How To Train Your Brain To Be Less Anxious: 3 Neuroscientist-Backed Tips
There are tons of ways you can manage anxiety, from meditation and breathwork to gratitude practices to exercise—and that list just scratches the surface. That said, it's important to seek out the practices that help calm your anxious thoughts; what works for you may not work for your neighbor.
However, as addiction psychiatrist and neuroscientist Jud Brewer, M.D., Ph.D., says on this episode of mindbodygreen podcast: "Everybody benefits from understanding how their mind works." Read: When you're familiar with your thought patterns and how your brain functions, those looming thoughts might not seem so daunting.
That's exactly why Brewer approaches anxiety with a practical—and mindful—lens. Below, find his essential tips:
1. Look for information—but don't bite off more than you can chew.
"Information is food for our brain," says Brewer. "It helps us survive by planning the future based on past experiences." Uncertainty, however, is like a "hunger pang" for the brain—it's a sign that says, We need more information, and we need it now. That said, your body can have a natural inclination to seek out information—which is why you may feel anxious when you can't find it.
However, says Brewer, it's important to know how much information your brain can actually digest. "If we just run around thinking, 'I need to get all the information I can possibly get,' that may not actually help us," he says. Rather, think: "Am I actually getting information that I can absorb and digest, or am I starting to freak out?" After all, uncertainty can breed anxiety and fear, which can quickly lead to panic.
So while your brain may naturally gravitate toward this information-gathering stage, Brewer recommends taking a step back—literally. "In those moments when we're starting to freak out, close the laptop, take some deep breaths... Then check to see, is this still persistent?"
2. Treat anxiety like a habit.
Are you addicted to anxiety? "I know how to study habits, and I know how to develop treatments for habits," Brewer says. It only makes sense this addiction psychiatrist would view anxiety with a similar lens.
He explains that anxiety actually can be categorized as a habit. After all, it can be quite mindless—you might not even realize you're spiraling toward anxious thoughts until they're already taking up space in your brain. And breaking a bad habit takes awareness, says Brewer.
What triggers you to think these anxious thoughts? What are you getting from them? What do they feel like, and how does it affect your body? "The key here is really starting to map out these habit patterns," says Brewer. (In fact, he created an online habit mapper so you can gather these thoughts, step by step.)
3. Focus on kindness rather than judgment.
Remember when we discussed using curiosity to find what Brewer calls your "bigger, better offer" (or a new habit that is more beneficial to you right now)? Well, in addition to becoming more curious about your habits (in this case, anxiety), he suggests leaning on kindness. "People rank that very high; they might've even ranked it higher than curiosity," he notes.
Here's what that looks like in practice: When you feel anxious thoughts, curiosity helps you gather awareness (like in the scenario above). Kindness, however, helps you give yourself grace.
"Especially if we notice times when we are caught in our own habits of self-judgment, say, 'What am I getting from this? I'm beating myself up, and it doesn't feel very good.' What happens when I compare that to when I'm kind to me?" Brewer explains. He continues, "We've got to train our brains to see that kindness and curiosity are the bigger, better offers."
Dealing with anxiety is no easy feat, and there's so much you can do to help calm anxious thoughts in the moment. However, understanding your brain from a neuroscience perspective can help dismantle anxiety's looming power (after all, says Brewer, it's uncertainty that ultimately breeds anxiety).
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