Reprogram Your Anxious Brain
And quick disclaimer – this podcast isn’t designed to act as a substitute for mental health counseling and I’m not your personal therapist.
Alrighty – let’s get into today’s topic – How to Reprogram Your Anxious Brain.
- Do you struggle with racing thoughts? Does it sometimes feel like you can’t turn your brain off?
- Have you experienced moments where your nerves felt so shot that you felt like you were crawling out of your skin?
- When you think about meeting new people in social settings, like at a bar or a party, does it make you feel nervous?
If the answer is yes, you aren’t alone. Here’s the thing – when left unchecked, anxiety can wreak havoc on the mind and body. In fact, it can even cause some people to experience extreme feelings of panic.
You know, over the years, I’ve worked with thousands of people as a counselor and mindset coach and I’m here to tell you the topic of anxiety comes up frequently. People want to know what it is, where it comes from and how to deal with it.
What Causes Anxiety?
So, let’s get right into the answers. Anxiety – in the general sense, comes almost entirely from your thoughts. Notice I didn’t say exclusively from your thoughts because that’s not exactly accurate.
In fact, we know from lots of research that some forms of anxiety can be traced to chemical imbalances – and I’ve linked to an article from Health Line in Show Notes that gives you more information.
With that said, for the vast majority of people, anxiety is almost entirely driven by your thoughts. And that’s a good thing if you reflect on that for a moment because it means that you have the power to change your thoughts – and ultimately, your anxiety.
And that’s exactly what I’m going to teach you to do in this podcast – how to shift your mindset from a place of fear to a place of confidence.
Almost always, anxiety is a worry that you may hold about something in the future. Examples include giving a public presentation, how you might come off on a first date, or being interviewed for a new job. Again, these are examples and as you listen to my voice, you probably can throw in a few of your own.
Now I’m telling you this because as human beings, we have been gifted with the ability to imagine the future. It’s that place where creativity resides, and new beginnings are possible. That’s pretty cool, don’t you think?
The problem is that for some of us, there can be a flaw in what regulates our imagination because we are wired to think about the negative. Think about it for a minute. When you are worried about something connected to the future, you never ruminate on something amazing happening.
It’s not like you say to yourself – “Oh, wow, I can’t get this thought of me giving this amazing presentation out of my mind” or “Oh man, I’m really struggling today because I keep seeing myself making a good impression with this stranger I’m about to meet from this dating app.
Am I right? Of course, it’s not this way. Instead, your mind does something like this: “I’m worried that I’m going to screw up this presentation I’ve got to give” or “What if I go on this date and she thinks I’m boring?”
Can you relate. And as I’ve said on many past episodes, perception is projection. Let me restate that again – perception is projection.
This is why if you aren’t aware of your thoughts and don’t feel in control of them, things can start to derail quickly. I encourage you to go back to episode 31 to learn more about this topic of derailment.
Amygdala and Hippocampus
And so, what is going on in your head? What’s up with that glitch thing I just mentioned? Well, the answer can be found in human adaptation and it’s rooted in two parts of the brain. The first part is the amygdala and the second is the hippocampus.
Let’s talk about the amygdala for a second. The amygdala is an almond shaped area of your brain where information gets processed to keep you safe. It’s a throwback to our cavemen days guys – think of it as your very own internal alarm system. As an aside, it’s the same place where you tap into your inner voice – or that sense of intuition.
So, what information gets fed into the amygdala? Well, a lot of it is sensory, like what you see or hear. But thoughts – meaning your thoughts – also get funneled into this part of the brain, which have a direct impact on how – and what – you feel.
Let me tell you a quick story to help drive home this point and it’s one I hinted at in episode 35 when I talked about how to get out of a funk.
The year was 1985 and I was on a camping and canoeing trip in the Northern Woods of Wisconsin in a place called the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage. It’s a beautiful part of the state, way up North in Iron County.
Now folks keep in mind my camping buddies were people I went to military school with. We were up in those woods because that’s where the school sent us to keep our butts away from the dangerous summer streets of Chicago. And I’m mentioning this because a few of us had very little experience with camping and even fewer experiences with what to do if we ran across a wild animal.
