We all feel anxious from time to time, but for many people, anxiety is a daily intrusion. Anxiety is driven by a strong, healthy brain that works too hard to be the fearless protector. An anxious brain is super-sensitive to threat, which means that it can often hit the panic button ‘just in case’. This is a great thing when there’s trouble about, but when it happens too often, it stops being a great thing and becomes an anxiety thing.
Anxiety is a physical response, not a chosen one. Everyone feels anxious from time to time, but it becomes a problem when it gets in the way of everyday life. Anxiety is so common, chances are that if you’re not struggling with it, someone you know or love probably is.
Here are some discoveries from science that are helping to make sense of anxiety and offering new ways to manage it. And if you can’t trust science …
Important New Insights Into What Works.
Five sessions of massage can significantly reduce anxiety. Massage. I know. You’re welcome.
It’s often the way that the things that are super-good for us aren’t always fun to do, but then this happens – and it’s glorious, like, ‘sign me up for the rest of my life’ type of glorious …
Research has found that five sessions of Swedish massage can significantly reduce the symptoms of anxiety, as well as a reduction in cortisol (the stress hormone). Swedish massage is one of the most common types of massage and involves the more traditional, deep tissue massaging. People diagnosed with generalised anxiety (almost constant anxiety), received two 45-minute massages a week, for six weeks. As early as the fifth session (week three), they showed a significant reduction in anxiety symptoms. There was also brought about a reduction in depression symptoms.
A review of previous research found that massage therapy reduces cortisol (the stress hormone) by an average of 31%. It also increases serotonin by an average of 28%, and dopamine by an average of 31%. Low levels of serotonin and dopamine are linked to anxiety. The exact reasons for this are unclear, but the importance of touch in human mental and physical well-being is well-established. Frequent touching (wanted touching not creepy touching) has been found to improve the immune system, decrease heart rate and blood pressure, strengthen connections between people and improve well-being generally. But if massages aren’t your thing …
Weighted blankets help with anxiety.
Research has found that weighted blankets can provide relief from anxiety symptoms. They calm the nervous system in a similar way to being held. It’s no secret that the way to comfort a baby is to snuggle it in a swaddle wrap. The need for touch pressure (the type that comes from a hug or a massage) isn’t just for babies – it’s a basic human need and weighted blankets are a way to meet this need. The heaviness from the pressure of the blanket stimulates the deep pressure touch receptors in the body. This relaxes the nervous system and helps the body to feel more relaxed, grounded and safe.
Gut bacteria can cure or prevent symptoms of anxiety.
It’s widely accepted in the scientific community that gut health is a big player in mental health. We know there are trillions of microbes that live in the intestinal tract. These send signals to the brain that can change mood and behaviour. Research published in The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry found that anxious mice calmed down dramatically when they ate the healthy microbes collected from the poop of calm mice (ok, gross, but clever). Mice are often used in experiments because of their biological and genetic similarity to humans (and because there are some things that, for love or money, we humans will not do). When researchers fed the stressed mice the same probiotics (live bacteria) found in the calm mice, the behaviour of the anxious mice continued to improve for several weeks afterwards.
Gut bacteria are the rock stars of the mental health world. It’s a good thing they’re microscopic because if they were any bigger they’d be demanding leather jackets to keep them happy and speciality foods like fermen__ Oh, wait …
Fermented foods can reduce anxiety through gut bacteria.
The healthier your gut, the healthier your mental health. A recent study found that people who tend to be socially anxious report less social anxiety if their diet contained fermented foods (which contain probiotics).
‘It is likely that the probiotics in the fermented foods are favorably changing the environment in the gut, and changes in the gut in turn influence social anxiety.’ – Professor Matthew Hilimire, lead author of the study, University of Maryland, Baltimore.
Fermented foods are probiotic powerhouses that work by increasing the good bacteria in the gut, the home of our ‘second brain’. They include:
· yoghurt (look for the ones that say they contain live and active cultures),
· kefir (a drinkable yoghurt, slightly more tangy),
· sauerkraut (fermented cabbage),
· kimchi (fermented cabbage – the Korean version), and
· tempeh (made from soybeans – tofu’s nuttier, chewier, firmer, less processed cousin).
A warning though – the introduction of probiotics to has to happen slowly. When probiotics kill off pathogens, they release toxins. It is these toxins that are likely to be already contributing to symptoms (depression, anxiety, physical illnesses). When probiotics are increased suddenly, the release of toxins is also increased suddenly, and whatever symptoms you’ve been struggling with couldm worsen. Gently, gently.
