How to Calm Your Wired-to-Worry Brain

Worrying has become the norm these days.

We worry about paying the bills. We nervously read up on and monitor our health. If that wasn’t enough, then we fret about our kids getting into college. And when they do, we worry about them finding a good job after graduating. There’s an endless supply of material for mind sweat.

According to The National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental diagnosis in the United States and go hand-in-hand with depression. Anxiety affects some 40 million adults in the U.S. age 18 and older.

Why Your Brain Is Wired To Worry

Your brain is biologically wired to worry.

The same circuits in your frontal lobes that allow for superior human intelligence: decision-making, problem-solving, and planning, also produce worry. In your brain, the only difference between worrying and planning is the amount and type of emotional involvement and self-oriented processing. Worrying carries more highly charged negative emotions.

Your brain’s top priority is always keeping you safe and alive, and it’s evolved to accomplish that task very well. That innate instinct stuck in overdrive results in worry. Sometimes, worrying is justified and is just your brain doing its job. Oftentimes, it’s anything but useful and is you indulging in negative thought patterns.

Worrying becomes a problem when your brain’s anxiety-circuits activate too frequently continually triggering your body’s fear response. This initiates the release of stress hormones which damages your mental and physical health over time.

The Difference Between Worry And Anxiety

Although the words are often used interchangeably, worry and anxiety are technically two different things. Worrying is based in your mind in thoughts, and anxiety is the physical manifestations of those thoughts, for example, a queasy stomach or carrying out behaviors that help avoid anxiety-producing situations.

In your brain, worrying primarily involves the prefrontal cortex and its interactions with the limbic system, particularly the anterior cingulate. Anxiety is the activation of the fear circuit and only involves the limbic system – communications between the amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus. When your amygdala identifies a situation as threatening, the hypothalamus initiates the fight or flight response.

In his book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, Alex Korb explains:

Ways Out Of The Worry Trap

Both worry and anxiety can completely derail your life. When you’re using your higher-level mental resources for worrying, you can’t access those parts of your brain for more important things, like completing that big project at work or planning the annual family get-together. Your brain can’t focus on the task at hand or connect with others very well if it’s preoccupied with worry.

You can take concrete steps to break the habit of worrying. That’s what it is: a habitual brain pattern. To change it, you have to calm your brain’s fear circuit and consciously engage and guide your thinking brain. Here are some ways to begin to do that:

1. Become aware of your emotions.

The first step to decreasing worry is to realize when you’re doing it. Becoming aware of your emotional state as it occurs enlists your thinking frontal cortex and suppresses the fight or flight amygdala response. In one study, when people simply labeled an emotion, their brains calmed down.

2. Practice deep breathing.

Taking slow, deep breaths through your nose into your diaphragm with slow exhales. This engages your parasympathetic (calming) nervous system and turns down your body’s stress response. Relaxed breathing tells your body to relax. Relaxed breathing tells your body to relax.

3. Stay in the now.

When you find your mind drifting to the past or future, bring your attention back to the present, a practice known as mindfulness. In this moment, realize that you are alright right now. It’s your thoughts creating a sense of danger. Bringing your awareness back into the now calms your amygdala and activates your thinking frontal lobe. Many studies show that with repetition, mindfulness practice can lead to long-term, lasting reduction of anxiety and worrying.

4. Focus on what you can control.

Your brain craves control, and it’s happier and calmer when it feels more in control — even if it’s just an illusion. Feeling in control can reduce anxiety, worrying, and even pain. In the book, Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool, Taylor Clark writes:

The more certainty and control we think we have about a potentially threatening situation, the less stress we will feel. Interestingly enough, perception is all that counts with this. You don’t actually need to have perfect certainty or total control over how things will pan out; you just need to believe that you have them.”

5. Make a decision – any decision.

Research shows that simply making a decision about whatever it is that you’re worrying gets your thinking brain involved, increases dopamine levels, deactivates your amygdala, and shifts your brain’s focus. Making a decision — no matter how small — also elevates your perceived control giving confidence and mood a boost which helps you to take even more positive action.

6. Decide that good is good enough.

Imposing unrealistic expectations on yourself or others often triggers worry. You don’t have to aim for exercising every single day. Three hours of cardio a week is the standard advised and is more doable. While meditating for thirty minutes daily would be awesome, a ten-minute meditation session will yield positive results too.

7. Stay open and get comfortable with uncertainty.

We create a lot of needless worrying because we attach to a specific outcome and stress about things going the way we want them to. What you like, want, and think you need isn’t always going to be the best or even get you to your goal, oftentimes. By trying to force one particular outcome, you limit other possibilities that could bring what you were seeking in the first place. I’ve seen this happen many times in my own life.

When I let go, let life surprise me, and mindfully respond to what does arise, situations often turn out better than I could have even planned. It’s about learning to have faith in yourself and the universe and getting comfortable with uncertainty.

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  1. Sandra Pawula Reply

    It’s good to see the connection between worry and the stress response laid out so clearly, Debbie. I also didn’t have a clear idea of the distinction between worry and anxiety. Thanks!

  2. I find the difference interesting between worry and anxiety. I appreciate you clarifying that. I also found the idea of making a decision helpful. That makes sense. Thanks!

  3. Worrying versus anxiety, thinking versus feeling…such an important distinction Debbie. 🙂

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