5 Ways Journaling Boosts Success By Reducing Anxiety

Pursuing your own version of success is a noble task and something we should all work towards, but on that journey, you will slowly accumulate rising mountain of stress and anxiety.

If you want your mind to operate at its best, journaling is one of the best options out there.  Here are 5 of the many ways it helps…

1.) Clear Your Mind

When you are striving to be your best, your mind will eventually become cluttered with thoughts which cause stress and anxiety. 

Writing everything down in a journal takes those thoughts out of your mind and onto paper.

This frees up brain space for you to think about new ideas and be more productive.

reduce anxiety and boost stress with journaling2.) Learn From Your Patterns

Journaling is like your own day-to-day history book where you record what you did, what worked, and what didn’t.

In this writing, you can pick out what works best for you and implement it daily so that you can keep improving and growing.

You can see what is causing the most stress and anxiety and put an end to it. This is an invaluable tool if you want to be the best version of yourself possible.

3.) Search For Truth

In your journal, nobody is peering down to judge you.

You can be completely honest about your goals, shortcomings, failures, insecurities, dreams, desires, or anything else that you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying out loud.

This self-expression is crucial for relieving stress and anxiety because it allows you to be free. You learn what you truly want and what direction you should move towards.

Reduce anxiety to increase success with journaling4.) Change Your Mindset

Journaling gives you the ability to see your problems and think objectively about them. You can pick out what you have learned and how your struggles have actually benefitted you.

Reframing your thinking in this way transforms you from the mindset of a victim to a mindset of self-improvement. It puts you in control which is necessary if you want to overcome stress and anxiety and be successful.

5.) Take Control Of Your Emotions

Journaling is a safe way to release emotions which helps you overcome the anxiety and stress of keeping everything boxed up. You can dig deep and let go on paper.

Relieving that pressure ensures you don’t lash out and harm relationships you have worked hard to build. 

Invest in a Good journal!

While you can accomplish most of these benefits by free-writing in a notepad, your results will be exponentially better if you use a guided journal such as The Comforted Mind.

If you want to get serious about reducing stress and anxiety, using guided techniques that have been field tested and proven to work will dramatically help you along the way.

Reduce anxiety boost success mock

Not only are all of the methods put into one convenient place, but often times (like in The Comforted Mind Journal) these techniques will be explained in detail so you can use them most effectively.

People who purchase a guided journal are also much more likely to be dedicated to writing every day and therefore get better results from this as well.

So, if you want to reduce stress and anxiety to boost the power of your brain to become the best version of yourself, I highly recommend you try journaling. Many people have found great benefit in it and you can too!

5 Steps To Overcome Your Fear Of Flying

defeat aerophobia

Over 25 million Americans have a fear of flying, and I was one of them. Do you become devastatingly anxious before flights, possibly to the point of delaying family vacations, business meetings, or skipping them all together? If this describes you, then Aerophobia might be what you have.

fear of flyingThis fear is not without some merit. Airplanes are typically cramped, sometimes warm, and you are zooming 6.8 miles above sea level at 500 mph. A host of different phobias can be triggered, making the true number of people that fear flying likely much higher.

I dreaded flying because of all the reasons listed above. My thinking would enter into a downward spiral, contemplating everything that could go wrong. Eventually, I was sure that my upcoming flight would lead to my demise. When on the plane, there’s no shortage of squeaks, bangs, and bumps to accentuate what you were already afraid of.

This may sound dire, but I was able to crawl my way out of Aerophobia, and you can too. While what I did may not work for everybody, give it a try. With the right techniques, you can overcome your fear of flying as well.

5 Steps To Overcome Your Fear Of Flying

  1. Focus on your breathing

Breathing exercises may have been the most helpful step in overcoming my fear of flying. The breathing cadence that I followed was 4 seconds in, 1-second hold, 6 seconds out, 1-second hold, and repeat. This breathing technique brings you into a parasympathetic state. In other words, instead of being in fight-or-flight mode, this helps you get into a relaxed state.

