Things are heating up. Global warming and terrorism are forcing us to pay attention. Heated arguments over politics and budgets continue to diminish civil conversations. And then there are the personal everyday challenges that can raise our emotional temperatures and cause us to “lose our cool.” No wonder at least a third of us will experience anxiety serious enough to interfere with our daily functioning and sense of well being during our lifetimes.
Although we can’t always control the external triggers of anxiety, sometimes identifying them and removing ourselves from them can be a first step in reducing angst. Watching continuous news coverage is a fixable trigger. Learning not to engage with aggressive and argumentative people is an important skill to practice—like the teflon effect. Fixing habits that do not serve us well, like not getting enough sleep or being too busy to “eat right” or failing to plan, can all subtly ramp up anxiety and are fixable with some thought and intention.
One of the most sensible ways to deal with anxiety is not to fear it but to learn how to understand it. Neuroscience is helping us to do that. We are beginning to better understand how our brains really operate. We are learning how we can work with our own chemical and physiological “wiring,” even if we have a predisposition for an overactive alarm system. As Andrea Petersen writes in On Edge, A Journey through Anxiety, “Simply put, anxious people catch fear easily and have a hard time letting go of it, even when there’s mounting evidence they’re safe. The amygdalae of anxious subjects also tend to be hyperactive even when they are not facing a potential threat. It is as if the anxious brain were always scanning the horizon for danger.”
This is the first in a series of columns exploring new findings on what “keeping cool” looks like from the inside out.