Can We "Turn Off" Anxiety?

A study was conducted this year that led to some very interesting- if not potentially amazing- findings about anxiety. There may be a way to “turn it off” (in the brain) that doesn’t involve ‘significant drawbacks’ according to this article. That is a gross oversimplification of what I’m about to further explain, but first let us touch on what anxiety is.

The word anxiety is inaccurately thrown around and misused in all sorts of ways, so let’s cover the basics:

  • Anxiety can also be worded as ‘worry’ and sometimes overlaps with fear. It is anticipation of a future threat. It’s an inability to control feelings of worry that can look like restlessness, being easily fatigued or exhausted, irritability, tension in the muscles, difficulty concentrating or having the mind go blank, and sleep disturbances.

  • Feeling anxious in certain situations is normal, such as before taking an important exam or giving birth for the first time. Only the first time. (I’m kidding, I’ve never done that and I’m sure it’s always terrifying. I mean beautiful.)

  •  Feeling persistent or excessive worry for more days than not for 6 months or more is not normal or healthy. This, in addition to other criteria (such as this persistent worry causing severe stress and life impairment) would be considered as Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This is the most common type of anxiety disorder; others are known as separation anxiety disorder, selective mutism, specific phobia disorders, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and substance/medication induced anxiety disorder.

  • This prolonged and excessive worry can cause severe stress and may manifest as physical symptoms like shaking, vomiting, and dizziness.

  • Anxiety disorders can be extremely crippling.

  • Anxiety disorders are very common- 1 in 5 people suffer. In women- twice as common.

(So, we agree that anxiety is terrible and super prevalent. Now back to the study.)

Researchers studied mice to see if they could control anxiety levels by essentially dialing up or down a specific kind of brain cell that lives in the hippocampus. This “dialing” up and down is a technique of manipulating individual neurons in the brain called optogenetics. Apparently, mice experience anxiety in open spaces, and when scientists dialed down the activity of these specific brain cells, the anxiety levels of the mice not only decreased, but the mice wanted to explore the open spaces more. It goes without saying that what is true for a mouse may not be true for a human, but we have to start somewhere!

This whole business about the hippocampus brings up something worth considering: The hippocampus and the hypothalamus talk to each other, and one of the hypothalamus’ functions is to link the nervous system to the endocrine system via the pituitary gland. Stay with me. Endocrine system = hormones = all sorts of important things like mood, appetite, development, energy, etc. Everything is connected! When we feel anxiety (perceived threat), when certain cells in the brain are lit up and activated, the hypothalamus receives these messages too. Imagine what happens within our systems when those cells are activated and STAY activated. That is a lot of stress for your body to manage. Now imagine if that threat of danger is not an actual threat, but your brain can’t tell the difference.

While the amazing nerds do their thing and fix us all, here are some quick things you can try on your own (without medication) to reduce anxiety levels:

1.     I’ll start with my personal favorite. Let’s say that I’m feeling anxious because I have to give a presentation.

a.     I write down what I’m afraid of or worried about. I start by asking myself, “What is the worst that could happen?” And I literally write down my worst-case scenario: I freeze in front of colleagues and forget what to say. Then, I continue to write down and flush out what could follow.

b.     “Will I die if this happens?” –No.

c.      “Will I get kicked out of my MA program?” –No.

d.     “Will I be embarrassed?”- Yes.

                             i.     “Will your peers lose respect for you?”- Maybe.

ii.     “What would you do if this happened?” – Work extra hard to bring quality thoughts to our future discussions.

e.     “Will I fail the class?” –Unlikely, but maybe.

                                 i.     “Will failing the class kill you?”- No.

                                 ii.     “What would I do if I failed the class?”- Take it again.

As we can guess, freezing during a presentation probably won’t lead to me failing the entire class or losing all respect from my peers, but my brain needs to realize that in order to calm down. If I don’t stop to think about what is really going on in my mind, presentation= possible death.

2.     Breath slowly and deeply from the diaphragm, not from your chest (meaning your stomach is expanding out and your shoulders are not moving). You can find all sorts of research online supporting the calming effects of breath exercises.

3.     Move. Exercise. Be aware of your physical body and take your mind off of your mind.

4.     Interact with someone you love, or just like. Talk to someone who makes you feel good. Give them a hug. Hold a hand.