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How Anxiety Affects Your Brain – Part 2 of 2

In the last post, part 1 of 2, I talked about the biological basis for anxiety.  Like all negative feelings, anxiety can work for us, when it gives us energy to address problems.  But that’s where the usefulness of anxiety generally ends – if there’s nothing you can do about a problem, right now, then continuing to think about it will probably not be helpful.

Unfortunately, that is a hard message to communicate to our minds, when we feel worried.  Anxiety makes us FEEL like we are doing something, and that is comforting to us, on some level – and so we keep worrying, as though we are afraid that we’ll forget about a problem if we don’t keep thinking about it.

So what can you DO about your worries?

  1.  Recognize worries for what they are.  Under stress, all of us are prone to something called Cognitive Distortions.  “I’ve had a lot of headaches recently… What if it’s a brain tumor?”  “We were late paying our mortgage last month… Can the bank start to foreclose on us?”  You can often identify an anxious thought by its extreme nature.  Experts talk about Cognitive Distortions being characterized by catastrophes, worst-case scenarios, and all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking.
  2. Anxiety is always seeking comfort, wanting to know that “Everything is going to be okay.”  But living with anxiety can be like having an itch that you can’t scratch – it’s always just out of reach, and you keep telling yourself that maybe you’ll reach it, this next time.  Another metaphor is that anxiety is like playing Whack-A-Mole – just when you think you have taken care of a problem, another problem pops up.  So, if you find yourself thinking, “If I could just get some reassurance about this ONE thing, then I could feel better,” then you can bet that you are dealing with anxiety.  That is especially true if that thought about reassurance comes up multiple times each day or each week.
  3. Give yourself permission to feel more than one thing about a situation.  “I’m sad about my uncle being sick, AND I’m grateful for all the good years we have had, and for the ways that our family members are supporting each other.”  “I’m not making as much money as I’d like to make, AND I am working hard, making progress, and heading in the right direction.”  “I have some health concerns, AND all things considered, I’m doing pretty well.”
  4. It may be hard to adjust to seeing shades of grey, instead of seeing black and white.  But the more we can do that, the more we can stay balanced, not needing life to be perfect in order to feel content.  And the more we can be comfortable with things NOT being just right, the more our brains can relax and stop over-reacting.  We can realize that we don’t need to stay hyper-vigilant, which is the natural response to the Fight-or-Flight state of mind.  Slowly, we can learn to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten is to write down what is on my mind, when I feel worried and overwhelmed.  Simply making a list of my worries is a way to soothe the part of my brain that is irrationally afraid that I will forget about something important.  Over time, you may see patterns in what is on your mind, and these insights can be topics of conversation with a close friend or a therapist.

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