What to do when you are anxious?

I came across some interesting research recently in the field of anxiety. A study from the University of California Berkeley has found that trying to numb out while anxious may not be very helpful. Instead engaging the brain in various cognitive tasks can help.  We have for years encouraged people to distract themselves from repetitive anxiety provoking thoughts.  This approach is still valid because we want the brain to calm itself down and recenter. The point is that the anxious feelings will not last forever and that if you are distracted you can slow the mind/body down in a way that helps a person relax and move out of the anxious state.

This recent study Sonia Bishop (you can find the full study here and also another great study by Bishop on anxiety here) looks at how the anxious individuals have trouble accessing a part of their brain that would allow them to be distracted by a regular task. Basically what this means is that if you are experiencing anxiety and look to do a load of laundry to distract yourself, the way your brain is wired may not be as open to using the task as a distraction (which in turn the hope is that it would relieve a bit of anxiety).

So … what should you do? Bishop’s study explore the idea that an anxious individual might do better off distracting themselves with a mind game like chess, sudoku, or some kind of puzzle.  This is because an anxious person needs more stimuli to distract them then a task their brain already knows the answer to.  The brain needs something with a bit more kick to help it regulate in an anxious state than it might if you were feeling calm.  Once the brain is stimulated and activate (by something not routine) then it can jump outside the normal anxious producing thought process.

Next time you are feeling anxious… try challenging your brain. You might just find you are more relaxed, enjoy yourself, and even learned a thing or two. This new research seems like a win-win all around.


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