How To Train Your Brain To Deal With Anxiety, According To A Psychiatrist
Daniel Amen, M.D., is a pioneer in the field of brain health. A double board-certified psychiatrist and New York Times bestselling author, he has used his research and practice to go beyond clinical medicine. He has an unparalleled view on brain health, especially the ways in which we can take control of our own lives and strengthen our brains—no matter what age we are.
On this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, I sat down with Amen to discuss everything related to the brain. We discuss the five primary types of brains, the best foods for brain function, and which supplements he recommends for optimal brain health.
According to Amen, we have the power to better our own brains.
We even have the ability to control conditions like chronic anxiety and depression: "Ultimately, the end of mental illness is going to begin with a revolution in brain health," Amen affirms.
Here are Amen's three tips for how you can take control of your anxiety. Think of it as anti-anxiety bootcamp for your mind:
Write down honest, rational thoughts.
"I want people to be conscientious and honest," Amen states. While this might sound like a great piece of advice for how we should generally act in life, he declares that being honest with yourself is an important life-hack to combat feelings of anxiety.
A lot of our anxiety stems from our brains repeating those irrational, automatic negative thoughts (ANT). While it's unrealistic to switch our mindsets to only think positively, Amen urges his patients to try to think as rationally as possible. One way to do this, he says, is by completing a small writing exercise.
He says, "Whenever you feel sad, mad, anxious, or out of control, write down what you're thinking and just ask yourself whether or not it's true. Ask if you can absolutely know that thing is true."
"Learning how to talk back to your own thoughts is really helpful," he states. By talking (or rather, writing) back to your own thoughts, you can start to take control of your mind.
Slow down with diaphragmatic breathing.
Diaphragmatic breathing, a type of deep breathing, is characterized by contracting the diaphragm rather than expanding the chest. Amen offers a specific diaphragmatic breathing practice that's especially effective in treating anxiety. It goes like this: three seconds in, six seconds out.
While it might sound simple, Amen assures us that this simple inhale-exhale practice can reduce anxiety levels.
"If you double your exhalation time, it actually triggers an automatic relaxation response," he says. That being said, you can customize your breathwork to match your comfort levels—just be sure to match your inhales with exhales that are twice as long. You could try four seconds in, eight seconds out—whatever is most comfortable for you!
"This is the stuff that we should really be teaching kids," he adds. Once kids learn to count, perhaps it's beneficial for them to learn to count their breaths. After all, it is basic math.
Prevent anxiety with supplements.
While Amen offers tips on how to deal with those all-too-familiar, crushing anxiety symptoms, he also stresses the importance of preventing those feelings before they even arise. One of the best ways to prevent anxiety, according to Amen, is through supplements.
"A lot of anxiety today is due to our nutrient deficiencies," he says. He specifically cites magnesium as especially important for mitigating anxiety, as it influences GABA, the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain that is intricately involved in anxiety.
However, Amen notes that 80% of the population is low in magnesium, and this lack of this essential mineral could be associated with a generational spike in anxiety levels.
Although traces of magnesium do exist in a number of foods, it's rather difficult to get adequate levels of magnesium through diet alone. That's why Amen recommends taking magnesium supplements (especially magnesium glycinate) for preventing anxiety. It can even help you get a restful night's sleep while you're at it.
"Magnesium is just such a wonderful anti-anxiety nutrient. You're going to feel better and learn how to not believe every irrational thing," he concludes.
It's important to keep in mind that all three of Amen's tips to train your brain are 100% natural. No medications, no chemicals, no prescriptions. It's just you and your power over your own mind. That thought alone might make a little of your anxiety melt away.
Even if you don't suffer from chronic anxiety, you can at least take Amen's advice to mean that we can have autonomy when it comes to our brain health. "You're not stuck with the brain you have. You can make it better," he says.
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.