Rewiring the Anxious Mind

women stretching in yoga class

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Learning to Change the Anxious Mind

When I walked into yoga class that night, it was wall-to-wall mats. Each person had a journal, a packet of handouts, and a pen. Not common materials for a yoga class, but this was no ordinary yoga class. This was the beginning of a six-week series called Rewiring the Anxious Mind, offered by a Blackstone Valley yoga studio called State of Grace.

Lori Mayer, owner of State of Grace, had long wanted to develop this kind of class. In her role as an Asian bodywork and yoga therapist, she saw a great many people who struggled with anxiety. For these people a state of relaxation was an elusive entity.

Judging by the size of the class that night, her instincts were right. People, a lot of people, were searching for help in easing their anxious thoughts.

When Mayer met Sherri Snyder, a licensed mental health counselor, art therapist, and yoga instructor, the idea for Rewiring the Anxious Mind began to take shape. They combined their talents to create a course that specifically addressed the potential of the brain’s neuroplasticity to affect changes in the central nervous system. They combined cognitive behavioral techniques with Hatha yoga, Kundalini yoga, and breathing exercises to interrupt the well-worn neural pathways of anxious thoughts.

At the end of the six weeks, we were asked to decorate five stones, each with a word or drawing that symbolized one of the techniques we most wanted to remember. These are the techniques I chose, in order of how easily I was able to integrate them into my life.

Name Five Things

This technique comes from the cognitive behavioral approach to therapy. In a nutshell, cognitive behavioral therapy teaches you to become aware of your thought patterns and tendencies (catastrophizing, comparing oneself to others, etc.). Once you identify your thoughts, cognitive behavioral therapy teaches you to interrupt those thoughts and replace them with more positive ones.

This naming technique quickly interrupts negative thought patterns by giving your brain something else to focus on. It also brings your thoughts out of your head and into the present moment.

Very simply, when you find yourself getting on the anxiety train, start naming what you see. Name:

  • five things you see
  • four things you hear
  • three things that your physical body feels—such as the floor underneath your feet or the feel of fabric on your skin

You can play with the numbers; sometimes I just stick with the number three to keep things simple.

I have found it very easy, once I recognize that my thoughts are whirling, to remember this technique. It usually takes me about three or four rounds of the process to feel a shift in my anxiety level. I use this a lot when I’m talking a walk. It gets me out of my head and helps me appreciate wherever I am at the moment.

Countering Anxiety: Counting Backwards

Sounds easy, right? Well, just counting backward may be too easy, so in this technique, you count backwards by the number three. Counting by threes from one hundred gives your mind a Goldilocks task to do — not too easy and not too difficult — that makes it nearly impossible to think about other things. Just try to worry about your checking account while subtracting by threes.

This has been really easy to put in place because I can do it anywhere, in the store, waiting at an appointment, sitting on the train. I don’t need to do anything with my hands or chant or move. It’s 100% portable.

Use Mantras and Mudras

A mantra is a phrase or sound that is repeated over and over again. Mantras give the mind something to focus on and help to bring the mind back to the here and now when it wanders. When mantras are done aloud as a chant, the sounds produce vibrations which bring a relaxing effect to the body. Mudras refers to specific ways to position your hands during meditation that help direct energy within the body.

We learned the mantra Sa Ta Na Ma paired with tapping the fingertips to the thumb. To do this, sit comfortably on a chair or on the floor. Hold your hands in your lap or propped on your knees. With your palms facing up, lightly press your thumb and pointer finger together as you say Sa. Then press each of your fingers as you say Ta, Na, Ma, one sound per finger. Ideally, you would begin with a short time frame and increase the length of your practice as you go.

I do this one silently while I’m waiting for my kids’ practices to finish. It makes me feel centered, like I’m taking a moment to check in with myself in the midst of our busy schedules.

Yoga Poses

I’ve been doing yoga forever, but I had never associated particular yoga poses to anxiety-relief. Mayer taught us that yoga poses which are connected to the heart chakra and root chakra are particularly good for relieving anxiety.

Poses that move energy through the chest and mid-back, such as cat/cow stretch and forward bends, are soothing. Standing poses, such as mountain pose provide a feeling of groundedness and stability which can also ease the anxious mind.

A good way to remind yourself to add some yoga to your day is to set a timer. Most of us sit for long periods and getting up to stretch throughout the day is always a good idea.

Note: Not all yoga postures are safe for all people. Check with your physician to be sure any health conditions you have are not contraindicated with yoga postures.

Taco Breathing

Oddly named, but when Snyder presented this technique, she compared the hand position to the shape of a taco, and the name seemed to stick. Sit comfortably, left hand in front of your chest (or heart chakra) with the fingers and thumb held in the shape of a taco. Take your right hand and slide it into the empty taco.

Close your eyes and follow this breathing pattern. Inhale and exhale once through your nose. Make an “O” shape with your mouth as you do one inhalation and one exhalation. Then, inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth. Next, inhale through the mouth, exhale through the nose. The slight complexity of the pattern requires concentration, so your anxious thought patterns are interrupted and the breath work relaxes the body.

A number of people in the class said that they were doing this exercise frequently, up to the recommended eight minutes. I’ve done it lying in bed before sleep or when I am on the phone having a stressful conversation. Full disclosure, I don’t always remember the taco, or do the full eight minutes, but it still helps.

Interrupting Anxious Thoughts to Rewire Your Brain

Some neurologists believe that once you have neural pathways in your brain, they’re always there, but that you can make them less active by creating new ones. If you adopt new habits, stick with them, and continue to practice them, you can make them your default behavior. So, every time you interrupt your anxious thoughts, remember that you are building better roads in your mind. It’s pretty amazing to think that you can rewire the way your mind works.

References
Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit, Random House, New York 2012

Ackerman, Courtney “What is Neuroplasticity: A Psychologist Explains (plus 14 exercises)

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