Did you know that forty percent of us are wired more anxiously than others? If you’re one of the group, don’t worry! You’re not doomed to always be anxious. You can change your neural pathways to be more calm.
Current science is all about the plasticity of neural pathways – which means that our brains can indeed, be re-wired. Think of your brain’s neural pathways as a trail through the woods. Say it’s a trail that’s been used a lot, and that’s the trail you usually take. But what if you want to take a different trail – one that doesn’t yet exist or is very faint?
You have to bushwhack through the woods and forge your new trail. It takes some effort, right? But if you keep walking on the trail every day, pretty soon you’ll carve out a new trail. If you stop using the old trail, eventually the weeds and bushes will grow over it and it’ll disappear over time.
Our brains are the same. If you keep using your go-to anxious neural pathways, then they’ll get stronger and you’ll find that your default is anxiety. You’ll find yourself being anxious about everything and getting anxious more easily.
Sick of feeling anxious? Carve a new trail
If you’re sick of feeling anxious, you have to carve a new trail in your brain. You have to train it, every day, to react more calmly. This will not happen overnight, but if you keep at it, day after day after day, eventually your default will start switching to more calm responses. And when you respond to life’s stressors more calmly, over time, your old anxiety pathway will begin to disappear.
The methods I’m going to give you are really easy. The challenge is to keep doing the routine every day whether you feel like it or not, and whether you have setbacks, bad days or simply feel like you aren’t getting anywhere. Just keep practicing – like you brush your teeth every day – and don’t stop. Eventually you will absolutely begin reaping results.
Here’s your daily routine:
- Get up at the same time every day, no matter when you go to bed. If you do it this way, your body will eventually start adapting and you won’t have to stress at night trying to get into bed early or lying there worrying about not falling asleep. So pick a time that gives you enough cushion for a little morning routine before you have to go off to work or start your day.
- Do mindfulness meditation for 5 – 10 or 20 minutes twice daily. If you’re battling anxiety, it’s really important to learn mindfulness meditation. I teach this practice in my class, Simplify Your Whole Life in 11 Weeks. The practice helps you to pay attention to your thoughts and reactions, and to begin responding more calmly. Meditate twice daily and especially so in the morning before getting out of bed. This way you’ll train yourself to start your day calmly. Otherwise, most of us feel like we’re behind on our day the minute we get out of bed, and then our anxiety ramps up. Instead, by meditating in the morning, you’ll train your body that you’re not in a big rush and life is calm. Start with just 5 minutes and work up to 10 or 20.
- Get outside in the morning and go for a gentle walk. Remember you’re setting your wake up time to accommodate this new routine – and it’ll be worth it if you want to calm your anxious mind. Walking in the morning gets you out when the light is best to set your body clock for better sleep at night. Walk at a pace where you can talk to someone. If you go alone, notice everything – the trees, birds and so on. You just need 20-30 minutes, every day. Here are the benefits of a daily morning walk.
- Periodically go to a busy coffee shop and meditate. Or you can do this at home when there are distractions going on – as long as the distractions don’t involve you, like having kids or spouse needing something from you. If you’re at a coffee shop, just sit there with your coffee, a book or journal – whatever. You don’t need to close your eyes – the point is to be awake and notice distractions. You want to purposely be bombarded with sounds and distractions so you can train your mind to not react to stressors. Someone can break a plate, yell into their cellphone or have a loud conversation right next to you and that’s great. Tell yourself, “This is just a cellphone, dish breaking etc and has nothing to do with me.” Your job is to train yourself to not react and to keep focusing on your breath. Again – this is called “training.”
These trainings will teach you to not over-react to the situations that normally cause you to be stressed and anxious. The goal is to learn to be aware of your thoughts, to recognize that they’re just thoughts, and to put space between the event (bad traffic, argument, deadlines, etc) and your reaction. You’re not training yourself to become a doormat. Instead, by training yourself to become conscious and aware of your reactions, you’ll eventually be able to react in more calm, grounded ways and you’ll be strengthening your new neuropathways.
Do this routine every single day, no matter what, for one week at a time. Finish one week and congratulate yourself. Then start another week. Keep going and I promise you – you’ll eventually start feeling more calm and less anxious.
For a 10 minute mindfulness meditation primer, watch here.