How to Respond and Reduce Anxiety: Understanding the Basics
Anxiety is a common emotion experienced by many students we see. It can be hard to understand why it happens and how to reduce it.
When the amygdala perceives a threat—real or imagined—it sends hormones and adrenaline surging through your body to make you stronger, faster, and more powerful.
This is called the fight or flight response and has been keeping us alive for thousands of years. It’s what strong, healthy brains are meant to do. To better understand how anxiety works, let’s look at how three different parts of your brain are involved in the stress response.
The Brain Stem: AKA – The Survival Brain
The brain stem is responsible for basic bodily functions such as breathing, heart rate, digestion, and temperature regulation. When the amygdala senses danger, these functions become heightened to prepare you for “fight or flight.” Your breathing quickens, and your heart rate increases so you can quickly move if needed.
The Limbic System: AKA – The Emotional Brain
The limbic system is part of the emotional brain—it’s responsible for processing our emotions like fear and anger. When this part of the brain perceives danger (real or imagined), it triggers a stress response that causes us to become anxious or fearful to protect ourselves from harm.
The Frontal Lobe: AKA – The Smart Brain
The frontal lobe helps with problem-solving abilities and impulse control which are essential for assessing risk levels before reacting. However, when the amygdala perceives danger, this part of the brain shuts down because all energy needs to be used by the emotional brain to cope with the threat.
The Bottom Line:
When you experience anxiety, the survival and emotional brain need extra energy to keep you safe. The only part of the brain that has energy available to assist them is the Smart Brain. So, it temporarily goes offline. It is one of the reasons why it is almost impossible to reason with someone while they feel anxious. This energy redistribution puts your emotions in overdrive while increasing your heart rate and breathing.
What can we do during a stress response or anxiety attack?
The key is understanding that these three parts of our brain are involved in the stress response so that we can slow down the energy given to our emotional and survival brain while re-engaging our frontal lobe.
This can be done by engaging in activities that:
- Calm the Brain Stem and Limbic System down. This includes taking deep breaths, showering/bathing, exercising, stretching, visualizing, practicing mindfulness, rubbing your palms together, and the like.
- Turn the Frontal lobe back on. This means doing things that the smart brain does, like reading a book, playing a game, playing, or listening to music, talking, writing, drawing, creating, knitting, spelling backward, reciting a nursery rhyme, watching a movie, and more. Grounding experiences like this one works too:
The 5-4-3-2-1 Technique:
Identifying things in your physical world slows your heart rate, takes your focus off the intense feelings of anxiety, and re-engages the smart brain.
- Five things you can see.
- Four things you can feel.
- Three things you can hear.
- Two things you can smell.
- One thing you can taste in your immediate environment.
With practice and patience, you can master your emotional responses, reducing your anxiety symptoms over time! Make sure you give yourself time & space each day for relaxation & self-care to keep your mind healthy. Giving yourself time and space away from potential stressors is also vital. It can clarify how best to address them proactively rather than reactively in moments of distress.