A way past anxiety
I am creating this blog to share my story of how i learnt to have a better relationship with anxiety. I found my way out of the rabbit hole of OCD and anxiety and now enjoy an incredibly happy and healthy lifestyle in Barcelona, Spain. If you had told me ten years ago, that i´d be more or less anxiety free and living out my dreams in the sun, I wouldn’t have believed you. Back then life was not good and so much of my energy was taken up through unnecessary worry and stress.
But the years I spent battling with anxiety motivated me to learn everything I could about it and now after saying AdiosToAnaxiety, i´m happier than ever. My mission is to help other people who struggle with anxiety like I did. Having had such an intimate experience with anxiety disorders I am able to empathise and connect with other sufferers. Through my research into my own problems I am aware of a whole range of techniques that might just help you to finally put anxiety in it´s place.
So how did I get to where I am now? Well, if you´ve read both part 1 and 2 of this series, then you will know that anxiety all comes down to one word, fear. The big question is, are we willing to experience fear or not? Although we must show compassion to ourselves, whether we like it or not, fear plays a major role in our lives and to overcome it we must learn to accept it. Despite this being incredibly hard at first, I have found that acceptance is the number one tool in learning to overcome anxiety.
The amygdala – The fear centre of the brain
We have evolved to feel fear when our safety and well-being are at risk and without it we wouldn´t even be able to cross a road without coming to a sticky end. But for me and i´m sure for many of you, fear can have a habit of getting out of hand and taking over. In fact many of us seem to be predisposed towards these feelings, it´s simply how our brains work. The fear center of the brain is known as the amygdala and for people with anxiety it works overtime. Researchers Gina L. Forster, Andrew M. Novick, Jamie L. Scholl and Michael J. Watt claim in their study entitled ´The role of the amygdala in anxiety disorders´ that “ hyper-function of the amygdala appears to be a key component of human anxiety disorders.”
Any small threat is often overestimated, and the amygdala starts sending out messages of imminent doom which our bodies then respond to, leading to a heightened sense of alertness, faster heart rate and that uncomfortable feeling in the pit of your stomach. This is often referred to as the fight or flight effect.
So, what can we do about this overactive amygdala? Can we break the chain of events that leads us to feel like this? Well, hell yeah, we can. In fact how i cured my anxiety has a lot to do with learning to quieten down the amygdala. Over the years, through a lot of research, reading and trial and error I have found some amazing ways to manage anxiety and i´m certain they could help you too.
We always have a choice
The famous pscyhologist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frakl claims in his book ´Mans Search for Meaning´ that “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.” This amazing quote is right on the money. We are in control of our perspective, our choices, and what we make of the situation we find ourselves in. If we want to have a more positive relationship with anxiety we need to remember this. When anxiety strikes, we have a choice to make. We can run from it, fight with it or as we discussed earlier, slowly learn to try and accept it. What choices do you habitually make when you feel anxiety? Learning to choose to accept it was a big part in how i cured my anxiety.
Our anxiety choices
· Run from the fear
· Fight with the fear
· Accept the fear
If you choose to run from it, it would be like refusing to do an important presentation at work or not asking an attractive person out on a date because you are afraid of rejection. Unfortunately though, running from fears just makes them stronger and harder to face the next time. Fighting with it would be like doing the presentation, but through gritted teeth. You would be just about hanging on in there, but it would be a horrible experience. Whilst this approach is commendable (it was mine for many years), I wouldn´t recommend it as it´s exhausting and ultimately you never learn to deal with the anxiety.
The final and only truly positive option is to accept the anxiety for what it is and get on with your life regardless. You would do the presentation whilst trying to be present to everything that comes up inside and that´s it (notice that I use the word ´trying´, that´s because you don´t have to be doing it perfectly, the mere act of giving it a go will get you moving in the right direction). You won´t make the anxiety worse by fighting with it and you won´t wear yourself out ruminating about what you´re going to do when the anxiety turns up, because you´re expecting it and are prepared to feel it.
Learn acceptance through breathing techniques
When I was learning to apply acceptance to my life I found it incredibly hard to begin with and the best advice I came across was to just try and start doing it. Regardless of the destination, each journey starts with the first step and to learn to start accepting anxiety you must start practicing acceptance. Like with any new skill, you will make mistakes and there will be setbacks, you may even question if this is the right path for you (I certainly did, on numerous occasions), but through perseverance and the right support, anyone can learn to bring more acceptance into their lives.
Fortunately there are tools that you can use to help. One of the best techniques we have is our breath. Whilst meditation is obviously talked about a lot and rightly so, there are other powerful breathing techniques that can help. But lets start by discussing meditation. The jury is no longer out on meditation. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore MD identified 47 well designed trials that demonstrate meditations incredible potential. It has been proven to cause physical changes to the brain in areas related to emotional control through the process of neuroplasticity.
A 2011 study research paper from Harvard University entitled ´Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density´ demonstrated that there were (as the title suggests) “longitudinal changes in brain gray matter concentration following an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course compared to a control group. Hypothesized increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus were confirmed.” When I found out about this research I was amazed, it gave me such hope. This became a big part of how i created a more positive relationship with anxiety.
