Health & Wellness

Train Your Mind to Lower Stress: The Relationship Between Anxiety and The Brain

It’s really no secret that stress is extremely common these days. Whether it’s work-related or concerns about your health, partner or spouse, children, or finances, it seems that everywhere you turn, there’s one more stressor waiting for you, right? But what if I told you that you have the power to reduce the impact stress has on you—and it all has to do with the link between anxiety and the brain?

You see, the truth is that you can actually change the way you respond to stress, which can help to reduce your anxiety and other common stress-related health concerns. And it all starts in your brain. Fascinating, isn’t it?

In previous articles, I’ve discussed the power of practices such as meditation and reframing your mind to reduce stress and anxiety. Now, we’re going to take a closer look at how you can utilize these tools and more to actually change the way you think about and respond to stress. You’ll finally be able to tap into a deeper understanding and find the peace your body so desperately craves—all by learning about the relationship between anxiety and the brain and discovering ways you can take control of it!

 

The Relationship Between Anxiety and the Brain

The relationship between anxiety and the brain is a fascinating one. As I recently shared, chronic high cortisol levels have been shown to have toxic effects on your brain over time. [1] How? Well, anytime you experience a highly stressful event, your cortisol rises, causing your body to enter the fight-or-flight mode. And when this happens, it sets off a chain of events inside your brain.

Basically, when your body enters fight-or-flight, it sends a message to your amygdala (the part of your brain responsible for processing emotions such as fear, happiness, and more). Anytime your amygdala is signaled, this impacts the area of your brain associated with learning and memory. Why? Well, in order to respond to a stressful event, your brain needs to process and fully understand what’s happening.

As we’ve discussed before, this process is helpful with short-term bouts of stress. But when it happens consistently over long periods of time, it actually damages your brain, resulting in short-term memory loss and inattention to detail. Scary, right?

Now, here’s where it gets really interesting in relation to anxiety and the brain. If you were to encounter an immediate stressor, such as a bear during a walk in the woods, your amygdala would signal fear so that you could react and run away. Keep in mind that fear is an immediate, short-term response that goes away once the stressor causing it is gone. But anxiety is different. Anxiety is a less intense but longer-lasting response to a stressor, making it more of a chronic stress issue.

And studies have shown that chronic stress increases emotional responses such as fear and anxiety, in part through the effects on the amygdala. These effects are likely to lead to over-active fear and anxiety and also decrease the function of the areas of your brain responsible for keeping your fear in check and suppressing your amygdala’s output. These areas include your hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex. [2]

Why does this matter? Well, scientists have discovered that when your brain is constantly exposed to high amounts of the stress hormone cortisol and norepinephrine, it causes your hippocampus to shrink! [3] And this further inhibits its ability to regulate your amygdala, resulting in increased anxiety.

Luckily, there natural therapies and practices you can do to prevent this chain of events that results in an overactive amygdala and underactive hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex. You can impact the relationship between anxiety and the brain—all by learning how to retrain how your mind reacts to stressful events and situations.

3 Tips to Retrain Your Mind

I want to share with you some great tips I’ve learned along the way that have helped me to actually retrain my mind to better respond and handle stressful situations. I hope you find them helpful and that you start to see some health benefits as a result.

1. Reframe your situation.

As we’ve discussed, anxiety and the brain are inextricably linked. So, how can you better respond to stress so that you not only decrease your anxiety and find more peace but also boost your brain health? It’s actually a pretty simple tip … in theory.

The first step to achieving a more peaceful life?  Ask yourself if this stressful situation is worth sacrificing your health. This tip is what I call the art of reframing your situation. And here’s how it works.

During times of stress, it’s easy to let your mind wander to all the possible negative effects or outcomes. But all that does is lead to anxiety, which is exactly what you’re trying to avoid. The next time you encounter a stressful or worrisome situation, I want you to try to stop and truly ask yourself if worrying about the situation is truly worth the potential impact it will have on your brain and your overall health.

Once you decide that it isn’t, I want you to try to reframe the situation. What does that mean? Well, instead of thinking of all the negative potential outcomes, try to consider a positive impact the situation could have. One great example is that even if you failed at something you tried, you likely learned something from the process, which will help to set you up for success next time.

If an opportunity didn’t come your way, perhaps there’s something better waiting just around the corner. So, ask yourself what you can start doing today to be proactive so that you’re ready for that next opportunity.

Now, if you find that you’re struggling, try writing down a few things you’re grateful for to help set the stage for a more positive approach. Or you can call a friend for a pep talk. Oftentimes, just surrounding yourself with positivity will help you to get into the right mindset to reframe your situation.

The health benefits? First, you won’t be overstimulating your amygdala and setting yourself up for even more anxiety. And second, studies have shown that simply having a positive mindset makes your brain work more efficiently! [4]

 

Anxiety and the brain - Dr. Pingel

 

2. Live in the moment.

With our busy and hectic lives, it can be hard to just stop, take in the moment, and appreciate it for what it is. But if you want to improve that link between anxiety and the brain, that’s exactly what you need to do.

Now, I know that can be easier said than done, and that’s why I recommend trying meditation and/or deep breathing exercises to get you into the swing of things. The truth of the matter is that deep breathing and meditation are both great exercises to help decrease anxiety and stress, which will help to put your mind at ease. They work by instantly calming both your mind and body. [5]

By helping you to re-center your mind, practicing deep breathing exercises can help you to become more mindful and learn to live in the moment. Here are four of my favorite deep breathing exercises to get you started.

And when it comes to meditation, you may be surprised to learn that it’s actually been shown to decrease the activity in your brain that’s responsible for mind-wandering! This means that meditating actually helps you be in the moment more often.

In fact, studies have shown that people who meditate on a regular basis are able to control their mind-wandering better than those who don’t. [6] Furthermore, researchers have found that people who experience mind-wandering tend to be unhappier and more prone to worry. So, learning how to stay in the moment can actually help you feel happier and less stressed, which only further improves that connection between anxiety and the brain. [7]

3. Schedule some down time to relax.

I know that it may sound almost impossible, but one of the best tips I have for improving the link anxiety and the brain is to take some time for yourself. The great news is that once you start implementing the two tips above, this one will become so much easier!

Think about it: Once you’re able to reduce the worry and stress a little and focus on happier thoughts, your anxiety won’t prevent you from taking a little time to rest, relax, and restore.

Why is this so important? Well, research has shown that chronic stress and anxiety can actually damage your brain, making it more vulnerable to neurogenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. [8]

Fortunately, additional research has shown that regularly engaging in relaxing activities can actually rewire your brain to help calm down your stress reactions. [9]

 

So, as you can see, you do have the power to control the link between anxiety and the brain. And it all begins with taking a few moments to reframe your situation, practice some mind-body techniques, and remember to take some time to relax and restore.

 

Key Takeaways

  • You can reduce the impact stress has on you—and it all has to do with the link between anxiety and the brain.
  • Anytime you experience a highly stressful event, your cortisol rises, setting off a chain of events inside your brain.
  • When your brain is constantly exposed to high amounts of the stress hormone cortisol and norepinephrine, it causes your hippocampus to shrink! This further inhibits its ability to regulate your amygdala, resulting in increased anxiety.
  • Natural therapies and practices you can do to prevent this chain of events include: reframing your situation, learning to live in the moment, and scheduling some down time to relax and restore.

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