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|11 November, 2018

Three ways to deal with stress and anxiety

Changing the structure and function of your brain is not hard

Worried thoughtful man sitting on sofa

Worried thoughtful man sitting on sofa

Getty Images/ Westend61

Psychologically speaking, the most significant factors that will keep you from realising the happiness and success to which you aspire are anxiety and excessive stress. Both of these contribute significantly to depression, as well. Over 44 years of clinical practice and university teaching, I've heard people say time and time again, "I'm an anxious person, I was born that way." Or they might say I don't do well under stress." Indeed, social anxiety inhibits your ability to make friends and engage with other people. Performance anxiety inhibits your ability to perform academically and athletically. Stage fright can cripple performers. Here is the good news.. "You are not stuck with the brain you have. You can make it better." - Daniel Amen, TEDxTalks. While Dr Amen's statement sounds like hyperbole, there is actually considerable evidence that, not only is he correct but, you may be able to cultivate some degree of "immunity" from excessive stress. Think of it as a form of "psychological body armour."

Neural pathways in your brain are malleable. The brain is highly responsive to both environmental stimuli, as well as your thoughts and emotions. This phenomenon is referred to as neuroplasticity.

A musical instrument can be tuned sharp and over-responsive. It can also be tuned down to be less reactive. So too can your nervous systems be "tuned." Physiologist Ernst Gellhorn concluded that, based upon one's thoughts, emotions and experiences, the human nervous systems are capable of being "tuned" so as to be irritable, hypersensitive, and over responsive. This is especially true for the sympathetic nervous system. So the more negative thoughts you have, the more negative experiences you have, the more negative emotions you experience, and the more you worry about things, the more likely you are to actually train your brain to experience stress and anxiety reactions with less provocation.

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Changing the structure and function of your brain is not hard. Here are three simple steps that may assist you in desensitising your brain's inclinations for anxiety and building psychological body armour (PBA).

Realistic expectations and optimistic beliefs: Setting realistic expectations, preparation, and rehearsal are important aspects of building PBA.

Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a form of awareness that is achieved by focusing your attention on the present moment acknowledging what is going on around you, while at the same time calmly acknowledging your thoughts and feelings about that moment.

Relaxation response. It is a state of calm and relaxation characterised by a resistance to irritability, stress, and anxiety. It can be induced by techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, meditation, and prayer.

The three steps enumerated above are not the complete story of creating PBA, but they are the foundations. Physical exercise can increase cognitive functioning, enhance neuroplasticity, and engender a post exercise state of calm, while alterations in your diet can fuel the development of PBA by reducing oxidative stress, and reducing fibrogenesis.

George S Everly serves on the faculties of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

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