Neuroplasticity may allow you to work at your brain’s structural level to improve symptoms of anxiety.
That brain of yours is a beautiful thing. From childhood on, it’s a complex learning machine to help you navigate life’s many challenges.
But sometimes, it’s a little too good at keeping you safe. In fact, it’s so efficient that it can make you hyperalert and anxious when, in fact, you’re actually going to be a-okay.
But your brain can change! It has the ability to rewire itself, making new connections between neurons and remapping the information you’ve gathered so far.
This is why, with intention and repetition, neuroplasticity exercises could become a great tool for anxiety relief.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to create new neural pathways. In other words, it can rewire itself and adapt to change.
“If you think of your brain as a huge neuroelectric power grid, there are billions of pathways, or roads, that light up every time you think, do, or feel something,” says Sam Zand, a clinical psychiatrist based in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“Some of these roads are well-traveled,” he explains. “Every time we continue to act in a similar way, think the same thing, or feel a familiar emotion, we are strengthening these old neural pathways.”
But as it turns out, these “pathways” are not fixed.
In the past, researchers believed the brain was hardwired by our early 20s, and that was it. No going back. But now, they’ve discovered the brain doesn’t stop regenerating, growing, and reorganizing.
“When you practice a new or neuroplastic habit — when you do something differently — your brain uses new pathways. The more we practice these new habits, old pathways become weakened,” says Zand.
In other words, as you change your behaviors and thoughts, so changes your brain. In time, what you did or thought before becomes but a distant memory, and the new behaviors and thoughts become the dominant ones.
Neuroplasticity and anxiety
With enough repetition, your brain creates a “default” setting around certain triggers.
For example, if you experience a panic attack on a plane, your mind will be primed to repeat that reaction the next time you plan to travel by air.
This is because your amygdala, the “fire alarm” of your brain, has been conditioned to induce the fight-or-flight response after experiencing a specific stimulus (or something that reminds you of it).
This happens even at times when it’s not necessarily warranted. This hypervigilance is the “old” neural pathway in action.
With neuroplasticity exercises, you can create a buffer between the stimulus and your response so that your anxiety isn’t as easily induced — a “new” neural pathway, in other words.
Neuroplasticity exercises, along with relaxation techniques, are a great combination of tools.
Change the scripts
“Neuroplasticity can work against you when your brain is running the same painful anxiety scripts over and over, because it learns those scripts and they become more automatic,” says Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Chicago, Illinois.
“If you want to focus on thinking and perception, you can develop new anxiety scripts that tell you a different story, one that makes you feel safe,” she says.
For example, you can try telling yourself, “I feel scared because there’s a spider on the wall, but I can handle this. Here’s my plan for dealing with it safely.”
“The brain prunes connections to skills you don’t use anymore, so, in time, the anxiety scripts become less automatic and easier to resist,” she adds.
You know what they say, practice makes perfect. One of the most powerful ways to use neuroplasticity to your advantage is through changing your behaviors, says Daramus.
“In other words, do the thing you’re scared of,” she says. “Start with easy challenges: If you feel social anxiety, your first challenge could be to make one quick friendly remark to someone in line at the coffee shop.”
Leaning into the discomfort builds confidence. As you slowly increase your distress tolerance (that is, the amount of stress your system can handle), your fight-or-flight response will become less reactive to the same stimuli.
Devised by Sigmund Freud, reality testing is a helpful way to shift your perspective around experiences that typically make you feel anxious.
“It allows you to ask yourself, ‘Is this thought or feeling based on the reality of what happened, or how I’m feeling about what happened?’,” says Sam Bolin, a licensed clinical social worker in Linthicum Heights, Maryland.
“Additionally, I find it helpful to ask people to use a filtering mechanism that I learned from the book ‘Cognitive Behavioral Therapy‘ by Jason Satterfield,” Says Bolin. “He instructs clients to tell themselves: Thoughts are just thoughts, they’re not real or unreal.”
Identifying and reassessing your distorted thoughts may also help you learn to focus on the evidence instead of thoughts.
You’ve likely heard meditation can make you feel better. But it’s more convincing when you understand the direct effect it can have on your brain.
Research suggests that the practice of meditation can grow new grey matter, which may help improve emotional regulation, including symptoms of anxiety and depression.
“Multiple studies have demonstrated that long-term meditation can reduce inflammation in the brain and cause functional changes,” says Priscilla Hidalgo, a psychiatrist in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“We are now learning that even short periods of meditation can also be helpful,” she says. “Meditations with a focus on compassion and kindness can be very helpful as they help reframe thoughts, thus creating new brain pathways.”
Our list of favorite meditation apps can help you get started.
Though researchers still don’t know why exercise magnifies neuroplasticity, recent studies suggest that aerobic exercise, in particular, contributes to changes in the brain’s structure at every level: molecular, cellular, and system.
It may have to do with the formation of new blood cells, increased grey matter, changes in neurotransmitters, or some combination thereof. Whatever it is, perhaps it’s just another reason to get outside and move your body today.
Carving out time for your hobbies can be a great form of self-care if you live with anxiety, but there’s another benefit too. Each time you learn a new skill, you’re increasing your brain’s ability to rewire itself.
Any new skill you learn will help with this. Ideas include:
- learning a new language
- making art
- playing music
- math exercises
- writing with your non-dominant hand
Rewiring your brain may take time. It’s not an overnight change, but you may experience relief just knowing that you’re on track to restructuring your brain.
“Neuroplasticity is a marathon, not a sprint,” says Hidalgo. “It involves the generation of new brain cells and connections between them. After these connections are made, we have to strengthen the connections, which is what repetition and habit do.”
For some, it could be several weeks. For others, months. There may be some truth to 21 days to create a habit, because it takes time to get a new behavior to stick, says Hidalgo.
“I always recommend that my clients focus on being aware of the behavior or thoughts they’d like to change,” she explains. “Then, identify one small change they can make and focus on it. Change will eventually come.”
Sometimes, old habits die hard. Thankfully, neuroplasticity is an ongoing process; it’s never too late to learn (or rather, unlearn) a way of thinking or behaving.
Your brain has the ability to change and adapt. This means that by making a few changes, you could improve your mental health, including anxiety symptoms.
Creating new neural pathways may take time — several weeks to months — but it can help your brain address triggers with more confidence, so you feel less anxious overall.
Consistency is the key. Just like going to the gym for one day won’t give you a six-pack, one meditation exercise may not have a lasting impact. Keep going, little by little, and you’ll get there.
With time and repetition, lasting change is possible.