The human brain is good at creating anxiety. You can undo your anxiety when you know how you created it. If you blame it on external forces instead, your internal power is lost. Here are four easy steps to help you locate the “off” switch to your jitters, whether it’s bad stuff you’re anticipating or good stuff.
Anxiety is just a chemical
Cortisol is the chemical that makes you feel bad. Your body eliminates it in a couple of hours, so you will feel good again soon as long as you don’t trigger more in that time. Unfortunately, that’s hard to do. Cortisol creates a threatened feeling that sends your brain urgently searching for threats. But you can find the “off” switch when you know how your brain defines “threats.”
Threats are just neural pathways
Whatever felt bad in your past built a pathway in your brain that turns on your cortisol when you see something similar. The pathways you built before age eight and during puberty become the superhighways of our brain, so whatever felt bad during those years wired the alarm system of your brain. Yikes! We all end up with more alarm than we really need. We all feel threatened by tiny cues that were relevant long ago. Many of those cues have value – they protect you from falling off cliffs or buying bridges from attractive strangers. But they are inevitably a flawed guide to life.
You can build new self-soothing circuits
Self-soothing is also a set of neural pathways built long ago. We humans are born helpless and vulnerable. The first circuit in your brain – the foundation on which later experience is laid – is the urgent sense of having needs you can’t meet on your own. You learn to soothe yourself each time a need is met, with a little help from the world around you. By the end of puberty, each brain has a cockamamy collection of self-soothing circuits. Many of them have value, but they have consequences too. If you keep repeating old same self-soothing habits, you keep getting the same consequences. You can build a new self-soothing habit, but it’s harder than you think because your old superhighways are so comfortable. Blazing a new trail through your jungle of neurons is hard work, and the trail soon disappears unless you pass through it every day. If you repeat a new behavior for 45 days without fail, a new circuit will get established. So choose a new response to anxiety and invest 45 days of your energy in it. You will like the result!
Don’t wait too long for the world to fix it for you
We often blame anxiety on “our society” and believe the world must change before we can be calm. If you wait for the world to reach into your brain and soothe you, life will pass you by. Remember that monkeys had the same anxieties we had fifty million years ago. They had in-group/out-group politics and they groomed other monkeys who didn’t groom them back. Social anxiety is part of being a mammal. When you’re safe from physical threats, your mammal brain focuses on social threats. It has always been this way, so don’t expect the world to change in a way that fixes it for you. Listen to the song Don’t Wait Too Long every time you’re tempted to fall back on your old circuits and you will succeed at re-wiring yourself.
Go forth and unscramble
The French have a great word for someone who manages well in a crisis: “débrouillard.” It literally means a person who can “unscramble.” So when life gives you scrambled eggs, trust in your ability to unscramble them. Focus on steps that will meet your needs because that stimulates your dopamine. The great feeling of dopamine relieves the bad cortisol feeling fast, because that’s how our brain is designed to work!