Worried About the Future? Six Ways to Calm Your Anxiety
Anxiety is defined as worry about something stressful that could happen in the future. And certainly, the 24-hour news cycle gives us a steady stream of things to worry about these days—from the climate crisis to economic insecurity to politics du jour.
If you’re feeling more anxious than usual about the future of our planet or the future of your family, you’re not alone. The Center for Anxiety in NYC has seen a surge of requests for services in recent years, says its director, Dr. David Rosmarin. “From North Korea to hurricanes, we live with a greater degree of uncertainty,” he said. “What it boils down to is: How much can people tolerate it when they don’t know what’s going to happen next?”
Yet there is some good news out there: neurologists say we can curb anxiety by strengthening our prefrontal cortex.
Basically, it boils down to this: there is the emotional brain (governed by the amygdala) and the rational brain (whose control center is the prefrontal cortex). They talk to each other and handle the body’s stress response together. When the prefrontal cortex is healthy, it helps us regulate our emotional responses to stress and keep unnecessary anxiety at bay.
How Your Prefrontal Cortex Manages Stress and Anxiety
To understand how this works, let’s first break down what happens when we face a stressful situation. When confronted with a stress, the tiny part of the brain known as the amygdala detects the stress and signals the body to go into fight-flight-freeze mode, releasing the stress hormone cortisol to the cells so the body can respond quickly. Our heart starts beating faster, our blood pressure goes up, oxygen floods the brain and all systems are on high alert. This works great if there’s an actual bus barreling down our path, as our primitive/emotional brain takes over and we jump out of the way in time to avoid getting hit.
In a healthy person, as soon as the bus passes by, the prefrontal cortex signals the amygdala that the stress is over and we can go back to our normal way of functioning. Our heartbeat slows down and blood pressure returns to baseline. We can make connections and think creatively—and we can choose to stay calm when confronted with stressful situations that are not life-threatening. This is a picture of a healthy brain.
The problem comes if we are constantly interpreting everyday events as threatening, causing us to feel anxious and stressed on a daily basis. Then the amygdala stays on high alert, and the prefrontal cortex shuts down or goes offline. Since the prefrontal cortex is in charge of planning and making connections with others, you may find yourself feeling more scattered, unable to connect with others and generally stressed. You may feel like anxiety and fear are running your life, limiting your ability to live it.
The question, then, is how can you strengthen your prefrontal cortex to stay calm in a stressful world? Here’s what neurologists recommend to rewire your prefrontal cortex.
Six Steps to Help Your Brain Handle Stress
- Spend time with friends and family—Hugging, talking and spending time with loved ones causes us to release serotonin—one of the feel-good hormones associated with happiness and lower stress/anxiety levels. Social support also slows the release of the stress hormone cortisol.
- Eat regular meals. Neurologists recommend foods that feed your brain, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, high-quality protein, healthy fats, and little added sugar.
- Exercise daily to prevent stress and to increase blood flow to your brain.
- Get your Zzzzs. A rested brain is a healthy brain.
- Do something you enjoy every day. This releases serotonin and other feel-good chemicals in your brain.
- Practice the Transcendental Meditation technique to strengthen your prefrontal cortex and stave off anxiety.
TM Creates the Opposite of Stress
Let’s look more carefully at the last item on this list, as many researchers say that practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique is probably the single most important thing you can do to combat anxiety.
“When a person is under stress, the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making and executive functions, is less involved in activity, as if it goes ‘offline,’” explains Dr. Fred Travis, Director of the Center for Brain, Consciousness, and Cognition at Maharishi University of Management.
“The Transcendental Meditation technique has the exact opposite effect on the brain. Neuroimaging studies show increased activity in the frontal area of the brain during TM practice, as compared to just sitting in eyes-closed rest. In addition to increased activity in the frontal areas, we also see increased activity in the back of the brain—the parietal areas. These two parts of the brain are part of the attentional circuit.”
In other words, the TM technique strengthens the prefrontal cortex and other attentional circuits in the brain responsible for decision-making and executive functions, so we can think rationally and stay calm even when we are under stress.
Practicing TM also has also been shown in peer-reviewed studies to directly affect other markers of stress, such as lowering the stress hormone cortisol, normalizing blood pressure, and increasing serotonin.
Finally, a number of controlled studies published in major journals such as The Lancet have found that TM dramatically reduces not only anxiety but PTSD. In fact, it was found in several meta-studies to be significantly more effective than other relaxation techniques in reducing trait anxiety within the first few weeks of practice.
Know the Difference Between Everyday Anxiety and an Anxiety Disorder
Let’s be clear: if you are suffering from an anxiety disorder, it’s recommended that you consult a doctor.
What is an anxiety disorder? If you start to worry more days than you feel fine over a period of six months, or if anxiety starts to interfere with your sleep or ability to focus, that points to an anxiety disorder. That is the time to seek help from a professional, says Dr. Naomi Simon a professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine.
“Anxiety is a natural reaction to stress—it’s not necessarily pathological or dangerous,” says Dr. Simon. “There’s the point where it becomes a condition, and the way we separate those has to do with the level of persistence, severity, distress, and if it’s impacting day-to-day function.”
Anxiety disorders are so widespread today that over 40 million adults (18% of the population) will experience one this year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The US Department of Health and Human Services reports that women are more than twice as likely than men to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in their lifetime, and they mention on their website that yoga and meditation has helped women with anxiety disorders.
Bottom line: Be proactive about preventing anxiety disorders by learning TM and practicing other self-care strategies. But if you already have symptoms of a disorder, in addition check with a medical professional to find out what more you can do.
About the Author
Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic—Complete and Comprehensive, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.
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