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Rewiring the Anxious Brain - Neuroplasticity and the Anxiety Cycle(Anxiety Skills #21)



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So here is the amazing thing about your brain, it's made to rewire itself all the time.

This is called neuroplasticity.

Scientists used to think that after childhood our brain was pretty much locked in place,

but now that we have better imaging technology, we can literally see how the brain changes

depending on how we use it.

So, in this video I'm going to talk about one very simple thing you can do to rewire

your brain to be less anxious, and it is simple, but it's not easy.

So I'm also going to share three steps you can take to make it happen, and share ten

extra skill you can develop on your own, or with a therapist, to build up your ability

to take control of your anxiety.

And if you would like to learn more in depth information about how treat your anxiety,

I've got a course on Udemy that I am working on called "Rewiring the anxious brain", so

you can also check out that link in the description.

So, let's start off with one example of neuroplasticity.

In London the taxi drivers have this super difficult exam where they have to prepare

by memorizing all of the streets and events and locations in this huge city.

Researchers took images of their brain before they started studying, and after this two

year process and they were literally able to see the new neural connections, the wiring

that changed in the brain.

And there's good evidence that changing how you think, like going to therapy, can actually

change the structure of your brain and the types of chemicals that it's pumping out.

Our brain has an amazing ability to rewire itself to learn, grow, and heal.

So, let's talk about how to do that with anxiety.

If we want to change how our brain processes anxiety, we need to understand three principles

of anxiety.

Number 1, we need to understand what is anxiety.

Now, this may sound dumb, because you already know what anxiety feels like, but what you

need to do is understand your perspective on anxiety.

You need to let go of the idea that anxiety is "bad."

Anxiety is not inherently bad.

Anxiety is uncomfortable, some times anxiety is disordered,sometimes anxiety gets in the

way, but we all experience anxiety because it is supposed to serve a really important

function.

To motivate us to avoid real danger.

We're supposed to feel anxious when standing on a cliff edge, it helps us be safe.

We're supposed to feel anxious when we know we have an important test coming up because

that should motivate us to study.

Anxiety tells us that something is important to us.

Anxiety and excitement are basically the same chemical reaction in your body with adrenaline

triggering that sympathetic activation and prepping you for action.

When we look at anxiety as uncomfortable, but acceptable and a normal part of life,

suddenly we develop new tools to work with it, and that includes working with the other

type of anxiety.

So, the second thing we need to understand is we need to understand disordered anxiety.

And this is when anxiety seems to take over your life.

This is anxiety that makes it hard to go to work, to school, or to enjoy life at all.

And the harder you try to make it go away, the stronger and stronger it gets.

Now, contrary to popular belief, that anxiety is disordered when it is more severe, anxiety

is actually disordered when one of two things happen.

When, number one, when you feel endanger when you are actually safe, and I made a video

on this, it's called perceived vs. actual safety.

For example I worked with a client who was afraid of radiators.

She would feel anxious and sweaty around them and she couldn't make herself go into a room

with a radiator in it, now radiators are not actually

dangerous, but she was having a real, physiological

response to something that was actually safe.

So anxiety can be disordered when you have a "danger" response in your body, but you

are actually safe.

The second way anxiety can be disordered is when your anxiety interferes with your ability

to function.

This is essentially what determines if you meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder

diagnosis.

When your anxiety, or your attempts to avoid anxiety stop you from effectively facing life.

When this happens you start avoiding school, or calling in sick to work.

You stop leaving the house, or spending time with friends, pretty soon your anxiety is

taking over your life and stopping you from doing the things you love.

So lets talk about

what causes anxiety to spiral out of control.

This is called the anxiety cycle.

Every day throughout our day we have experiences and we interpret these experiences as either

being safe or dangerous.

So let say for example you see a dog.

Now, each person interprets an experience differently, for some people this would be

extincting and fun, but for some reason you think, "that dog is going to bite me!"

This leads to feelings of fear, anxiety, maybe even panic.

These are uncomfortable feelings and you may even take them as a sign that your thoughts

are true.

So, you escape, you run away, you get outta there.

And, Nothing bad happens.

So your brain releases this surge of relief, "Whew!

That was close!

The only way I survived was because I ran away.

I could have died!"

And your brain thinks "I better do that again, I'm going to make make human avoid that situation

by increasing their anxiety about it."

And, vola! your anxiety goes up.

Every single time that we avoid a threat and survive, our brain thinks, "Let's do that

again."

So it lays down neural pathways, this wiring that reinforces that behavior.

And the whole function of emotions is to motivate us to action, but that's a whole other video.

So our brain, because we have convinced it that the dog was a threat, it takes action

into it's own hands and it increases you anxiety levels around dogs.

Every time we feel anxiety, and then avoid the situation, our anxiety level will go up

a notch.

So this is principle number three, avoidance feeds disordered anxiety.

It literally creates overwhelming anxiety.

Now, there are lots of ways to avoid.

There's running away, and physically avoiding, but there's also emotional avoidance, so if

you have social anxiety, you might still go to the party, but only if you get drunk ahead

of time, or you might be in a relationship, but scared of getting hurt, so you don't allow

yourself to let the other person into your heart.

you stay emotionally distant, or you protect your self by not committing.

social media, anger, blame, distraction, and even "coping skills," can be avoidant.

Regardless of the type of avoidance, it increases your anxiety and, even worse, it shrinks down

your world.

