How to protect your brain from the effects of Stress & Anxiety in today’s world.
We are living in a very strange time, life has changed on various levels and we are all being affected by health concerns, financial worries, lack of motivation, grief, isolation, anxiety, depression, and an overall reduced sense of wellbeing. But it is possible to manage our anxiety and brain health and not let stress overwhelm us.
One way of containing anxiety is to understand its triggers and how it physically affects your body (and health!). Cognitive behaviour therapy expert Christine Padesky suggests that there are two ingredients to anxiety: our estimation of threat and our judgement of our capacity to cope.
So what is threat?
We go about our days with our perfectly synchronised brains, our prefrontal cortex (the ‘CEO’ of the brain) helping us make logical, rational decisions, and allowing us to behave like the sophisticatedly evolved species that we are. But we also share some primitive behaviours with our animal relatives – when we are under threat, our more primitive limbic system (also known as our ‘monkey brain’) responsible for arousal, emotions and memories, comes online and triggers a fight and flight response.
This fight or flight mechanism is there so we don’t need to think when we are in real danger, instead we can just quickly flee, freeze or stay and fight. Our heart rate increases, our breathing becomes shallow, our digestive system will flood up with acid to shut down digestion, our blood circulation will send most of its volume to our arms and legs, to get us pumped and ready to fight or flight an imaginary predator. This means that you have less blood levels in your brain, so you’re not thinking as coherently, your prefrontal cortex takes a backseat and you’re acting on pure instinct to save your life.
This series of chemical and physical reactions are actually very good for you – it’s part of a clever evolutionary system that is there to save your life if you have to deal with a predator threat in the wild.
But if your daily priorities are work, deadlines, meetings, kids, family life, staying on top of your health, or dealing with the personal impacts of a global pandemic, then this fight or flight response has actually become maladaptive. You are constantly being prevented from performing from a place of logic and mental clarity.
So how can this knowledge help you?
In times like this, it can be helpful to shift our focus to what we can do, because here’s the catch: nothing was ever certain, we just lived under an illusion of control, of a somewhat secure reality. The truth is that we never had anything but ‘right now’.
The physical symptoms of anxiety are an evolutionary response to threat. You can use this knowledge to reverse it, rather than letting the negative spiral of stress and anxiety take over. Shallow breathing signals to your brain that you’re in danger – so reverse it by learning simple but powerful breathing techniques. One easy exercise is to simply inhale for 4 seconds and exhale for 8 – always make your exhale longer than the inhale, as this will trigger your parasympathetic nervous system (the system of calm) to kick in and your heartbeat to slow down.
On top of the physical threat of catching the virus, the perceived threat that we are all collectively experiencing is largely psychological. We humans are not very good at dealing with the unknown, our brain is very good at filling any void with imagined scenarios, often negative, causing anxiety to go through the roof. Simple grounding techniques can be very useful in decreasing our fight and flight response.
Ask yourself: are you in danger right now? Take a few slow deep breaths and then repeat to yourself a few times “in this moment I am safe”. You can also look around and focus on specific features of the room or environment that you’re in (how many blue objects can I spot?). The aim is to ground yourself in the present moment, in the right now. This will help reduce the focus on the perceived anxiety (which is often our brain imaging the worst-case scenario over and over) which isn’t part of the actual present.
Another incredibly powerful way to keep your cortisol and adrenaline production down is having a regular meditation practice. When you meditate, you are in the calmest state your mind and body can ever experience. Scientific studies have found that frequent meditators experience an increase of 64% of dopamine levels that last for at least one hour after meditating, compared to only resting quietly. This is going to give some of your brain and body back so you can have more clarity of mind and more energy in your daily living.
A frequent mindfulness and meditation practice can literally change how your brain is connected and wired, so you can better respond to anxiety, stress, depression, low mood, whilst also boosting levels of productivity, drive, emotional resilience and creativity.
Last but not least; you won’t improve your stress and anxiety levels by compulsively looking at your phone/computer screen or using your device to push your anxious feelings away and numb out. Make a conscious effort to put your phone down, each time you pick it up out of habit, ask yourself: is there a legitimate need for me to be looking at my phone? Go spend time with someone you love or doing something you enjoy instead!