Tips for dealing with anxiety, the 'check engine light' of the brain
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
You know when you're driving your car and that light comes on that says, needs maintenance, and you're thinking, ah, the last thing I need is to find the time and the money to take this thing into the shop? Well, psychotherapist Britt Frank would like you to think about anxiety as the check-engine light of your brain.
BRITT FRANK: Anxiety is an indicator light. It is something that happens in our body in response to either an unsafe situation, to an injury from the past or to a perceived or real threat coming from the future.
KELLY: And if you think about it that way, anxiety can give you a lot of information about what feels right to you, about how you want to spend your time and who you want to spend it with. Life Kit host Marielle Segarra has more.
MARIELLE SEGARRA, BYLINE: When you're anxious, it can feel like you're under attack. You know, your mind is racing. Maybe your heart's pounding or your palms are sweating.
FRANK: So when we're feeling anxious, we have the amygdala. And the amygdala is the panic signal of the body. When that goes off, it's preparing our body to fight or flee. And we don't get to decide which one our bodies default to, nor do we get to decide how intense that is.
SEGARRA: Britt Frank, who wrote the book "The Science Of Stuck," says to understand what our anxiety is trying to tell us, we've got to dial down these overwhelming symptoms, even if that's from a 10 to a 7.
FRANK: Step one - just assume your brain knows what it's doing. Why am I anxious? Because my brain is braining. Step two - ask yourself, what are three small micro-yeses available to me now? What are three resources - people, places, thoughts, things? What are some things that help me feel not better but safer?
SEGARRA: Maybe that's your favorite or most comforting TV show - for me, that's "Gilmore Girls" - or a cup of tea or that white noise machine or a walk in the park. Or maybe it's calling your best friend.
FRANK: None of these interventions are going to magic your way out of a stressful environment or a difficult job or a financial situation. But what we're trying to do in the moment is take your brain from being on fire, where you can't think at all, to a place where thinking and logic and access to your choices becomes more readily available.
SEGARRA: She says you can also use your senses to ground yourself. Rub an ice cube on your forehead, or suck on something sour. Name five things you can see or smell. And once you are in a calmer state, you can start to decode what your anxiety is telling you. One exercise Frank shared - take out a piece of paper, and make a list of all the stressful people in your life. Then write, my real feelings about this person are - fill in the blank. Frank says your anxiety may be pointing toward some unacknowledged feelings.
FRANK: Often, we're very quick to pretend like we don't feel what we feel and like we don't know what we know because it's really unpleasant to contend with, actually, my mom is causing me pain; actually, I can't stand my significant other.
SEGARRA: If you do this exercise, at the end, write down this sentence - I have a right to my feelings. Frank says that alone can help. And then later, you can decide if there are any changes you want to make in these relationships. She says she's learned over time that anxiety is really a superpower.
FRANK: I hate it, and it's awful. But imagine not having it. Imagine the state of our lives and our relationships if we didn't have that little feeling inside us going, uh-uh, don't go there, don't do that.
SEGARRA: Or I don't like that. So, yeah, it is uncomfortable, but we also need it.
For NPR News, I'm Marielle Segarra.
KELLY: For more Life Kit, check out npr.org/lifekit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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