by Veronica Brodsky, Psy.D.
During my 15 years of clinical practice in the field of psychology, both as a practitioner and a supervisor of other clinicians, it’s becoming more apparent that there are more and more people, and sadly, more children, who are struggling with anxiety. The questions “why?” and “what’s causing it?” have been raised by many who come into our field of practice. I often pose the question “How can one not be anxious?” considering the type of lives the majority of adults and children live. With the constant need to “run” and “check off” yet another thing on the never ending “to do list” and after-school activity schedule, it’s no wonder that the National Institute for Mental Health reports the prevalence rate for anxiety at 18.1% of the U.S. adult population and 25.1% of 13 to 18 year-olds. Clearly our lives today require a much quicker pace and a particular type of energy that impacts our mind and our body. With today’s technology and rhythm, we want many different things and we want them instantly. This type of arousal in moderation can be beneficial for people to achieve goals, but when frequency and intensity increase, the effects of this overstimulation damages our central nervous system, which can cause considerable damage on our physical and mental health. Teaching people how to relax is a lot more challenging than helping them to manage their “to do list.” For many, relaxing is counterintuitive to productivity. However, for many, this type of productivity is achieved at a very high cost, not only damaging their health, but also their relationships with family and friends.
How we feel has a lot to do with how we perceive and experience the world and the life situations we are exposed to. The nature/nurture model has long been accepted as the major contributor to our mental health. In other words, our biological predisposition and sensitivity, combined with the experiences of one’s environment, contribute to how we deal with daily life and stressors. Some people are more sensitive to how they see events in their lives, while others are able to disconnect from the situation. This question of why some people are capable of managing their emotions better than others, while facing major stressors including experiencing trauma, initiated a wide array of research on resilience.
The National Institute for Mental Health wrote in their press release of October 18, 2007, “In humans, stress can play a major role in the development of several mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. A key question in mental health research is: Why are some people resilient to stress, while others are not? This research indicates that resistance is not simply a passive absence of vulnerability mechanisms, as was previously thought; it is a biologically active process that results in specific adaptations in the brain’s response to stress. Results of the study were published online in Cell, on October 18, by Vaishnav Krishnan, Ming-Hu Han, PhD, Eric J. Nestler, MD, PhD, and colleagues from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Harvard University, and Cornell University.” (http://www.nimh.nih.gov/news/science-news/2007/stress-brain-yields-clues-about-why-some-succumb-while-others-prevail.shtml)
For those who are prone to anxiety, being exposed to stressful situations can trigger intense anxiety and even panic attacks. Our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and stress-related hormones become active when faced with stress, telling our brain “Danger!” While sometimes these mechanisms can serve as a healthy sign of avoiding harm, the majority of the time we are overreacting to these situations, causing us to feel restless, irritable, sad, and anxious.
In my experience, more often than not, an anxious child tends to have at least one anxious parent or a grandparent. Thus, suggesting that children can inherit the “anxious gene” and if exposed to an anxious parent, children’s response to stressors are often mirrored. If becoming anxious to situations is not only learned, but is organic, we then need to help our brain to become more resistant to stress. When you exercise your body, you become stronger and healthier – even if you were not born a natural athlete. Similarly, when you exercise your brain it also becomes stronger and healthier even if you were not born with the “resilience gene.” Our brain is a muscle that requires exercise in order to help it during periods when we are more sensitive and susceptible to anxiety. More and more research in neuroscience supports the theory that we can retrain or rewire our brain to respond to stress and events in our lives differently, as well as improve cognition in other areas. (Frederickson 2001; Hanson & Mendius, 2009; Keller, T. A., Adam, M., J. 2009).
Recognizing how our brain affects our body (and vice versa) and emphasizing the importance of mind-body connections is a key in treating anxiety. If you want to use the mind-body connection to decrease your stress, you need to “stimulate the parasympathetic (PNS) wing of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Our mental activity has greater direct influence over ANS than any other bodily system. It is not surprising that relaxation is one of the key factors to help our body and our mind to feel calm. Although we know all too well that relaxation is important, actually doing it is a lot harder and yet when you are relaxed, it’s hard to feel stressed or upset (Benson 2000). Therefore, learning and practicing relaxation techniques, not only when you are faced with stressful situations but during “down time”, is quite useful in building a stronger PNS – which, in turn, quiets and rewires our brain.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Richard Mendius, MD., in their book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, outline various relaxation techniques, including these four quick ones: 1) Relax your tongue, eyes, and jaw muscles2) Feel tension draining out of your body and sinking down into the earth3) Run warm water over your hands4) Scan your body for areas that are tense, and relax them
Breathing is another widespread method used to help people to relax. Deep, slow breaths, while inhaling and exhaling, stimulates the PNS and balances your heartbeat. I learned one of my favorite breathing exercises while attending a talk by Andrew Weil, M.D., considered to be a guru in the area of holistic intervention. It’s called the relaxing breath. I refer to it as a 4: 7: 8 breathing exercise. It is a formal breathing technique for pranayama, the ancient Indian science of breath control, that forms a part of yoga (Weil, 1995). Although you can do it while lying, and even standing or walking, I prefer to do it while sitting with both of my feet planted firmly on the floor. “You place your tongue in the yogic position: touch the tip of the tongue to the backs of the upper front teeth, and then slide it just above the teeth until it rests on the alveolar ridge, the soft tissue between the teeth and the roof of the mouth. Keep it there during the whole exercise…Then close the mouth and inhale quietly through the nose to a silent count of 4. Then hold the breath for a count of 7. Then exhale audibly through the mouth to a count of 8, making an audible sound. Repeat for a total of four cycles, and then breathe normally. If you have difficulty exhaling with your tongue in place, try pursing your lips: you will soon get the knack of how to do it. Note that the speed with which you do the exercise is unimportant. What is important is the ration of 4: 7: 8.” (Weil,1995, pg. 206-207). He believes that even for the most severe forms of anxiety, breathing exercise is the best treatment. Dr. Weil also believes that practicing breathing is important, so you will have it ready to use in case of need. In order to determine what breathing exercises can do for you and your healing capacity, you must practice them regularly.
Therapeutic intervention can certainly aid those individuals who are experiencing ongoing struggles with anxiety. Helping patients to recognize the underlying cause of anxiety, processing some of these feelings in a safe therapeutic environment, reframing and using the mind-body connection, can assist in rewiring our brain and decrease anxiety, not just for us, but for our children.
Frederickson, B.L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology. American Psychologist 56: 218-226.
Hanson, R. & Mendius, (2009). Buddha’s Brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publication, Inc.
Keller, T. A., Adam, M., J. (2009). Altering Cortical Connectivity: Remediation-Induced Changes in the White Matter of Poor Readers. Neuron, 2009; 64 (5): 624-631 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2009.10.018
Krishnan, V., Han, Ming-Hu., Nestler, E.J., (2007) Cell –on line October 18
Weil, Andrew (1995). Spontaneous Healing. New York: Fawcett Books; The Random House Publishing Group