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Overcoming Anxiety: Rewiring the Brain for Calmness

Anxiety can be a debilitating condition, affecting every aspect of our lives. Emerging research in neuroscience is opening new avenues for understanding and treating anxiety. This article delves into the neuroscience of Dr. Dan Siegel and the polyvagal theory by Dr. Stephen Porges, providing actionable steps to overcome anxiety by rewiring the brain for calmness.

Understanding Anxiety Through Neuroscience

Dr. Dan Siegel, a pioneering researcher in interpersonal neurobiology, posits that our brain is a social organ, shaped by our experiences and relationships. According to Siegel, anxiety arises when there are imbalances in the brain's regulatory processes that influence our mood and response to stress (Siegel, 2010).

The polyvagal theory by Dr. Stephen Porges, on the other hand, provides a physiological perspective on anxiety. According to Porges, our autonomic nervous system, specifically the vagus nerve, plays a crucial role in our body's response to stress and perceived danger. Anxiety can be seen as a state of hyperarousal, where our nervous system is stuck in a constant state of 'fight or flight' (Porges, 2007).

Now let's dive into some strategies to overcome anxiety by rewiring the brain for calmness, drawing from the insights of Dr. Siegel and Dr. Porges.

Rewiring the Brain for Calmness: A Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Recognize and Label Your Anxiety According to Siegel, recognizing and labeling our emotions can help regulate them. When you notice feelings of anxiety, take a moment to acknowledge them. You might say to yourself, "I am feeling anxious right now." (Siegel, 2007)

Step 2: Practice Mindful Awareness Mindfulness, a core component of Siegel's therapeutic approach, involves focusing our attention on the present moment and observing our thoughts and feelings without judgment. Regular mindfulness practice can help reduce anxiety and promote a sense of calm (Siegel, 2010).

Step 3: Use The "SIFT" Technique Siegel's SIFT technique can help us identify the underlying causes of anxiety. SIFT stands for Sensations, Images, Feelings, and Thoughts. When feeling anxious, take a moment to SIFT through your mental activity. What sensations are you experiencing? What images come to mind? What feelings are present? What thoughts are you having?(Siegel, 2010)

Step 4: Engage in Self-Compassion Practicing self-compassion, treating ourselves with kindness and understanding during difficult times, can help soothe anxiety. This approach aligns with Siegel's emphasis on the power of positive relationships for brain health.(Neff & Dahm, 2015)

Step 5: Employ Polyvagal Exercises According to Porges, activating the 'vagal brake' can help shift our nervous system from a state of hyperarousal to a state of calm. This can be achieved through practices like deep, slow breathing, humming, singing, and even gargling—all of which stimulate the vagus nerve.(Porges, 2017)

Step 6: Connect with Others Both Siegel and Porges emphasize the role of social connections in promoting mental wellbeing. Reaching out to others when we're feeling anxious can help regulate our emotions and engage our brain's 'social engagement system', as per Porges' polyvagal theory.(Siegel, 2010), (Porges, 2011)

Step 7: Regular Exercise Regular physical activity has been shown to reduce anxiety and stimulate the release of neurotransmitters that promote a sense of wellbeing. Exercise also engages the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting a state of calm. (Ratey & Loehr, 2011)

By integrating these strategies into your daily routine, you can gradually rewire your brain for calmness, reducing anxiety and enhancing your overall wellbeing.

overcoming anxiety

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  1. Siegel, D. J. (2010). The mindful therapist: A clinician's guide to mindsight and neural integration. WW Norton & Company.

  2. Porges, S. W. (2007). The polyvagal perspective. Biological psychology, 74(2), 116-143.

  3. Siegel, D. J. (2007). The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. WW Norton & Company.

  4. Neff, K. D., & Dahm, K. A. (2015). Self-Compassion: What it is, what it does, and how it relates to mindfulness. In B. D. Ostafin, M. D. Robinson, & B. P. Meier (Eds.), Handbook of mindfulness and self-regulation (p. 121–137). Springer.

  5. Porges, S. W. (2017). The pocket guide to the polyvagal theory: The transformative power of feeling safe. WW Norton & Company.

  6. Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. WW Norton & Company.

  7. Ratey, J. J., & Loehr, J. E. (2011). The positive impact of physical activity on cognition during adulthood: a review of underlying mechanisms, evidence and recommendations. Reviews in the Neurosciences, 22(2), 171-185.

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