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Can anxiety be trained and untrained in the brain? 

The answer is yes! 

So that's what I will be talking about in this post. More specifically, I will be talking about:

  • Neuroplasticity
  • How anxiety works in the brain
  • Effects of the environment
  • Tips for dealing with anxiety

  • If you prefer to watch the video, click below:


    So what is neuroplasticity? 

    You may probably have heard about it as it has become a kind of a buzzword, at least in my world. What it means is that basically, your mind can change over time. 

    So, just like a muscle, you're going to be strengthening it in that movement and ability in whatever way you use it more often.

    So let's say, for example: when you think negatively, the neural pathways that you're using to think in those terms are going to be strengthened. So the possibility and the probability of you thinking negatively another time become higher. 

    The same happens with other ways of thinking and different kinds of behaviours. So, let's say that you want to become more motivated to wake up early and go out jogging. If you succeed to move past your initial resistance and do that often enough, then the neural pathways that help you to do that will be strengthened to a point when it becomes natural behaviour for you. 

    It's usually said that this takes about 21 days to happen. So, in theory, after you wake up and go out for a run routinely for three weeks, your brain will not create any resistance because it will become used to it. 

    And when this happens, the behaviour is seen as something natural rather than something that requires will power to achieve. That is to say, the motivation you'll need then will be much lower because you have incorporated the behaviour in your routine and not something extraordinary that you need to be motivated to achieve. That's the power of neuroplasticity. 

    (Well, rainy days may still be rainy days, but you get the point.)

    Anxiety in the brain

    The way that anxiety works in the brain is pretty much the same thing. When you start having anxious thoughts, you're strengthening that process in your brain and promoting more anxiety in the future.

    But anxiety is not all bad. It can actually serve us a purpose when experienced in a healthy measure.

    Anxiety helps us be alert and tackle the challenges in our environment in a fast and efficient way. So, when there is a threat perceived, the body responds to be prepared to face that threat. And we can feel the physical signs of that response happening. Your muscles contract, your mouth becomes drier, your heartbeat becomes faster, and your breathing becomes shallower; those are all signs that your body is becoming ready to face a threat. 

    But, what happens is that, in our society, even if we're not encountering any real threats, as we used to experience when we lived in the wild, we are still having lots of those responses. 

    That's what makes anxiety a problem: it's a primitive response from our brain, when faced with perceived threats in the environment that are pretty much unreal

    Effects of environment

    So, for example, there's a common fear of speaking in public. And when you have to speak in public, you might feel the same kind of symptoms that I have mentioned before, like having a dry mouth or the heart beating faster. But there's, in fact, no threat in the situation. Except if no one likes your talk, impacting your level of status in the "tribe".

    So, even if rationally there's no real threat involved when the body has this kind of threat response over and over and over again, you start to get highly affected by your physical reactions. And because you are physically and psychologically affected, you aren't able to perform in the same way. Which is easy to see, will only reinforce your fears of speaking in public another time. 

    And because you didn't perform as well as you could, the next time you face a similar situation, you'll perceive the challenge as threatening again, and you'll predict what will happen in a pessimistic way, and your body will react in the same, or worse, ways.

    Do you see how this becomes a cycle?

    So it is essential to find a way to break this cycle and retrain your brain to become more realistic and distinguish better between real and unreal threats. And to relax in the face of challenges that aren't real threats and perform more effectively.

    yellow flowers

    Tips for dealing with anxiety 

    Some practical tips for you to handle this kind of response are to:

    Create a Balanced Environment

    First of all, it's important that you create a calm environment around you. 

    Sometimes we are completely unaware of the things that are over-stimulating us. Maybe you can't deal with silence, so you like to have some noise background, or you never set your phone to silent mode because you enjoy having lots of notifications. Or maybe you enjoy silence so much that you end up isolating yourself. 

    This can all create a kind of circumstance which your brain might perceive as too much to handle. This can be perceived in your brain as too intense and threatening. And make you feel like you're not going to be able to take it because it's just too much. 

