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Can I be less anxious?


Many today suffer from chronic anxiety and fear run amok. If you don’t suffer personally, you likely know someone that does. It’s not always easy to tell who among us is dealing with anxious brain. The fact that we have fight-or-flight when confronted with danger is a good thing. It keeps us safe. Anxiety, the ability to anticipate danger, is also a good thing. Fight-or-flight’s control center is the Amygdala (an almond sized structure in the brain) that sends a surge of adrenaline, an increase in blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension so we are prepared to act. This works great when we are facing a charging bear or a car veering into our lane on the highway. The problem is our Amygdala can be triggered even when we aren’t in real danger. This occurs as the Amygdala scans our thinking center (prefrontal cortex) for any potential “dangers” and looks for contrast to long established patterns. This can result in a fairly constant low-level alarm signal that we refer to as stress. We can literally get “stressed-out” by simply thinking something may go wrong and the associated flurry of in our thinking center picked up by the Amygdala. It’s virtually impossible to be at our best when the Amygdala is running things.

If this message is stressing you out, I apologize. There is good news! Brain rewiring is possible. Neuroscientists now offer, as an antidote to the fight-or-flight, “rest and digest”. The short of it is to prompt a relaxation response. This is often done through deep breathing. Sitting quietly and focusing on breathing activates the relaxation response. When combined with mindfulness, you have a powerful alternative to what the Amygdala triggers. Mindfulness adds the components of a non-judgmental attitude to emotions that arise and the acceptance of whatever happens. Mindfulness practices can really change the brain.

Possible questions for reflection:

  • When do I pause in my day to breathe deeply? Do I notice when I may be “holding” my breath.

  • What am I telling myself about this situation or person?

  • What judgments accompany my emotions? Do these thoughts bring me joy?

  • How accepting am I? Am I willing to simply notice what arises and accept it?

  • What am I focused on? Outcomes that matter or something to avoid?

  • Is a meditation practice something that could help me?

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