Still on food … Omega 3 supplement reduces inflammation and anxiety.
In a study published in the journal, Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, an omega-3 supplement was found to reduce anxiety by 20% compared to a placebo. The amount of omega-3 in the supplement was about four or five times the amount of fish oil in a serve of salmon.
The authors suggest that people should consider increasing their omega-3 through their diet. There are three types of omega-3. EPA and DHA are found in fish, particularly salmon and tuna. The Harvard School of Public Health recommends eating fish or seafood at least twice a week. The third type of omega-3 is ALA, but the body uses this mainly for energy so the conversion into EPA and DHA is very limited. ALA-rich foods are walnuts, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, leafy vegetables, meat from grass-fed animals.
There’s a song for that. Science says this is the ‘most relaxing song ever’ – and it can reduce anxiety.
Sound therapists and Manchester band Marconi Union teamed up to produce the quintessential relaxation track using proven elements of scientific theory. The song they created is ‘Weightless’ and research by the British Academy of Sound Therapy found that it was able to lower blood pressure, slow heart rate and reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) remarkably. Research found that the song decreased overall anxiety rates by 65%, bringing participants to a level 35 % lower than their usual resting rate. The relaxation effect was evident even though participants were given a stressful task to complete in within a stressful time constraint. ‘Weightless’ is eight minutes long but the ride is a blissful one. You can listen to it here.
A warning though – The researchers warn that the song is so relaxing, best not listen to it while driving.
Kids with anxiety benefit significantly from mindfulness because of the way it changes brain activity.
Anxiety troubles more than one in four adolescents aged between 13 and 18. A study, published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology, found that the more mindfulness kids and teens practised over a 12 week period, the more their anxiety improved. The study involved kids and teens 9 and 16. They had all been diagnosed with different types of anxiety including generalised, social and separation anxiety. The mindfulness-based techniques included meditation and yoga. After 12 weeks, there were obvious changes in brain activity:
• increased neural activity in the cingulate – a part of the brain involved in processing cognitive and emotional information; and
• increased activity in the insula – a part of the brain that is involved in emotional processing, perception, self-awareness, empathy, the ability to listen to music and how the body feels emotionally, which guides us to either approach or avoid a stimulus.
Mindfulness changes the structure and function of anxious adult brains too.
In an extensive analysis of 19 separate mindfulness/anxiety studies, it was found that mindfulness was ‘associated with robust and substantial reductions in symptoms of anxiety.’ In fact, mindfulness was found to be as effective for anxiety as cognitive behaviour therapy – one of the most popular treatments for anxiety. Mindfulness changes the structure and function of the brain to strengthen it against anxiety. To read how mindfulness changes the brain, see here. For a simple way to practice mindfulness, see here, or try the free Smiling Minds app (here you go) which has mindfulness exercises for kids to adults.
Exercise. It’s a little bit magic.
Some neurons are born with the personality of puppies – easily excited and always ready to switch on. In the right amount and at the right times, these neurons are gold. It’s because of them that we can think quickly, act quickly and remember. Too much of a good thing though, is too much. When too many of these neurons getting excited and fire up unnecessarily, anxiety can happen. To stop them getting too carried away and causing trouble, the brain has a neurochemical, GABA, which is the brain’s ‘calm down’ chemical. If the levels of GABA in the brain are low, there’s nothing to calm these over-excited neurons.
Exercise works by boosting GABA in the brain. Most of the substances that ease the symptoms of anxiety (alcohol, medication) also work by boosting GABA. Whatever gets your heart going counts as exercise. This will be different for everyone. It doesn’t have to mean thrashing yourself on a treadmill to the point of ‘can’t … talk …. can’t … breathe’ if talking and breathing are more your thing than running (hand goes up). A brisk 20 minute walk or 8-10 minutes of going up and down the stairs a couple of times a day will also do it. Whatever works for you. Try for something you can do at least five times a week. See here for ideas on how to get exercising when one of your favourite things in the world is ‘not exercising’.
And if vigorous exercise and you are still working on your relationship …
If you deeply committed to the belief that the words ‘vigorous’ and ‘exercise’ should be kept apart, it’s okay – science has something for you too. New research has found that non-aerobic exercise like relaxation like yoga can also ease anxiety. Relation and exercise. Now there’s a lovely pairing. Lovely.