Anyway, one day all of us were hanging out around the campsite and feeling kind of bored. That’s when we decided to do some exploring and take a hike in the woods. If you’ve ever been camping, you know what it’s like. You want to get up and see things, right?
Anyway -there we were, hiking through the woods and taking in the scenery. Well, low and behold about 20 minutes into it, we ran across this huge Black Bear. And when I huge, I mean huge and let me tell you, she was not at all happy we had stumbled into her territory. And accompanying her were two of her cubs, which couldn’t have been more than six months old. I can still remember those little babies standing behind their momma as she stood guard.
Fight, Flight, Freeze
So, most all of us in our group – and there were maybe six of us, stopped dead in our tracks and frankly started to freak out a bit. In clinical terms, this is called fight, flight, or freeze. You know what I’m talking about? It’s that primal thing in the brain that is designed to keep you safe.
Now, at some point all of us instinctively knew that our best bet was to tuck tail and run the hell out of there. And that would have been a great plan, except one of the guys in our group – we’ll call him Joe – thought it would be a smart idea to pick up a big ass pinecone and throw it at the momma.
Why he did that I have no idea. Maybe that was the “fight” part of Joe kicking. Who knows? It was still a stupid thing to do and to this day I still give him crap over it.
Anyway, let me tell you, after he threw that pinecone at momma bear, she got pissed – like real pissed. Now the rest of what happened is a blur to me, but I can tell you that all of us ran our asses off through those woods and a few of us were screaming like little girls. I’m not naming names here but I think you get my drift.
Now obviously nothing happened because I’m still here and from time to time, this story comes up with my buddies as the stuff of lore.
But here’s the thing. Whenever I am in the woods now, I am always on guard for animals in the woods. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a phobic response. It’s not like I won’t go into the woods because the truth is I love camping.
But I am saying that I’m hypervigilant when I’m in any woodsy environment because of that incident. Now tuck that story into your pocket for a minute because we’re going to switch gears and talk this other area of the brain called the hippocampus.
So, what does the hippocampus do? Well, to make a long story short, the hippocampus is the part of the brain that encodes threating events into memories or subconsciously into stories.
In fact, it is the same part of the brain that tells me whenever I’m in the woods, I need to be on the lookout for wild animals – particularly black bears. You see, my hippocampus remembers what happened back in 1985 on that camping trip and has been infused itself into my neural network.
Now, you may be wondering – what does this have to do with your personal anxiety. What does this have to do with you being afraid of speaking in public, meeting new people or struggles with confidence.
It’s quite simple. It’s all about your thoughts. Remember when I said earlier that almost all anxiety can be traced to what you think is going to happen in the future? Well, that’s what I’m talking about.
If you think you will be rejected and think you will fail, you are literally training your amygdala to have that fight, flight or freeze response whenever that anxiety provoking event comes up.
And to make matters worse, you are programming your hippocampus to contain fear-based memories that get deeply embedded into the subconscious.
Now I bet you are thinking, “Wait a minute Dr. John. How can the hippocampus hold memories of something that hasn’t really happened?”
Well, here’s the thing. Your subconscious mind doesn’t have the ability to discern reality from fiction. It doesn’t operate that way. It is devoid of time and space. All it knows is the story it has been fed or the movie that is currently playing on the reel.
So, what can you do about this? How can you reprogram your mind to dial down that anxiety and create change? Well, the first thing you can do is to engage in creative visualization. Now notice I didn’t say meditation.
In truth, creative visualization is a form of meditation but I’m purposely not suggesting this because some people struggle with quieting the mind long enough to meditate.
So instead, I want you to create an alternative story in your mind that allows room for a success outcome. Here’s an example. Instead of training your brain for failure about that first date is going to amount in a big fat failure, because you keep asking yourself, What if she doesn’t like me or what if I come off as uninteresting, create a narrative instead that tells the story of you being interesting – that tells the story of you being magnetic.
By doing this, you are reprograming your mind to step back from the fear. To step back from the anxiety and instead, step into a place of success. You are literally retraining your response from one of fear and dread to one of calm confidence.
You know, when clients come to me with their specific fears and worries, I will listen to them with a compassionate ear. But here’s the thing – they aren’t working with me to experience catharsis. Instead, they are working with me because they want concrete tools to create change.
