10 May How we can avoid Anxiety!

Anxiety is one of the most prevalent and debilitating conditions faced in today’s world. With the increase in stress and chaos in today’s world, finding solace and comfort can be difficult at times. Mindfulness practice not only helps with coping with anxiety, but also physically reduces the size of the amygdala; the part of the brain that activates the “fight-or-flight” response and thus triggering anxiety and stress.

Researchers point out that what we call “anxiety” is actually three interrelated processes: physiological, cognitive, and behavioral.

We experience the physiological aspect of anxiety as sensations in our body. These can include a racing heart, shallow breath, lightheaded, clammy hands, restlessness, fatigue, trembling, muscle tension, or a “lump in the throat,” as well as headaches, stomachaches, backaches, and a variety of other stress-related medical problems. These effects can be subtle—maybe you just feel a little embarrassed about repeatedly clearing your throat when you have to talk to a difficult customer, or find yourself fidgeting in the waiting room before your doctor’s appointment.

The cognitive aspect of anxiety shows up as worried thoughts about the future—imagining disasters of all sorts and thinking about ways to avoid them. Perhaps on the phone with that customer a little tape in the back of your mind tells you that he thinks you’re stupid, or you decide in the waiting room that your headache is really a brain tumor.

The third aspect of anxiety involves avoidance behavior. Not surprisingly, people try to avoid situations that bring on unpleasant physiological reactions and painful thoughts. So when we’re anxious, we wind up limiting our lives, avoiding the activities and situations that we expect will make us more anxious. Unfortunately, this generally makes matters worse. Not only do we get into trouble by hiding from the customer or putting off medical care, but avoid what we fear tends to reinforce the idea that it’s actually dangerous.

Research shows that mindfulness practice shrinks the amygdala and also weakens connections between the amygdala and pre-frontal cortex. This means that over time we become less reactive to perceived threats and more able to think about how we’d like to respond. For example, when our partner does something that usually triggers a fight-or-flight response (i.e. makes a comment that we perceive as critical or embarrassing, yet isn’t meant as such), we can react more calmly and not in a way that then descends into an unnecessary falling-out.

Once we’ve recognized a change in our mood, like an onslaught of disproportionate rage or depression, we can then apply some helpful mindfulness techniques.

This could be focusing on the breath while we observe our amygdala-triggered thoughts. Any time that we notice our minds getting stuck, we gently bring the attention back to the breath, and continue to breathe through the reaction until it passes. Remember that the emotional reaction isn’t wrong or bad, but at the same time, if the reaction isn’t appropriate or helpful to the situation then it’s better to let it pass.

We might also try using mindfulness ‘anchors’ around us to help us come back to the moment. For example, try focusing on sounds, sights or other physical sensations that can help ground you in the present, again noticing where the mind goes, and each time gently and kindly bringing it back to your point of focus.

It’s useful to view this practice as a form of self-care. By taking proactive steps to guide ourselves through amygdala reactions, we can not only save ourselves from the harmful effects of prolonged stress in the body, but we can also avoid further negative or destructive situations occurring because of our fight-or-flight responses.

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