So if exercise is good for anxiety, how does ‘not moving’ stack up?
When it comes to anxiety, not moving is not great. In a review of previous studies, researchers from Deakin University in Australia found that sitting or low energy activities can make anxiety worse. We know that exercise is hugely beneficial for anxiety because of its effect on the balance of important chemicals in the brain. It’s not surprising then, that a lack of physical activity makes anxiety worse.
Putting feelings into words can reduce anxiety.
Using words to describe intense feelings can relieve anxiety. In a UCLA study, 88 people who were scared of spiders were asked to … wait for it … approach a massive live tarantula and touch it if they could. (What could go wrong?)
The ones who said what they were feeling were able to get closer to the spider and showed less physiological symptoms of anxiety than those who used neutral or no words. The more negative the words, (as in ‘terrified’ rather than ‘nervous’), the greater the effect.
Previous research has shown that verbalising feelings decreases activity in the amygdala (the part of the brain that initiates the fight or flight response) and the physical symptoms of anxiety.
‘This is ancient wisdom. Putting our feelings into words helps us heal better. If a friend is sad and we can get them to talk about it, that probably will make them feel better.’ – Matthew D. Lieberman, UCLA associate professor of psychology and a founder of social cognitive neuroscience.
Naming an emotion seems to soothe the nervous system and allows the right and left hemispheres to work together. We know that during anxiety, the right hemisphere seems to be more active. This is the seat of emotion and feelings. The left hemisphere is dominant in words and logic. When the right hemisphere is dominating, feelings can be overwhelming and not make a lot of sense. The left hemisphere is ‘this is what’s happening’, the right hemisphere is, ‘and this is what it means for me’. When the left is brought on board (by using language), it is able to give structure and meaning to the feelings. As Marc Brackett from the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence, explains, ‘If you can name it, you can tame it.’
Go on. Strike a pose.
Striking a power pose for two minutes will change the brain in ways that will reduce anxiety and build confidence and assertiveness. Research conducted at Harvard by Amy Cuddy found that when people expanded themselves into a high power pose for two minutes, they experienced a 20% increase in testosterone (the dominance hormone) and a 25% decrease in cortisol (the stress hormone). Higher testosterone leads to greater confidence, while lower cortisol leads to an increased capacity to deal with stress. It’s a powerful combo that together can reduce anxiety significantly.
The best thing about this is that the pose can be done in private. It’s about the physiological changes that are triggered by the pose, not about what other people see. Any pose that increases the space your body occupies is a power pose. Think Superman with legs wide apart, hands stretched out in front, chin up, chest out. Alternatively, channelling Wonder Woman – legs apart, hands on hips, shoulders back and chest – will also have the same effect. Ditto for a starfish pose – arms and legs outstretched and wide apart. A power pose is anything that makes your physical presence bigger.
An unexpected way to deal with performance anxiety.
Research conducted at Harvard University showed that relabelling ‘anxiety’ as ‘excitement’ improved performance during activities that induced anxiety. Anxiety and excitement are similar in many ways. Both are characterised by high arousal and other physiological experiences – sweating, butterflies, racey heart. Labelling a feeling as ‘anxiety’ sets up thoughts of everything that could go wrong. Relabelling the feeling as ‘excited’ brings to mind more positive, productive thoughts of what might be.
Fascinating New Insights Into What Anxiety Does and Why.
Why anxiety can trip you up when people are watching.
That anxious slip-up when people are watching – who hasn’t been there? Being watched during an exam, a race, or a performance can sometimes end in anguish – and it can have nothing to do with skill or knowledge. Nothing at all. People who care about what they do, tend to care about what people think.
Now, neuroscientists have found the part of the brain that makes anxiety spoil the party by flooring you at the worst time – when people are watching. The trouble comes from a brain network that neuroscientists like to call the action-observation network (AON). This network helps us figure out what other people are thinking or feeling based on their facial expressions and the direction of their gaze.
The part of the brain that helps us to control our fine sensorimotor functions (inferior parietal cortex (IPC)), forms part of this network. Researchers found that the IPC receives information through the network about what other people might be thinking or feeling and uses this info to generate the best motor action for the task – or not. Here’s what happens … If we believe the people watching want us to do well, we’re more likely to perform well. But, if we pick up any negative cues from their facial expressions, eye direction or movement, the IPC shuts down and our performance hits the dirt. What this means is somebody looking at their watch while you’re speaking can be enough to give the IPC the message that they might be bored/ indifferent/ think you’re rubbish – and it will shut down.