I would do this in the airport when I felt anxiety creeping up on me as well as during the entirety of takeoff and landing. This would also be implemented as needed when at cruising altitude. Try to breathe with your diaphragm by pushing out your belly rather than raising your chest on the inhale.

  1. Clear your mind

In the beginning, I would try to focus on reassuring myself that everything would be fine, but it would often go like this:

overcome fear of flyingMe: that popping noise is normal and probably happens on every flight.

Me: it definitely wasn’t a rivet on the wing failing.

*another squeak

Me: if a wing did fail, I wonder what would happen.

This would then be followed by me imagining the plane plummeting 36-thousand feet and how long it would take before we hit the ground.

What worked much better was to try and meditate while doing the breathing exercises. If meditating sounds too intimidating, just try to keep a clear mind without getting frustrated when thoughts come into your mind.

It is almost impossible to fully achieve a clear mind, but you can get close. If you have trouble, just focus on your breathing cadence. Give all your attention to breathing in, holding, and then breathing out. Again, I did this in the airport, on takeoff and landing as well as whenever it was needed.

(If you need extra help on changing your mindset, here is an in-depth article on how to restructure your thoughts.)

  1. Get acquainted with common noises and sensations before your flight

The noises and bumps you feel on a plane are all completely routine, but how would you know that without prior knowledge? I prepared myself by watching videos on what to expect while flying. Despite having flown before, this helped to clear up any confusion I had about the state of the plane.

Here is a video that I found to be particularly helpful:

  1. Rely on the professionals for reassurance.

Flight attendants and pilots make many flights every day without flinching. They wouldn’t do their job so nonchalantly if it were unsafe. Whenever the techniques above failed me, I would find the nearest flight attendant so that I could see them going on with their job as usual.

Normally, they would be smiling and talking to someone. They definitely wouldn’t be doing this if my assumption that the last turbulence damaged an engine were true. If you can’t find someone in uniform to look at, just observe another passenger who appears to be used to taking flights.

  1. Distract yourself

Unless you have much stronger willpower and personal control than me, you will likely find it hard to meditate and do the breathing exercises the entire flight. When you find yourself relaxed, immerse yourself into something that will distract you from the fact that you are on a plane.

For me, I have a hard time concentrating when I am stressed, so activities like researching, writing, or reading were off the table. However, I was able to enjoy a captivating movie or, if I wanted to be slightly productive, watching a downloaded video course also took my mind off things.

This is perfect if the flight has onboard entertainment. If it doesn’t, try downloading your favorite movies and TV shows to your laptop or mobile device. When compared to the price of a flight, a $5 movie from Amazon is well worth it.

With this technique, make sure that you don’t add extra noise and stimulation if you already have high anxiety. I’ve found that this can make it worse, so just focus on the four steps above if you can’t get somewhat comfortable.

So, here is a condensed version of the list:

  1. Focus On Your Breathing
  2. Clear Your Mind
  3. Get Acquainted With Common Noises and Sensations
  4. Rely On Professionals For Reassurance
  5. Distract Yourself

(If you still want more help, here is an article on how to face your fears and overcome them.)

Conclusion

Aerophobia can stop your travel plans in its tracks, but you don’t have to remain a victim to it. Try to implement the techniques above. If they helped me overcome my fear of flying, they can help many of you as well.

Supercharge Your Brain With Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation

tDCS

As the electrodes are placed on your head, you wonder what the sensation of electricity running through your brain will feel like. You’re in a bare room that resembles a doctor’s office, but instead of blood pressure cuffs and stethoscopes, there are wires that run from your head to a box that will be transmitting electricity in just a few moments.

No, you aren’t in the electric chair about to be punished for your crimes, but instead, you are about to undergo Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) to see if you can capture one of its many possible benefits. While this may seem like a fringe, woo-woo treatment only dabbled in by extreme brain biohackers, there have actually been over 3,000 studies done on tDCS [1].

