Imagine a train racing towards you at top speed, and there you are, stuck on the tracks, a human target. Your heart races, your muscles tense, your body starts shaking, and your breath becomes labored as worry consumes your mind and manifests throughout your body. Intense, right? For the nearly 20 percent of people in the U.S. affected by an anxiety disorder every year, this is what anxiety can feel like.
Psychiatrist Grant H. Brenner M.D., FAPA, co-founder of Neighborhood Psychiatry in Manhattan describes anxiety as a dreadful feeling of unease and worry, perpetuated by fear, that often comes with repetitive negative thinking.
As you’re experiencing it, you can have difficulty concentrating and making decisions. Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, chances are you’ve felt the heart pound at some point and know the struggle is real.
What’s Going On In The Brain?
“In states of anxiety, the brain is affected by stress hormones like cortisol and excitatory neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine,” Dr. Brenner says. “These factors can lead to a decreased ability to regulate negative emotions, excessive negative thinking, and difficulty relaxing,” he says.
At the same time, the amygdala, or the emotion center of the brain, becomes overactive, which makes it harder for higher brain centers (those in charge of cognitive functions like learning and memory) to regulate emotional and physiologic states to calm down mentally and physically, Dr. Brenner says.
“The amygdala decides what emotions to give you from moment to moment by providing a constant threat assessment about your environment,” says psychologist Michael Stein, Psy.D. of Anxiety Solutions of Denver. “When it determines something isn’t dangerous, it does nothing and you feel calm. When it looks at something it perceives as dangerous, it rings an alarm to warn you about the danger and motivates you to do something about it—that’s what anxiety is, it’s the alarm system.”
For someone with a fear of dogs, for example, when they see a dog, the amygdala rings the alarm and tells them the dog is dangerous, and the person becomes anxious. That motivates them to get away from the dog. When the danger is gone, the alarm shuts off and the anxiety goes from high to low.
“We as humans are wired to repeat actions that make us feel good and stop actions that make us feel bad,” Dr. Stein says. “Because the anxiety went from high to low by running away from the dog, this kind of avoidance behavior becomes reinforced and we’re more likely to repeat the same behavior the next time we see a dog,” he says. “It’s an evolutionary response; the body says, ‘anxiety kept me safe, I better get anxiety again.’”
Why Does Anxiety Keep Coming Back?
When the body experiences symptoms of anxiety, the brain interprets these signals from the body as cause for concern, worsening anxiety by creating a vicious cycle, Dr. Brenner says. “The more anxious we get, the more nervous we feel; the more nervous we feel, the more anxious we get,” he says.
The important thing to know is not why you have anxiety in the first place, but what’s maintaining it now. “The basic idea is short-term avoidance of anxiety leads to long-term maintenance of anxiety,” Dr. Stein says. “When someone tries to make themselves feel better in the moment (avoiding a dog), it guarantees more anxiety the next time they’re in a similar situation,” he says.
How to Calm Anxiety When It Arises
By practicing a few helpful strategies on the regular, when a bout of anxiety strike, you’ll be more likely to get in the habit of doing them automatically—and dial down your angst.
- Go for a change of scenery. Rather than sitting at home, go out for a brisk walk. “In many cases, anxiety creates a rigid mindset in which it seems like nothing can change; doing something different can help with cognitive flexibility to shift gears,” Dr. Brenner says. Think of it is stretching before a workout.
- Chew gum. Sounds nuts, right? We know dentists recommend chewing sugarless gum after meals to reduce plaque, but now, research shows popping in a piece may also help reduce anxiety. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why, but they believe it’s because the act of chewing increases blood flow to the brain and may lower cortisol levels.
- Accept the angst. When you’re feeling anxious, instead of practicing avoidance behaviors (running away from the dog) or over-analyzing the fear in your head (what happens if the dog bites me?) allow the uncertainty to be there and leave those worry questions unanswered, Dr. Stein says. “Opening yourself up to ambiguity gives you exposure to uncertainty without avoidance, and the brain eventually learns uncertainty isn’t actually dangerous.”
- Come back to the present moment. Let’s say you’re in the middle of reading a book and suddenly your mind wanders and you start worrying, “What if I don’t have enough money for retirement.” This is where mindfulness comes in. “Stop putting work into the thought and come back to what you’re doing in the present—reading a book,” Dr. Stein says. It’s about letting the thought go, which is different from avoiding it, so you ultimately become desensitized to it.
- Exercise. According to research, it really can do wonders for the mind—from helping the brain better cope with stress to releasing endorphins, natural painkilling chemicals in the brain, which improve sleep and reduces stress. Get moving, even a 15-minute home dance sesh a day to your favorite tracks can improve your anxious mood.