I´d always thought that we were stuck with what we had and if what we had was an anxious brain, then that was it, but this changed all that. In an article for Forbes, Sarah J Walton comments that Sarah Lazar and her Harvard research team found that Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was found to increase cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory, and in certain areas of the brain that help with emotion regulation and self-referential processing. There were also decreases in brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress. This is incredible, meditation then it seems changes the part of the brain responsible for our control of emotion and perhaps even more amazingly can decrease the size of the amygdala. With each passing month there are more, rigorous research papers, touting the benefits of mediation.
Another amazing fact about meditation is that it teaches you to be more aware of your thoughts. I used to ruminate a lot, because of my anxiety. In fact, I remember a time when I had to give a presentation at University. From about a week before having to do it I became fixated and could barely think of anything else. This negative anticipation made me sick and in the end the presentation didn´t go well. Meditation though taught me to identify these kinds of unhelpful patterns of thought and to let them go.
In an article for Harvard Health Publishing, Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, claims that mindfulness meditation is very helpful for anxiety. “People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power,” she explains. “They can’t distinguish between a problem-solving thought and a nagging worry that has no benefit.” In my opinion meditation is a super power in the fight against anxiety and it is a big part of how I cured my anxiety.
Another breathing technique that I use is the Wim Hof method. Hof, who has spent years perfecting his approach, uses the combination of a special breathing technique and exposure to the cold to manage his internal states. He claims that his method is so powerful that it allows him to enter the bodies autonomic nervous system, a feat traditionally thought impossible by scientists. Once inside, he can control how his body reacts to normally extreme and stressful situations. The results are impressive.
To help illustrate his point, Hoff performs outrageous stunts like swimming under the arctic ice or climbing Mount Everest in nothing than a pair of painfully small yellow shorts. He holds many records for these stunts, including the longest ice immersion world record, which he completed by standing for 72 minutes in ice cold water. In his opinion, because we all have the same basic physiology as him, with practice anyone is able to do what he does. Hof is now committed to demonstrating the effectiveness of his method through science and there have been numerous studies that do actually support his claims.
In a research paper entitled “Brain Over Body: A study on the willful regulation of autonomic function during cold exposure,” researchers at Wayne State University School of Medicine professors Otto Muzik, Ph.D., and Vaibhav Diwadkar, Ph.D. immersed Hof in ice cold water and used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study his brain and positron emission tomography (PET) to study his body. The results, when compared to a group of healthy comparisons were incredible. The practice of his special breathing technique appeared to allow him to generate his own heat and control his core body temperature. The FRIM scan suggested that to do this Hof was somehow tapping into a part of the brain that is known to control sensory pain. The researchers comment in Science Daily that “we observed more substantial differences in an area called periaqueductal gray matter, located in the upper brainstem. This area is associated with brain mechanisms for the control of sensory pain and is thought to implement this control through the release of opioids and cannabinoids,”
If this is in fact true, it could have profound effects on how we go about treating persistent illness and anxiety problems. Diwadkar comments that “The practice of the Wim Hof Method may lead to tonic changes in autonomous brain mechanisms, a speculation that has implications for managing medical conditions ranging from diseases of the immune system to more intriguingly psychiatric conditions such as mood and anxiety disorders.”
Just a few weeks ago I was in a very difficult meeting with my boss who wasn´t happy with me. The kind of meeting where anxiety normally shows up. But I had a sneak suspicion something maybe up, so before going in I´d done a quick round of Wim Hof breathing. The effect was incredible, and despite what I felt was unfair criticism from my boss I didn´t feel much anxiety, in fact quite the opposite. I waited calmly until he´d finished making his point and then confidently and politely countered his argument in such a way that he wasn´t able to say much back. He´s looked at me slightly differently since then. This the power of breathing techniques, they can bring you to another level and as Wim constantly says (a bit rudely, but amusingly) ´Just breathe mother fucker, breathe! ´.
Although I highly recommend the Wim Hof method, this kind of approach may not be for everyone. However, i´m highlighting it to make a point and that is that there are so many different ways in which to treat anxiety and they all have their positive and negative aspects. I came across the Wim Hof method six months ago and now use it every day. It´s not how i cured my anxiety, but it certainly helps me to manage it. I find it easer to remain centred and it even enables me to deepen my meditation practice, but if I hadn´t already built a stable platform by learning to mindfully accept anxiety in the moment, then i´m not sure the Wim Hoff method or any other approach would have helped me so much.
I believe the true path to anxiety relief comes from building these strong foundations first through the work of acceptance and then by discovering other approaches that speak to you personally and can take you to the next level, such as diet, breathing exercises, laughter, bio hacking and many more. Following this approach, I have taken my life to the next level and stopped anxiety from calling the shots. There is nothing stopping you from doing the same. If you would like to discuss your battle with anxiety and how I might be able to help you, then feel free to get in touch at www.AdiosToAnxiety.com