Regaining Control Over Anxiety
November 30, 2022
Written by Alan Bozman, PhD, Director of Clinical Services
Anxiety Around the Holidays
We all experience anxiety and, for many, the holidays can exacerbate feelings of anxiousness. To understand how anxiety can become problematic, you first need to understand your brain. I am not going to get too technical, but a general understanding of the brain can go a long way in helping those who struggle with anxiety begin to conquer it.
Understanding the Brain
There are two things you need to understand about your brain, the first is that your brain is a dynamic organ that changes in response to your experiences and your thoughts.
Use It or Lose It
The second is the “use it or lose it” principle applies to how and why the brain changes. “Use it or lose it” basically means that the brain will increase connections in areas that are frequently used and will prune (or decrease) connections in areas that are not frequently used.
Sympathetic vs Parasympathetic Nervous System
Many of you have heard about “fight, flight or freeze”. Our “fight, flight or freeze” response is initiated by the sympathetic nervous system when we perceive threats, real or imagined. Our parasympathetic nervous system works to restore balance. It is important for you to understand that these systems operate automatically. When a person perceives a threat, their sympathetic nervous system takes control and the higher functioning (logical thinking) areas of the brain are hijacked and unable to function well. So what does this have to do with anxiety? Simply put, the more we react to threats, real or imagined, the more the sympathetic nervous system develops and the more the parasympathetic nervous system is pruned.
What Causes Anxiety to Become Problematic?
As the survival response is strengthened and the calming response is weakened our “fight, flight or freeze” response happens more frequently with more intensity, even to smaller stressors. As time goes on, the ability to control the stress response becomes weaker. We get caught in a cyclical process that keeps us primed and anxious. If unchecked, the end result can be uncontrollable anxiety and panic attacks.
Understanding how anxiety can become problematic is important so people are able to learn how to undo an overdeveloped stress response, but it is important to remember anxiety issues do not happen overnight and cannot be fixed overnight. Anxiety disorders are frequently considered the most treatable of all psychological disorders, but it takes work!
The Four Pillars of Regaining Control
1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Threats or stressors can be real or imagined. How we think about and interpret the world around us has a lot to do with how the world impacts us. “Making mountains out of mole hills” is a sure way to increase our stress level. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is designed to help us understand how we think about our lives and the world, which can help balance perception vs. reality. Taking control of how you think about the world and learning to not over react is the first step towards regaining control. This is hard work because our ways of thinking are shaped over many years and it will take work to learn to balance those thoughts.
2. Take Control
Taking control of our environment is essential. What are the stressors in your life? Is social media bringing you down? Are your relationships stressful? Many of the common stressors in our lives are within our control to reduce or eliminate, but typically we don’t pause to take note of the things that are causing us stress so we can take healthy action. Making healthier choices day to day is essential to controlling anxiety.
Learn to relax. If you have significant anxiety, you have spent years building the areas of your brain that are responsible for your “fight, flight or freeze” response and years neglecting the systems that calm and restore you. We are a “go get it” culture. Most of us were never taught how to calm down and really relax. Ask yourself, “Have I forgotten how to relax?” There are many different forms of relaxation therapy (i.e. yoga, meditation, breathing exercises and more). Finding one that fits your lifestyle and adding it to your daily routine is the third pillar of healing.
Physical exercise. The stress response causes significant changes in our bodily functions, and the increase in adrenaline prepares us for physical activity. So, it makes sense to use physical activity to equalize and restore our bodies. Moderate exercise not only strengthens the body but it helps cleanse our body of many of the unwanted hormones and side effects of the stress response.
During this holiday season, when your stress level increases, remember there are many things you can do to combat anxiety and prevent it from becoming problematic. You have the power to reshape your brain and it is never too late to learn new things or change old patterns. Committing to the four pillars outlined here will help restore balance and equilibrium in your life.
As the Director of Clinical Services at HopeWay since 2016, Dr. Bozman serves as a leader for the clinical team, while managing the clinical schedule and program offerings. He also facilitates groups, provides individual therapy and administers psychological testing. Dr. Bozman is a clinical psychologist who specializes in individual, family, and group psychotherapy as well as psychological assessment. His career has included various leadership roles, program development and direct clinical work in all levels of care for adults and adolescents. He has also appeared on local talk shows, in the print media and on the radio as an expert in the field of psychology.
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