So, here’s a creative visualization exercise I’d like you to right now or when you are in a place that where you can do this privately.
First, ask yourself what you are anxious about. Let’s say your nerves are wrecked because you’ve got to give a presentation to your boss, along with your coworkers. So, what are you afraid of here? Well, for our purposes let’s say you are afraid of stumbling over your words and coming off as some kind of idiot.
OK, so that’s the fear.
What I’d like you to do is close your eyes. Take in a deep breath. Let your mind clear for a moment until you only see darkness. As you do this, imagine for a moment there is a green neon circle around the center of your chest. Keep breathing in and out.
With each inhalation, imagine that green neon circle increases it’s intensity and with each exhalation, the brightness decreases. And I’d like you to do this for approximately sixty seconds. The goal here is to create a sense of peace and allow space to reprogram the amygdala and hippocampus.
Now once you’ve done this, it’s time to create a mental movie in your mind where you visualize yourself giving that presentation in a confident and relaxed way.
Just imagine yourself sharing information with others in a calm, confident and relaxed way. Imagine others feeling connected to you as a person and even a bit captivated. Imagine after the presentation that people clap and your boss says something like, “Well done – you did a great job”.
The movie in your mind doesn’t have to last more than one minute. The goal here is to yank out that old fear-based stuff, which may or may not be based on reality, and reprogram it with a new movie – a new vision for the future. And the more you replay this movie in your mind, the more you are conditioning the amygdala and hippocampus.
In just a moment, I’m going to tell you about some other ways to reprogram your brain. Hang tight.
Alrighty, so let’s get back to practical was of reprograming your anxious brain. Earlier I talked about engaging in creative visualization and how this helps to reprogram the amygdala and hippocampus.
But what about situations where the fear response is so sudden and so powerful that trying to visualize your way through it isn’t a possibility.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you are on a plane and out of nowhere, the aircraft is rocked by terrible turbulence. Have you ever had something like that happen? It sucks, right?
Did your heart race uncontrollably? Were you sweating under your shirt so bad that it became noticeable? Well, when something like that happens, it’s your amygdala kicking in. It’s that reptilian part of the brain that all of us are equipped with.
And once you go through something like this, it becomes embedded in the psyche to the point that whenever you get on a plane and experience the slightest bit of turbulence, that flight, fight or freeze thing we talked about goes into overdrive.
So, what can you do when a conditioned response comes on so forcefully that it sends you into a panic? Well, there are two things you can do.
Four Squared Breathing for Anxiety
The first is to engage in four squared breathing. I’m going to link to an article in Medical News Daily that walks you through how to do this, so don’t worry about memorizing what I am about to share [link to Four Squared Breathing].
Alright this is how you do it:
Step one: Close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose while counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs.
Step two: Hold your breath inside while counting slowly to four. Try not to clamp your mouth or nose shut. Simply avoid inhaling or exhaling for 4 seconds.
Step three: Begin to slowly exhale for 4 seconds.
Step four: Repeat steps 1 to 3 at least three times. Ideally, repeat the three steps for 4 minutes, or until calm returns.
The idea with four squared breathing is to reset your nervous system so you aren’t in a place of panic. This approach is particularly helpful whenever an anxiety provoking stimulus happens, such as the turbulence I mentioned earlier.
And folks, I can tell you that I personally use this one each and every time I fly in the here and now.
Get ready for another story.
It was the July of 1989. I was on TWA Flight 746 going non-stop from Chicago’s O’Hare to JFK in New York – which was the airline’s International hub back in the day. My ultimate destination was Rome, but I digress.
At any rate, this particular plane was a 727 aircraft, which I think some pilots referred to even back then as a tri-saurus because they were so old. Anyway, I was sitting way in the back on an aisle seat.
So, to get back to it – at departure time, which I think was around 1 pm, we pulled back from the gate and taxied over to the holding area where all the other planes were waiting to take off.
After 15 minutes or so, our flight was finally cleared to make a turn onto the runway. As I tell you this story, I can still remember it like yesterday, right down to the Continental Airlines Super 80 that had taken off just before us.
