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Your Brain on Anxiety, Stress & Worry (and what to do!)

Did you know that while everybody experiences some level of anxiety, 23% of Canadians aged 15 or older report most days as quite or extremely stressful (Statistics Canada, 2012).

What exactly is anxiety?
Anxiety is a natural danger alerting response which includes:

  • body sensations (e.g., increased heart rate, tight chest)
  • behaviour (e.g., talking fast, avoiding/withdrawing)
  • emotions (e.g., worry, fear) and
  • thought patterns (ruminating, “What if?!”)

It is important to differentiate these responses in order to identify what one is exactly experiencing. Stress is the physical response by the nervous system to a threat or challenge. Worry is the cognitive or thinking part of anxiety. Anxiety is the emotional and physical stress response before or after a challenge.  Fear is what we feel/sense when responding to an immediate threat.

As we know, there is good and bad stress. The right type of stress or challenge is called ‘stimulation.’ It serves to motivate and teach us; aids in personal growth. However, chronic physiological stress results in psychology stress which overloads our resources leading to anxiety.

How does our brain react to stress?  Our reptilian (instinctual and survival) lower brainstem receives messages from our body and kicks into ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ mode.

The mid-brain emotional limbic system, with its amygdala acting as a modular, assigns emotional significance to events.

Our higher brain (pre-frontal cortex) integrates messages from other areas of the brain in order to make meaning/sense of such information and subsequently, makes decisions.

When too much information hits one region of the brain this causes disruptions and can lead to being stuck in our higher, mid or lower brain.

What to do?
When we are caught in our lower brain we need to tap into our body and its sensations. Deep breathing, body scans, identifying sights/sounds/tastes/smells and touch, stretching, tensing and releasing muscles (get out that stress ball!), and rhythmic movements all help ground us. When caught in ‘flight,’ slow down, don’t make any hasty decisions, and be patient.

We can calm the mid-brain amygdala by naming the emotionsthat we are experiencing, even scaling them from 0-10. Use imagination to kick into the higher brain. Imagine a safe soothing place and try to feel what it would be like being there. Write down or draw how you are feeling.

When caught in higher brain ruminating, we need to interrupt or stop the worrying loop. Here we literally say ‘stop’ and redirect our thoughts to something else. Intentional distractions (e.g. music, walk, positive affirmations, talk aloud, puzzles) done mindfully help shift focus away from anxious thinking. Do a reality check with regards to your beliefs around the situation. Identify what you can and cannot control, and take the necessary steps/actions you can.

A combination of the above tactics, done throughout the day when not anxious, helps increase the gap between our current stress level and our anxiety threshold level. And, when anxiety does happen, we are better practiced at handling it.

An excellent 5 min video (Your Brain on Stress & Anxiety) can be found here:

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Diane Hancox, MA, CCC provides counselling services to Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Nanaimo and Vancouver Island.