    So it is good that you:

    Create a balanced environment around you, at least for certain times of the day, so that you can give your body and brain a proper rest. An environment that says: There are no threats here. Nothing is going to happen. There's nothing to worry about. Everything is under control. 

    So if you tend to isolate yourself in silence, remember to put on some music for a moment, dance a little, or call a friend. And if you tend to have a lot of distractions all the time, give yourself a moment of stillness, or go out for a walk with very soothing music or no music at all.


    Fun fact:

    We feel so good when we go to the top of a mountain or when we go for a walk on the beach because when we look around and all, and there's all that space, our brain understands that there aren't any threats around. And if there was a threat, it could be seen from far away. So the brain can truly relax in an environment like this. 

    But when we are in an apartment, or when we are in a crowded place, the brain is very much more in an alert state because it understands that a threat can come from any side, at any moment, and you have to be ready to handle it. 

    So, you see that even if you're not consciously thinking about threats, your brain is scanning everything looking for them and processing whether or not it needs to react. 

    The same goes for a very cluttered environment. When there's a lot of stuff around you, your brain is looking at everything and processing it all the time. This is why a cluttered environment can give you a higher level of anxiety. Just because there's too much stuff. So to keep your brain calm, you'd be better if you'd:


    In that regard, it would be good for you to create a calm environment by detoxing distractions and creating an environment that it's clutter-free.

    And by clutter-free, I mean not only the piles of stuff that might be hanging around your place waiting to be dealt with, but also any unnecessary stuff that you bring into your life, such as useless information of any kind. Think about the news, social media, celebrity lives, or anything that overload your brain with useless data to handle. 

    A side note here about the news: of course, it's good to be updated about the world. But it's probably better if you choose one way to update yourself about the world instead of just being bombarded with all the news and all the kind of things terrible things that are happening all the time. So choose one way to get updated so that you can also filter a lot of the irrelevant stuff for your life. 

    Use positive visualisation

    When it comes to dealing with specific situations, visualisation works.

    When you visualise that you're going to be able to accomplish something, this tells your brain that it is possible. And it gives details of how it will look like and how it will feel. And because the brain doesn't distinguish between imagination and reality, when the time comes to accomplish that thing in real life, the brain will already feel more comfortable with it because it has already "lived it".  

    So when you're visualising doing something that you feel is very challenging, but you're visualising it as achievable and done calmly and successfully, your brain will learn that it's possible. And, through neuroplasticity, with practice, it will have already strengthened the necessary neural pathways to make it happen.


    Another thing that I must mention is meditation

    Meditation is a wonderful way to give your brain a break. It's probably my favourite way to practice relaxation because, at the same time, it strengthens your brain's ability to deal with life's challenges.

    For example, suppose it is a challenge for you to sit still, which is very common for beginner meditators. When you put yourself through that situation for two, three, four, five minutes, or more, you're telling your brain it is okay to stay focused and calm even through an uncomfortable situation.

    Because, let's face it, especially when you start meditating, sitting still can be incredibly hard, even if it sounds weird to say that. But because your mind is just not used to being still and wants to be doing things, it wants to be handling the outside world, as it's used to. So when you sit down and close your eyes and "force" yourself to be still, your mind struggles in there and creates a level of discomfort that might make you ultimately give it up.

    The positive effects of meditation have been widely researched, and it has been repeatedly shown that there are many benefits for your psychological and physiological health when you meditate. It's incredible how sitting still and watching your breath can have so many benefits to your life, to you, and your brain. I will not talk much more about it here, but it's a practice that I highly recommend.

    You can access a guided meditation and give yourself some minutes of brain rest by accessing one of the free guided meditations I offer in the Toolbox.

    To recap, we talked about:

    • How the brain can be trained, 
    • How anxiety works in the brain, 
    • How your environment influences your anxiety, 
    • And also some practical tips for you to handle anxiety in your life. 

    Was there anything in this post that stood up to you as most interesting? If so, I would say take a moment to reflect around what you can do or undo about that situation, so you can improve your life, even if just a little, starting today!

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    About the author

    Ana Batista is a psychologist focused on making change easy. Besides therapy, she teaches online courses and workshops on positive psychology, brain science, and self-authoring. 


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