Rewire Your Anxious Brain

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 November, 2014, 5:11pm
UPDATED : Friday, 14 November, 2014, 5:11pm

Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic, & Worry

Catherine M. Pittman and Elizabeth M. Karle New Harbinger

4/5 stars

Over the past two decades, research on the brain-based underpinnings of anxiety has been conducted in laboratories around the world.

The research has unveiled new details about the physical foundation of fear: paths in the brain that detect threats and initiate protective responses have been identified, say psychologist Catherine Pittman and author Elizabeth Karle, in this guide to taming stress.

One path starts in the grey, high-level area called the cortex, and involves your perceptions about situations. The other path cuts through the bi-lateral almond-shaped structure called the amygdala, which plays a part in fear and aggression.

"The amygdala triggers the ancient fight-or-flight response, which has been passed down virtually unchanged from the earliest vertebrates on earth," write Pittman and Karle, adding that everyone experiences anxiety along both lines. The good news is that both pathways just might be modifiable.

"In the past two decades, research has revealed that the brain has a surprising level of neuroplasticity, meaning an ability to change its structures and reorganise its patterns of reacting.

"Even parts of the brain that were once thought impossible to change in adults are capable of being modified, revealing that the brain actually has an amazing capacity to change," the authors write.

For example, people with stroke-damaged brains can be taught to use different parts of the brain to move their arms, they add.

Their guide claims to provide practical ways to change circuits in each pathway, so you can loosen the stranglehold that worry exerts: a hefty assertion. It is hard to shake the suspicion that the human brain is too complex to rewire like a computer.

The doctrine of Colorado psychologist Shawn Smith comes to mind. According to Smith, at core, the brain is a tireless worry machine designed to constantly screen for threats, meaning we are stuffed. So the optimism shown by Pittman and Karle may be excessive.

The brain has a surprising ability to change its structures
Pittmann and Karle, authors

Some of their advice verges on flaky. For example, if anxiety haunts you at bedtime, you should schedule a "worry time" during the day, they suggest.

The nub of their argument is that mindful stress-relief techniques such as breathing exercises have been proven to curb amygdala activation.

Cortex-based anxiety sounds trickier to handle, but it can be beaten, it seems, by tackling "cognitive fusion" - a leaning towards treating thoughts as real, despite lack of evidence.

"Here are some examples to get you going: I think my neighbours criticise my lawn, nobody at this party likes me, or I absolutely cannot bear to have another panic attack," the authors say.

After compiling your list of borderline-paranoid, unfounded thoughts, they suggest you review it to consider the impact that the cortex gremlins have on your sanity.

The unease you feel may be especially acute if you are exceptionally imaginative, they say, in a telling aside which suggests that young adults planning their career should avoid involvement in the arts.

Pittman is a behavioural scientist who specialises in the treatment of anxiety disorders and brain injuries. Karle has a first-hand perspective on panic: "personal experience with anxiety disorders". The pair are previously responsible for a self-help book in a similar vein, Extinguishing Anxiety: Whole Brain Strategies to Relieve Fear and Stress.

The simplest anti-anxiety tactic they advocate is exercise. Aerobic exercise stints can be effective in reducing muscle tension, they say.

If you run or walk briskly when you feel anxious, you will activate muscles that have been primed for action. In step, your adrenaline levels will dip and you will burn glucose pumped into your bloodstream by the stress response.

Plus, after exercise, you will experience "substantial, long-lasting muscle relaxation", they say. It' a reassuring thought, like their take on the power of meditation.

"Studies show amazing changes in the brains of people who practise mindfulness and other forms of meditation," they write, adding that, besides curbing immediate anxiety, meditation leads to lasting change, making you enduringly resistant to worry.

So, although meditation may strike some self-improvement enthusiasts as slack, it could be worth a shot. Your frazzled nerves may well thank you.