Anyway, we had just become airborne and probably had only 2000 feet of altitude when all of the sudden our plane dropped. And when I say dropped, I mean it dropped a good 50 or so feet. Like it dropped so bad that some of the overhead bins popped open and bags flew out. People were screaming and freaking out bigtime – and I was one of them.
To make a long story short, what happened was our aircraft had hit wake turbulence. That’s a fancy way of saying the engine exhaust from the plane that took off just before us – that Continental MD-80 – had disturbed the air in such a way that our plane felt it. Wake turbulence doesn’t happen often, but I can tell you from experience it’s like flying into a horizontal tornado.
Now I’m telling you this tory because in the here and now, whenever I fly, the smallest bit of turbulence causes my amygdala to go into panic mode – and trying to visualize something positive isn’t going cut it. What’s that old saying, when emotion is high, logic is low? Well, it’s like that.
So, to cope with sudden fear and panic, like during turbulence, I have learned to combine deep breathing with bilateral stimulation.
Tapping For Anxiety – Bilateral Stimulation
And here is how I do it. I place my left hand on my left knee and my right hand on my right knee. I then close my eyes and take in a long, deep breath. I hold it for five seconds and then I exhale. I then ask myself on a scale of 1-10 my anxiety level. Usually after some turbulence, it’s around 8 or 9.
Once I’ve got my number, I start tapping from left to right on my knees, alternating from left to right at one second intervals. As I tap, I say in my mind’s eye: I acknowledge my anxiety is present – and everything is going to be just fine. I can become calm.”
Let me repeat that again. As I tap from left to right, I say in my mind’s eye: I acknowledge my anxiety is present – and everything is going to be just fine. I can become calm.”
Now I do this for approximately one minute. I then open my eyes and ask myself what number my anxiety is at. Usually, it has reduced from something like an 8 down to a five. My goal is to get that number down to two. And so I start the process again, over and over until that number decreases.
You may be wondering, “Hey, doesn’t that person next to you think you are a freak? I mean come on Dr. John, they are watching you breath like that and tap. They must think you are a little crazy, right?”
Folks, I can honestly tell you I don’t give two-craps about what that stranger sitting next to me thinks. To keep it real with you, on more than one occasion, I’ve ended up explaining what I am doing to my seat-mate and they end up doing it with me.
My point in sharing this with you is to teach you how to combine breathing and tapping together during moments when the fear response is severe, and you need something concrete to get through.
Have you ever watched one of those nature documentaries? You know, like the ones where the Gazelle gets chased by the Cheetah? Did you notice that if the Gazelle gets away, it takes a moment after the chase to shake itself off? Like it literally trembles and shakes for a moment. That’s because Gazelle’s brain released a boatload of cortisol and adrenaline into system, and it becomes overloaded. That’s what happens to you when experience panic – your amygdala sends a message to your hypothalamus to combat the stress. Make sense?
So, the next time you start to feel anxiety coming on, I want you to ask yourself is it coming from my amygdala or is it coming from my hippocampus?
If it is coming from your hippocampus, do some creative visualization and re-write the story – rewrite the narrative in a way that moves away from failure or the negative.
If it’s coming from your amygdala as part of a fear response, you’re going to have to bypass the thinking part – the creative visualization part – and jump right into action. Here, I am talking about deep breathing and tapping.
If you do both of these things over time, you have the power to reprogram your anxious brain. If it helps you to replay this episode a few times to absorb some of what I’ve shared today, go for it. The mind responds to repetition and patterns very well.
Re-Wire Your Anxious Brain Book
I’m also going to recommend a resource to you. It’s a booked called Re-Wire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic and Worry by Dr. Catherine Pittman and Dr. William Youngs. I’ve linked to this book on Amazon for you to check out.
So, to recap, you are going to use creative visualization for future based fears and you’re going to use breathing and tapping for panic and worry that comes on suddenly in the hear and now.
Man oh man did we cover a lot today, don’t you think? Well, that’s what I’ve got for you today. If you loved this podcast or any of my previous episodes, please do me a favor. Take two minutes out and do two things for me. One, hit that subscribe button. Two, leave a review wherever you may be listening, but particularly Apple Podcasts.
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Well, there you have it – another show. Make it your goal today to put a smile on someone else’s face. I appreciate you listening and hope you have an amazing day.