I needed to challenge that belief. I explained to Jane that the brain is a remarkably plastic organ, capable of change over the entire lifespan. I told her how experiences and specific treatment techniques can help to alter brain structures, which then allow different emotional and cognitive reactions in life, including overcoming her anxiety. Jane was curious and eagerly listened as I described a few techniques.
If you experience anxiety or depression, consider adding the following techniques to your daily regimen. Over time, you may find some fairly dramatic changes in both your emotional states and the way you think.
Music-Most people are familiar with the idea of music helping to calm you in times of stress and energize you with a lively beat. Listening to music you like that complements your mood also reduces cortisol, which is a hormone that results when stress or anxiety persist for too long. Reducing cortisol also helps to shape more functional neural pathways in the brain.
Laughter and levity-Laughter and humor are another way to lower your Cortisol levels. In fact, smiling, even fake smiling, for as little as two minutes drops Cortisol measurably. So try to include joke telling, funny movies, or other ways of injecting humor into your life on a daily basis and watch the worry lines begin to disappear.
Social connectivity-Research published in the January 2013 journal Science reported on the effect of bullying on the brain of mice. Both Cortisol and Dopamine were impacted and the bullied mice began to avoid their peers, which led to further increased anxiety. Research on humans has also demonstrated the same downward spiral of social anxiety. It appears that those who continue to be involved with others despite feeling some social anxiety remain healthier and improve more quickly than those who give in to their fear and unease.
Regular physical activity-Most people know that physical activity is good for your heart and lungs. It is also good for your mental health. Regular physical activity is another way to reduce Cortisol and anxiety. Regular physical activity, especially outdoors has been found to be nearly as effective for treating depression as antidepressant medications.
You may have heard of the “fight or flight” response, which is responsible associated with stress in the first place. Physical activities such as kick boxing, tennis, baseball and other sports mimic the “fight” movements and burn-up Cortisol. Activities such as walking, running, swimming, or biking are excellent ways of using the same muscle groups involved in “flight” and again help your body to metabolize the hormone Cortisol. And don’t assume you need to spend hours at the gym either. As little as 10 minutes three times a day, or 30 minutes 2-3 times per week are sufficient to see big changes.
Mental relaxation- Some form of mental relaxation such as mindfulness, meditation, or guided imagery helps to slow your heart beat, relax your breathing, and lower Cortisol levels. Setting aside as little as 10-15 minutes a day for these practices trains your body and mind in calmness and reduces Cortisol.
One of my favorite meditations is Loving-Kindness-Meditation (LKM). It is an especially easy form of meditation in which you sit or rest quietly and systematically send loving and compassionate thoughts to 1) family and friends, 2) a person with whom you are in conflict, 3) all people throughout the world who are struggling, and 4) compassion, love, and forgiveness to yourself. As you see, the process is very simple. I like to play some calming music while I do the meditation.
After I had given Jane a clear picture of what to expect, she was ready to try out the meditation with music. I helped her to settle comfortably and become aware of her breathing and the position of her body. I led her through noticing all the places her body was supported. I could see her body respond as she moved through all four parts of the meditation and when she opened her eyes, she smiled and exclaimed, “Wow! I feel great!” Over the next couple of weeks, Jane practiced the LKM with music every day and at our next appointment she reported feeling very different, calmer, less stressed. And she was sleeping better too.
These techniques don’t fix all the symptoms associated with issues from the past or the present but regularly practicing them can begin to rewire your brain to reduce anxiety and decrease Cortisol, which will help your body as well as your mental health, and increase your sense of optimism and confidence. That’s a pretty big pay-off for such a small investment.