So with the dog example, you might start avoiding situations where a dog might be present, by

not going to friend's homes, or skipping the park.

And your world shrinks, you miss out on good relationships, or you stop going to parties.

And your world gets more and more constrained.

Avoidance can make your world small and scary and unhappy.

But every time you get anxious and avoid something, and survive, your brain increases your anxiety

in that area.

Now, looking at this cycle, we have two places where we can intervene.

Where we can stop that anxiety from spiraling out of control.

The first place is with our actions.

When we feel anxiety, but we are actually safe, if we stick with it, if we stay there,

we experience our emotions and sensations with out running away, and again, if you do

this, and you don't die, then your brain learns "whew! what a relief!

I guess that not all dogs are dangerous, let's do that again!"

And it sends out a surge of relief.

This leads to a gradual decrease in anxiety over time, and a gradual increase in your

emotional muscles, your ability to feel emotions and sensations that are uncomfortable, with

out needing to escape them all the time.

So you get better at feeling.

As you do this your brain literally lays down new neuro pathways saying "not all dogs are

dangerous, I don't need to be anxious around dogs."

And it literally changes your brain chemistry, releasing less cortisol and adrenaline and

other stress hormones.

This is the most straight forward way to rewire your brain to have less anxiety.

But, I get it, this is super hard.

If it were easy, you would have already done it.

So I'm going to break it down into three big steps for you.

Now on a side note, the second place in this cycle to intervene is with your thoughts.

Changing how you think about the dog.

And this can be a powerful and effective treatment too, but it can also get really complicated.

And it works best before your anxious, rather than during.

Now I can talk about some of the ways you can change your thinking in other videos,

but in this video we're going to talk about the most straight forward way to rewire your

anxious brain and that's through your actions.

So, how to do it.

There are three steps.

So step one, make an exposure hierarchy, I've made and entire video about this, but basically

you take one thing that scares you and you break it down into teeny tiny steps, and you

start by courageously facing the easiest one first.

Now this is the part that most people miss.

They jump in too fast and then they panic or the escape and they never do it again,

and then that fear is reinforced.

So make and exposure hierarchy and write down as many teeny little steps as you can think

of.

Step two, change your rules.

Now, courage doesn't mean the absence of fear, but choosing that something is more important

that avoiding fear.

In acceptance and commitment therapy, this is called willingness.

Allowing yourself to do something even though it makes you uncomfortable.

If you make a rule for your self like, I'm going to do this until I get too anxious,

then you brain will be like "cool, let's do that, then I can escape."

So it will make you really anxious, and when we say "I'm going to do this thing unless

in makes me anxious," then we are just inviting anxiety to make all of our decisions for us.

So when it comes to exposure, you choose an easier activity to start with and then you

stay with it and watch yourself for a certain amount of time, or until your anxiety decreases

by half during the exposure.

Now, while you're facing your anxiety and practicing your willingness, grounding activities,

and self-regulation activities, this body-up approach to decreasing anxiety can be helpful.

But the most important part is that you sit with your anxiety for a little while until

it decreases, or at least for a certain set amount of time.

Now, step three.

Do it.

Face it.

Go get anxious and see if you survive.

A little spoiler alert here, you will.

So with the dog example, start be repeatedly imagining yourself interacting with a dog

and you practice every day for ten minutes until that activity no longer makes you very

anxious.

And then you might want to work with a friend who has a dog to set up the nest steps.

So you might see a dog through a window and just stay there and you sit with it and you

breath with it and you allow your self to relax and you do this every day for ten minutes

until your anxiety decreases.

And then you practice being in the same room with a tiny dog on a leash, and the perhaps

touching a tiny dog on a leash and then petting a tiny dog on a leash and eventually you are

moving up to a bigger dog and the off a leash then eventually you get your self to the point

where you can go to a dog park, sit down, and stay there for thirty minutes.

It's ok it you feel anxious.

It's ok if you feel uncomfortable or you sweat, or you shake, or whatever, but you just stick

with it.

And pretty soon your brain learns "It's cool, most dogs are safe, your ok."

And your anxiety will decrease.

Now again, you can do some physiological grounding activities while in the midst of your anxiety,

but don't use those as another way to just avoid anxiety.

Use those as a way to practice willingness.

This willingness to feel what you are feeling and accept it as being normal, natural and

ok.

So there's the simple solution to anxiety.

face your fears and they will decrease.

This may seem too simple, or too impossible, too big of a leap, so therapist have devised

a bunch of ways to break that leap down into a bunch of tiny steps, a bunch of skills that

you can learn to make it easier.

If you want to go more in depth into that let's do that.

Let's talk about the more detailed process of how we do this.

The specific skills that help us move from anxiety avoidance to power over our anxiety.

Because I am trying to cram so much information into this topic, I've decided to split this

video up in to two parts.

So check out part two for the ten skills you can develop to help you face your fears.

Gradual exposure therapy, which is what I just described, is a researched backed approached

shown to help reduce anxiety and treat anxiety disorders.

It does this because it literally changes the brain.

Rewiring the neuro pathways and changing the release of chemicals in the brain.

So make sure to check out my part two with those ten skills to help you face your fears

and if you'd like to learn more in depth information about how to treat you anxiety, I've got a

course on Udemy that I am working on it's call Rewiring the Anxious Brain, so you can

also check out that link in the description.

Now, please share this video, you never know who might benefit from it, thanks for watching

and take care.