Researchers suggest that the way around this is to work at believing the audience want you to do well.
‘It’s important to believe that the audience is supporting you and wishing for your successful performance,’ Dr Michiko Yoshie, neuroscientist and lead author of the study.
To strengthen this belief, practice performing in front of people who you know support you. Performing in front of family or close friends will activate a positive pattern in the brain and boost confidence. Your experiences matter.
Social anxiety is genetic, but environment is key.
One of the most exciting discoveries in psychology in the last decade or so is that the brain can change according to the experiences it is exposed to. This means that although genetics are important, they are NOT destiny. Research has found that the risk of developing social anxiety is heavily influenced by genes, but whether or not you actually have social anxiety at any given point is most strongly influenced by the environment. As with anything in psychology, something is only a problem if it causes a problem. It’s normal to worry about what people might think, but that worry tips into social anxiety when it starts getting in the way of life. It generally appears in adolescence and rarely after the mid-twenties if you’ve never had it before. It can often get better in time. The study found that two-thirds of people who had social anxiety in their twenties no longer met the criteria for diagnosis ten years later.
‘Even people who have a good, secure upbringing can experience social anxiety. However, if you have an inherited risk, you can learn to defy the tendency of avoidance and know what to do if the anxiety appears. Although the genetic risk is long-lasting, it does not mean that you have to live with the symptoms. There are good treatments for social anxiety. The treatment involves exposure to the feared situations and acknowledging your anxiety.’ Fartein Ask Torvik, researcher, Department of Genetics, Environment and Mental Health, Norwegian Institute of Public Health.
Anxiety interferes with decision-making. Here’s how …
Research published in The Journal of Neuroscience explains how anxiety can roll good decision-making. The trouble happens in the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), the area at the front of the brain that is heavily involved in planning, weighing up consequences and organising thoughts in a logical, rational way to get to a good decision. Anxiety numbs a group of neurons in the PFC that are specifically involved in making choices. This interrupts the brain’s capacity to screen out distractions. The distractions can be physical (as in things in the environment) or thoughts and worries. (For ways to stop anxiety steering decision, see here.)
People with anxiety see the world a little differently. Not better, not worse, just different .
People who are living with anxiety have something in common. Their brains have a unique wiring that causes them to interpret things as harmful, even if they aren’t. The scientists call this ‘overgeneralisation’. In people who have anxiety, emotional experiences cause changes in the brain that persist even after the emotional experience is over. These changes cause difficulties in being able to tell the difference between the original experience and subsequent experiences. What this means is that rather than assessing the potential harm of things in the environment with fresh eyes every time, people with anxiety tend to overgeneralise and interpret everything as potentially harmful.
The differences were found in the amygdala, the part of the brain that helps keep us alive by noticing any potential threats in the environment. It is also responsible for the experience of intense emotion, and the changes that happen in the body as a result of the fight or flight response. Increased activity in the amygdala has been associated with panic attacks and anxiety.
The researchers stress that the flexibility of the brain that leads to anxiety isn’t ‘bad’.
‘Anxiety traits can be completely normal, and even beneficial evolutionarily. Yet an emotional event, even minor sometimes, can induce brain changes that might lead to full-blown anxiety.’ – Rony Paz, Researcher, Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.
Anxiety can steer you to the left.
Research from the University of Kent has found that anxiety can influence the direction you walk in. Not in the way a bakery at 8am can change your direction (come on – we’ve all done it), but in the way an active right brain can. People living with anxiety have more activity in the right side of the brain, which can steer them in a leftward trajectory. As part of the study, volunteers were blindfolded and asked to walk in a straight line towards a target they had already seen. The more anxious ones veered to the left. The research indicates that the brain’s two hemisphere’s – the left and the right – are associated with different systems of motivation. The right is related to inhibition, the left to approach. People who are feeling more anxious and more inhibited will have more activity in the right hemisphere which will tilt them towards the left. Who would’ve thought?
And finally …
Anxiety is so common. If it isn’t causing trouble for you or someone you love, it’s very likely that it will be for at least one person in your close circle. It’s useful then, for all of us to be a bit savvy about it. There is so much research happening around anxiety and with every new insight, we get closer to understanding more about anxiety, which brings us closer to managing it. We’re getting there.