Our thinking is steadily carried away by a rapid cascade of experiences and nonstop thoughts crossing our minds. The stream of news about the pandemic and current events have taught us one thing – life can spiral out of control. Imagine we could modulate our mind to absorb thoughts and emotions without triggering anxiety. But how can one do this?
First, understanding how our minds work
Our minds are made of two thinking systems: the autonomic and intentional systems. The autonomic system reflects our intuitions and emotions. It is housed mainly in the amygdala and other primitive parts of the brain. The autonomic system directs our daily habits and helps us react to life-threatening situations via the fight or flight response.
The intentional system is centered on rational thinking. It occurs in the prefrontal cortex region, the part of the brain that evolved most recently. The intentional system is responsible for complex intellectual activities like learning new information, logical reasoning, and navigating group relationships.
Next, realizing how emotions shape thoughts
Have you ever wondered where seemingly random thoughts aka spontaneous thoughts come from? Emotions play a major role in several types of spontaneous thoughts. For instance, negative emotions like anxiety lead to intrusive thoughts which are directed at real or perceived threats. On the other hand, positive emotions like happiness lead to intrusive thoughts directed to confident anticipation.
And… distinguishing situational stress from chronic anxiety
Stress and anxiety have many similarities; however, there are a few key differences. Stress is usually short-term and occurs in response to a distinctive threat. Anxiety, on the other hand, is often chronic and may seem like it has no trigger.
When we face unexpected circumstances, we may feel acutely stressed. This type of situational stress is driven by the evolutionarily conserved fight or flight responses. When we feel threatened, we release stress hormones which make our heartbeat faster, resulting in more blood being pumped to our limbs. This reaction would have been appropriate in primitive times when we faced “true” life and death situations like encountering a tiger. However, in modern times, this response is less than ideal. Instead of facing tigers, we face numerous micro stressors such as being stuck in traffic, losing our keys, or looming deadlines. When stress becomes the norm in our daily life it can lead to rumination, mostly driven by circular, repetitive and negative thoughts we cannot control. This can easily trigger chronic anxiety that may become crippling and require therapeutic intervention.
How to manage chronic anxiety
When we have anxiety, we are in a negative state of arousal. And instinctively, we tell ourselves to calm down. However, shifting to being calm, a positive state of low arousal is quite difficult. That’s because of the deep physiological and physiological states at play. These include not only the release of hormones that keep us alert and awake but also our heightened heartbeat and breathing rates.
So instead of trying to calm down, a better and easier alternative is to reframe your anxiety, a phenomenon referred to as anxiety appraisal. Quite simply, it is changing the narrative about our anxiety. Instead of seeing situations as threats, you see them as opportunities. You are changing your internal narrative from one of anxiety to one of excitement.
Mindful framing, a mindfulness practice, is another way to manage anxiety. Instead of trying to run away from negative intrusive thoughts, just frame them in your mind. You observe and organize them without judgment, then let them go using a visualization practice called ‘the anxiety bus.’ This practice allows you to release the stronghold that circular, repetitive and negative thoughts have on your mind. Besides helping dampen these thoughts, mindful framing also boosts resilience and possibly reduce cognitive decline through regular use of your mind’s eye.
Journaling your thoughts is another way to give in to your thoughts, rather than trying to resist them. Journaling your thoughts helps you delve into common themes that may plague your thoughts. It also allows you to brainstorm solutions to things that may be worrying you.
Socializing with friends is another great anxiety-reliever. When you focus on connecting with others, you can minimize stress and pointless rumination. In fact, research shows that people who have strong social connections ruminate less. They also have less stress-linked inflammatory responses. Connecting with friends can also help as a great distraction from your stressors. So, pick up that phone, or head out the door and meet up with a friend.
Life will throw many curveballs at us, triggering rumination and anxious thoughts. However, by running towards instead of away from them, we can modulate our thoughts and the emotions attached to them, helping you manage anxiety.