Retrain Your Brain: Tips for Combating Anxiety

Looking back on my life, I’m not certain there was ever a time I didn’t have some sort of anxiety or some kind of depression. Not stress. These two things get confused far too often, and it’s part of what causes a divide between understanding and ignorance.

We all have things that stress us out. Money. Jobs. Family. Friends. Life. When those things wake you up from a dead sleep in a cold sweat or prevent you from performing daily activities, it becomes a disorder like anxiety or depression. They call it a “disorder” because it causes disorder in your life, and I’ve had a disordered life for as long as I can remember.

When I was a kid, I remember being homesick at 4-H camp, but it wasn’t a normal homesick. I felt like I was suffocating. In retrospect, I think it was a series of panic attacks. It didn’t want to be home necessarily, but, more so, I was dreadfully uncomfortable with anything outside my normal routine.

As an adult, it’s still difficult for me to travel because I feel “homesick.” I’ve been to paradise several times — surrounded by turquoise waters and white sands. I could never truly enjoy it because of crippling anxiety.

Once, I was snorkeling off the coast of Puerto Rico following a sea turtle as it grazed on a bed of kelp. When I raised my head from the water, I panicked realizing I wasn’t as close to shore as I would’ve liked. I began to hyperventilate, and my legs rapidly began to feel like cement blocks. As a former lifeguard, I had the capability to easily swim to shore but because my anxiety had initialized a series of physiological reactions, my mind had difficulty trying to reason.

I could’ve drowned that day. However, over the last thirty-six years, I’ve developed coping mechanisms to help me survive in situations like this. I pointed myself towards the shore, tucked my head into the water, and followed the sand bar back to shore counting each beautiful fish along the way. When severe panic sets in, I find sequence in things around me and count them.

You see, when you’re in a state of panic, the limbic system portion of the brain takes over. This area is tasked with responding to basic emotions, such as pleasure and anger. It is also where our fears reside. However, when you use any sort of problem solving skills or deductive reasoning, you switch to engaging the frontal lobe. By counting, I’m able to switch from one area of the brain to another. With this switch, cortisol is reduced, which decreases heart rate, lowers adrenaline levels, and evokes a calmer and more linear stream of thought. When I worked on the Behavioral Health Unit at Boulder Community Hospital, this was one piece of advice I would give patients who were in the throes of anxiety or panic attacks. It’s highly effective.

Another method I’ve used is called grounding, a technique in which you bring your attention to something physical happening in the present to distract yourself from anxious thinking. Whether it’s rubbing your feet on the carpet or holding an ice cube in your hands, you can trick your brain into another level of thought. Grounding brings you into the present moment, which is key when you’re in an anxious state, and, like the counting technique, distracts your limbic system.

When we think about the past, it can be associated with guilt or regret, which can trigger depression. Similarly, when we think about what could or couldn’t happen in the future, it can create worry and, in turn, anxiety. However, staying in the present encourages gratitude for what is right in front of us. I have a lot to be thankful for, but if I don’t remind my brain of those things everyday, I tend to feel more anxious and/or depressed. One app I absolutely love is called Five Minute Journal. Check it out. It seriously only takes five minutes a day to plug in your gratitude and start your day off on the right foot.

Dealing with depression, anxiety, or any type of mental health problem can be incredibly overwhelming. I know this firsthand, and I believe that’s why it’s so important to talk about it especially for people who don’t have experience with it. Even if you’re not suffering at the moment, you’ve probably known a time when you could relate. We need to keep this dialogue open not just for our own health but for the health of future generations. Disorders of the brain are still taboo in our society, but if we continue to speak up and educate others, we can continue to break down the stigma attached to mental illness.

I once read this quote and it has stuck with me ever since: “Everyone is fighting a battle that you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” That being said, take care of yourself, but be patient with others.

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