Anxiety is like a vinyl record with a stuck needle. The bad feeling repeats despite your best intentions. When you know how this happens, you can get unstuck.
Anxiety is a surge of cortisol, the chemical that helped our ancestors escape urgent threats. Consciously, you know you’re not being chased by a predator, but your brain defines threats in a quirky way. It responds to whatever hurt you in the past because cortisol paves neural pathways. You don’t have to touch a hot flame twice because the first time builds a pathway that turns it on in time to warn you.
Cortisol helped our ancestors survive in a dangerous world. Today, we are gloriously free from plagues and famines, so we build cortisol pathways from other experiences. If you felt left out in high school, that’s the danger your brain is alert for. When you see a risk of being left out, your brain releases cortisol and a full-body sense of alarm is activated. You are sure you’re in danger because that’s the job cortisol evolved to do.
Fortunately, your body eliminates cortisol in about an hour, so the world looks much better then— unless you trigger more cortisol. But you do trigger more, because your intelligent cortex looks for information to explain a threatened feeling. Your cortex is good at finding evidence when it looks! That triggers more cortisol, and more evidence, and you’re in a bad loop.
You can escape this loop when you know how you’re creating it. Here are five tools that will move your needle to a new groove.
1 . Tell your fears to a rubber ducky
Literally. Buy a rubber ducky and put it on your desk. Talk to it out loud. You will suddenly think of solutions to your problems even when you felt absolutely stuck. It’s often better than talking to a real person because others don’t understand, and then you feel frustrated or obligated. They have their neural pathways and you have yours. The rubber ducky understands yours curiously well.
2. Do something with your hands
Physical activity diverts energy away from your cortisol loop. It doesn’t have to be vigorous: it could be art, music, cooking, gardening, or dancing. Make it something you like instead of burdening yourself with “shoulds” in a moment of anxiety. Cortisol has a half-life of twenty minutes, so you’ll feel 50% better in 20 minutes. Be prepared with activities you can do at work or on-the-go. Strive for activities that occupy your mind as well as your body— I like to stretch while watching a foreign-language video. It’s so distracting that I forget to worry.
3. Take pride in your skills
A gazelle survives in a world full of predators because it trusts its own survival skills. A gazelle escapes threats by focusing on the path in front of it rather than on the predator itself. It is not waiting for a world free of threats. It just chooses its steps carefully and executes them powerfully. It expects to escape threats because it has escaped before.
4. Manage social comparison
Mammals live in groups for protection from predators, but group life is frustrating. Competitors are always around you. If you don’t assert, you may get nothing, but if you do assert, you may get bitten. Mammals evolved a brain that is always comparing itself to others, and rewards you with the good feeling of serotonin when you compare favorably. It alarms you with cortisol when you don’t compare favorably. You are a mammal. Your brain is constantly creating this neurochemical drama about measuring up. You have power over this drama when you know you’ve created it internally instead of blaming it on externals.
5. Accept your inner mammal
Your cortisol is controlled by brain structures that all mammals have in common. This mammalian limbic system doesn’t process language so it cannot tell you in words why it turns on the cortisol. Your verbal brain tries to make sense of things, and sometimes it’s mean to your mammal brain. That doesn’t help your inner mammal feel safe! Your sense of threat eases when you honor your inner mammal. That doesn’t mean “acting like an animal.” It means noticing your impulses even as you redirect them. Tell yourself “I am reacting to a pattern that fits a past hurt, so it’s a good time to do a physical activity that I enjoy.”
When your needle is stuck on anxiety, you want it move to a new groove. But you only have a new groove if you build it. We all have old grooves built from old happy experiences, like the good feeling of reaching for a cookie or scoring a goal. But old grooves are limiting and they often have bad consequences.
You can build a new groove by feeding your brain a new experience repeatedly. You can design a new groove that’s healthy and sustainable. You can shift your brain from bad feelings to good feelings by creating a new path for your electricity to flow. You’ll be glad you did!