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Retrain your anxious brain

3 steps to reset the anxiety response and re-wire the brain

Step 1. Understanding your brain:

Understanding yourself, and responding with acceptance and compassion instead of fear and dread is the first step.

Often when we have an anxiety response over something we feel isn’t logical, or rational – we don’t understand it, but it feels BIG! You’re having this response for a good reason. Your brain is telling you there is danger.

The amygdala is like the brains smoke detector, it is always on alert scanning for danger. The amygdala goes off when it senses danger and starts a powerful fight, flight or freeze reaction in the body that bi-passes the pre-frontal cortex (rational, logical part of the brain). This is a sub-conscious automated response intended to keep us alive.

The amygdala is responsible for the formation and storage of memories associated with emotions such as anxiety and fear. Once triggered you need to wait until the off button is activated. If you have experienced prolonged periods of stress and anxiety, you’ve probably developed a very sensitive amygdala. In other words, your smoke detector is reading false positives and going off all the time.

The amygdala responds to perceived fears whether or not they are real or imagined. If you thought that stick on the path was a snake, or you have a near miss in the car, the body reacts the same way. Over time the brain can become conditioned to fear responses that happen multiple times. Now the fear response is now going off automatically like a smoke detector alarming at steam.

This sensitivity can lead to generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, phobias PTSD, or obsessions /compulsions (OCD), a fear conditioning response that happens in the amygdala.

The way out of this loop is to learn to calm the body down and turn off the emergency response as soon as possible, and train your brain to have a different response with new memories and associations.

First you need to develop awareness of triggers and compassion for yourself. You may need support with this from a suitably qualified therapist.

Step 2.Turn off the emergency response

Try grounding exercises:

Look around the room, notice the colours, the people, the shapes of things.

Listen to and really notice the sounds around you: the traffic, voices, washing machine, music etc.

Notice your body, the boundary of your skin, how your clothes feel on your skin, movement in your hair as you move your head, really feel the chair or floor supporting you – how that feels in your feet, your legs, your body.

Stand up and put your feet firmly on the ground

Move about: stretch, stamp your feet, jump up and down, dance, run on the spot, rub your arms and legs, clap your hands, walk.

Try deeply relaxing yogi breathing :

Abdominal breathing: place the right hand on their lower abdomen, and left hand on the centre of the chest. Feel the right hand move up with the inhale as the abdomen rises and falls. Trying not to force the breath, or contract the abdomen in any way. The left hand remains still as the chest is passive, shoulders relaxed and belly soft.

Count the number of seconds it takes to breath in and match the out breath. then, extend exhale by gently making the out breath longer.

Try progressive muscle relaxation:

To release tension from head to toe, close the eyes and focus on tensing and relaxing each muscle group for two to three seconds each. Start with the feet and toes, then move up to the knees, thighs, rear, chest, arms, hands, neck, jaw and eyes — all while maintaining deep, slow breaths.

To continue with the theme of breath awareness try a meditation that focuses on breath. Focusing on the sensations produced as air rushes in through the nostrils, down the back of the throat, and in to the lungs. Noticing where the breath moves into the chest, and abdomen. Attention is paid to the natural rhythm and pace of the inhale and exhale, noticing the full expression of the breath. Stay focused. If your mind wonders bring it back. Try counting each breath or a Mantra: say quietly to yourself “inhale I relax” as you breath in and “exhale I let go” as you breath out.

Step 3. Retrain your brain

The adult brain remains open to change throughout its lifespan. Most people pay little attention to the flow of thoughts, yet what flows through our mind literally sculpts our brain. Our unconscious mental programs (or thought, feelings and core beliefs) influence the way we think, feel and behave. These mental programs are usually formed in childhood, and if we are unaware or haven’t updated them we may not realize that these beliefs no longer serve us. We can be unknowingly run by old beliefs, worn out faulty thinking and repetitive habits that are long overdue for a renovation.

You’ll probably need the help of a therapist to retrain your brain using mindfulness-based psychotherapy, hypnotherapy or brainspotting techniques. Using the skills you’ve learnt above plus some more mindfulness based interventions you can retrain your physical response to a perceived threat. Re-wiring the brain using neuroplastic training takes a while, but with patience and persistence you can learn to overcome your fears and anxious responses.

Heather Cavill Greer is a Mindfulness-based Psychotherapist and Clinical hypnotherapist with many years’ experience. Heather offers one on one sessions in meditation, Mindfulness-based Psychotherapy, Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Clinical Hypnosis, most people feel better within 3-6 sessions.

For a free 20 minute consultation either call or book with Heather on 0405 821 880.

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