Anxiety starts in your brain, but it affects every part of your body when it's at it's strongest. But fighting anxiety often comes back to engaging with your brain, and the science at play when you're feeling super-stressed.
Brain hacks for anxiety is possible, and you don't need any fancy apps or gadgets to do it.
Anxiety is one of our body's oldest coping mechanisms; a way of responding to the feeling of danger, even if it isn't there.
Fight-or-flight mode overtakes all of your body's systems, but is brought on by some specific hormones.
"Neurologically speaking, anxiety occurs when there is an
over-activation of cortisol and adrenaline pumping through the nervous system," licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and psychotherapist Robyn Gold, tells Bustle. "Our bodies have an innate stress response designed to protect us from danger so we produce these hormones in response to any perceived emotional or physical threat." So something as serious as an impending physical attack, or something as physically non-threatening as a loud noise or upcoming public presentation, can switch your body into danger-mode. It's important to understand how to work with your brain to feel less anxiety in these situations.
Here are seven ways to hack your brain to feel less anxious, according to experts.
Learn Deep Breathing Techniques
When your brain is experiencing an anxious response, you're bound to feel it all over your body, too. Using your body's own systems as a sort of jump-start to trick the brain back into a more calm state is one of the best ways to deal with anxiety.
"It is critical that everyone learn how to manage [their]
physiological responses to stress," Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist and Host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, tells Bustle. "[...] One of the fastest, easiest and often [most] effective ways is to learn to take slow deep breaths. Deep breaths from the diaphragm will help you take in more oxygen, slow your heart rate down and relax your muscles. All of this will physiologically reduce your stress response." Your brain works in conjunction with the rest of the body, and this is a great way to use that to your advantage.
Dealing with your brain might feel inaccessible, but talking to your thoughts is an easy way to deal with anxiety on a simple level. This kind of brain hack is different than general talking to yourself, it's about targeting specific thoughts against your anxious ones.
"Learning self-talk is critical when you feel anxious," Dr. Klapow says. "[Remind] yourself that you are anxious, that you will be OK, [and] that the emotions you are feeling are your anxiety and not the situation (i.e. this is anxiety talking not reality). Coaching yourself through the situation with self-talk is critical." Learning to combat
negative self-talk with positive self-talk may do wonders for your anxiety.
Actually Change Your Physical Situation
When you're feeling anxious, your brain is responding to different stimuli. Changing your surroundings, then, can help your brain reset itself.
"Anxiety takes a toll on the body and mind," Dr. Klapow says. "Make sure when you are feeling anxious to work on reducing your physiological response but also arrange your environment to manage the reactions [...] The more you can create an environment that is not anxiety-provoking [...] the easier it is to keep the anxiety under control." So take a walk, rearrange your space, or leave the place where you're feeling uneasy. Your brain may begin to readjust.
Meditation is not just a hobby. It's actually a skill that can be a critical way to bring your brain back from the edge if you're feeling particularly anxious.
"Meditating is a good way to reduce feelings of anxiety," Chirag Shah, MD, medical reviewer at
PollMed, tells Bustle. "The deep breathing from meditation stimulates the vagus nerve which can help stimulate other parts of the nervous system and decrease the physiological effects of anxiety." And while it may not be exactly clear why meditation, as opposed to other forms of breathing techniques, is particularly helpful in combatting anxiety, there's a lot of research to prove that it helps.
Coffee is great. But if you have anxiety, herbal tea might be a better bet — at least until you get your symptoms under control.
"Cut down on caffeine," Dr. Shah says. "Many people love their regular coffee but coffee is a stimulant that can increase feelings of anxiety. If you are having symptoms of anxiety, try backing off of your coffee intake. Even decaf coffee can make you more anxious." Find the
caffeine-free alternative to coffee that works for you, and your brain may stop responding to everyday situations with such an anxious response.
Interacting with your thoughts is one of the biggest keys to brain hacking your anxiety. But you don't just have to listen to your thoughts and speak back to them — you can actually restructure your thoughts as well.
"Cognitive restructuring is basically retraining our brains to think in a more productive manner," licensed psychotherapist Whitney Goodman, owner of
The Collaborative Counseling Center, tells Bustle. "This involves paying attention to thoughts, recognizing when they are irrational thoughts, challenging them, and learning replacement thoughts and behaviors. This isn't just 'thinking positively,' but learning how to be more realistic and engaged with our thoughts." Reframing the ways your brain lies to you into healthier thoughts can be a great way to feel better.
Use Techniques To Stay In The Moment
A lot of what happens when you're anxious involves your brain jumping to conclusions about the future. To hack this, working with your brain to feel more focused on the present can be a great trick.
"Focus on the 'what is' not the 'what if,'" Gold says. "Anxiety often comes from thinking too far ahead and losing sight of what's happening in the here and now. In using this technique, try asking yourself if what you're anxious about is really happening right here and now or if it's something that may or may not happen. When we focus on what actually is happening in our present experience, it helps us reduce anxiety." Your brain may feel less inclined towards fight-or-flight if you can find concrete ways to engage with the reality of the moment you're in.
Unfortunately, since you need it when you're in real danger, anxiety is an emotion that you can never fully get rid of. You can, however, learn ways to cope with it once it starts to get in the way. And using specific hacks that work with the science behind anxiety is a great way to do this.