4 Ways to Calm Yourself When You’re Anxious

Loretta G. Breuning Ph.D.
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The human brain is good at creating anxiety. The good news is that it’s possible to undo your anxiety when you know how you created it, instead of blaming it on external forces. These four steps can help you find the switch to turn off jitters, whether you’re anticipating positive or negative things:

1. 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 should 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 makes your brain urgently search for threats. But you can find the “off” switch when you know how your brain defines “threats.”

2. Threats are just neural pathways.

The things that felt bad to you in the past built a pathway in your brain that turns on cortisol when you see something you associate with that bad feeling. The pathways you built before the age of eight and during puberty become the superhighways of your brain, so whatever felt bad during those years wired the alarm system of your brain. We all end up with more alarm than we really need because we 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 make a flawed guide to life.

3. You can build new self-soothing circuits.

Self-soothing is also a set of neural pathways built long ago. 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 cockamamie collection of self-soothing circuits. Many of these have value, but they have consequences, too. And if you keep repeating the same old self-soothing habits, you keep getting the same consequences. You can build a new self-soothing habit, but it’s hard 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 then invest 45 days of your energy in it. You will like the result.

4. Don’t wait too long for the world to fix it for you.

We often blame anxiety on 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 have 50 million years ago. They had in-group and 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 means a person who can unscramble. So when life gives you scrambled eggs, trust your ability to unscramble them. Focus on steps that meet your needs because this stimulates dopamine. The great feeling of dopamine relieves the bad cortisol feeling fast, because that’s how our brain is designed to work.

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