘ought-tos’, or ‘have-tos’ dialogues we have with ourselves. Beliefs about perfection and control, seeking guarantees and demanding certainties chip away at us, because these are all embedded in self-created, inflicted and constructed rules and imaginations. A quick check for rationality and disputation of such rigidities by simply asking yourself, ‘Says who!?’, or ‘How do I know for sure?’ can be a worthy rebuttal.
The mindfulness approach
This is a practice that is much spoken about. But in my experience, not enlisted with clear to-dos. For this one, allow me to give you a step by step coping tool.
Meditation and learning to breathe correctly can relieve anxiety; this is an established evidence-based finding. Focused, deep breathing impacts our brain function, neuronal health, hormones, memory, judgment, immunity, and cuts down the impact of stress. This is where we start.
1. Take a deep nasal inhalation and powerfully exhale. With continued breathing, bring your focus to any aspect of this process, the air being inhaled, the chest rising, the belly expanding or the air exhaled.
2. As we continue to breathe, recognise the big waves of our thoughts gradually becoming more visible or audible to us. This is a powerful stage of becoming aware or conscious of our cognition.
3. The next step is to attempt to get a thought-pause or sustain-silence in the mind. This can be done by keeping focus on breathing, or our thoughts slowly being washed away and creating moments of pause or blank. Don’t be too hard on yourself if these don’t last too long. A pause is enough and with consistent practice, these moments can be prolonged.
4. A blank is not appreciated by nature. It rushes into a vacuum in some form to fill it and give it meaning. Instead of allowing irrational thoughts about the past or the future, keep cognitive focus on the present — thoughts of the now — which help us feel functional emotions and restore and empower us.
Since anxiety is caused by thought about the future, being conscious of the present is an incredibly powerful exercise that dissipates anxiety effectively.
5. Further planting the seed or intention of being grateful for this moment, as is, without wanting to change anything, is deeply healing. Nurture and practise this intention to keep anxiety at bay.
The neuro-plasticity approach
Not until long ago, the brain was assumed to be fully-formed in childhood and developed by adolescence.
Over the years, research has proved otherwise. ‘Neuro-plasticity’ is our brain’s ability to rewire itself. Thus, it can keep developing and changing throughout our life.
Researchers observed via brain imaging that after studying the map of London for a period of time for an exam, the London cab drivers had more number of neuronal connections, and their brain changed.
Findings have shown post accidents or trauma, while people lose function of a part of their brain leading to loss of speech or memory or a motor function, with consistent therapy and rehabilitation, the lost brain functions can be reignited.
It is established that we are dynamic and evolving as a species. So how can this help anxiety?
Identify your perception that disturbs you. Let us take public speaking as an example. There is one particular way you have thought of this trigger for many years: “I will most certainly make a mistake or forget what I have to say” or “people will laugh at me”. Can we speak to ourselves differently, such that a different neuronal pathway is fired? Take a different perception, deliberately, intentionally and consistently to establish a new cellular circuitry and practise it.
This changes the way your brain is used to perceiving the trigger. The presentation, speech or debate among a crowd can then start seeming less threatening or anxiety-provoking.
Neuro-plasticity can be encouraged and practised on a daily basis keeping our brains active, learning and growing. This helps with release of happy hormones in the body. Some such exercises are learning new information, a new language, playing new games, learning a new craft, making art or music.
Anxiety is a difficult emotion. When it interferes with our functionality, we need to yield and take support from trained professionals to help us cope. Just as we accept and navigate many other difficulties in our lives, begin with understanding the nuances of problems to effectively solve, learn and resolve.