What Is Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation?

tDCS set upBefore we go any further, it would be helpful to know what tDCS is. In short, the therapy involves attaching up to 20 electrodes to various parts of the head depending on which areas of the brain you are trying to target. These electrodes will then emit a weak (.28-.8 mA/cm2) current of electricity across your brain. Sessions typically last between 10-30 minutes and many studies have patients complete around 10 sessions within a two-week period.

As we know, neurons and synapses rely on electricity to pass information to one another, so introducing new electricity can alter this process [2]. This electrical stimulation travels through the brain, modifying connections along the way, the changes sustainable long after treatment. It’s interesting learning about how it works, but you’re probably wondering “why even bother with it?”

Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation Can Help You

tDCS For Mental Health

As far-out as tDCS may seem, there are many studies showing a variety of different benefits. First, research has found tDCS to work well for a variety of different psychiatric disorders. A review by Bennabi and Haffen displayed many interesting studies that investigated the effect tDCS had on conditions such as major depressive disorder (MDD).

Worldwide, around 7% of people experience MDD, but many patients fail to see positive results from common pharmaceutical treatment options. However, we know that certain parts of the brain (left prefrontal cortex, for example) in people with MDD aren’t as active as they should be, so in theory, stimulating them with tDCS could help their condition.

Studies On The Effect tDCS Has Regarding Mental Health

In one randomized controlled study, 40 participants with major depression were subjected to 1mA of electricity for 10 minutes over 10 sessions and some promising results followed. After being evaluated using the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale and the Beck Depression Inventory, depression was lowered significantly when compared to the control group. A few more studies were carried out by the same scientists and depression was lowered by an average of 40.4% in the tDCS group versus 10.4% for the control.

tDCS for depressionIt has also been found that a combination of tDCS and traditional pharmaceutical treatment worked better than tDCS by itself. However, it hasn’t really been investigated if tDCS and other natural depression treatments like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, meditation, or journaling would have a synergistic effect.

From my own research, I know that alternative therapies like the ones I mentioned have been proven to help with anxiety and depression, so I assume combining it with something like tDCS would only enhance its effects. In the US, tDCS remains an experimental treatment for depression but has been adopted in many parts of Europe as a legitimate treatment option.

“this technique has gained renewed interest as a practical tool for the modulation of cortical excitability and the treatment of psychiatric disorders”

tDCS For Boosting Brain Power

tDCS for cognitive enhancement is where you need to be careful as many companies are trying to make a quick buck by claiming that you can strap their device to your head, flick the switch and increase IQ by 50% or something of the sort. While some of these statements are just a money-making scheme, there has been real research showing that tDCS can, in fact, lead to cognitive improvements.

The cognitive enhancing effects have been promising enough for the US Department of Defense to take notice. They even performed their own single-blind study where participants were subjected to 2.0 mA of tDCS for 30 minutes. Electrodes were attached in areas that would stimulate the right frontal and parietal cortex which are involved in learning.

They then underwent a real-world virtual training exercise where participants identify threat-related objects that are concealed in a natural environment. The results? There was a significant improvement in the experimental group’s ability to identify the objects. fMRI also showed increased activity in the brain regions of interest [3].

“the application of anodal tDCS over these regions can greatly increase learning, resulting in one of the largest effects on learning yet reported. The methods developed here may be useful to decrease the time required to attain expertise in a variety of settings.”

Other studies done in ‘healthy’ people suggest that tDCS can improve working memory, attentional control, decision making, and creativity [1].

Is Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation For You?

All of the positive research surrounding tDCS means that you should definitely go buy a set for yourself, right? Well, it is a bit more nuanced than that. First, despite a majority of research showing that tDCS does work, it would be disingenuous not to mention that there are a handful of studies in every category showing tDCS has no effect at all.

Furthermore, a lot of research has concluded that the effectiveness of tDCS may heavily rely on individual factors such as personality, genetics, age, and skull thickness. In addition to this, there really are no standard operating procedures when it comes to variables like the number of electrodes, placement of electrodes, electrical current strength, and duration of each session. Much more research needs to be done to solidify these aspects of tDCS.

The Main Takeaway

Although we do need more definitive research, I believe that based on current evidence tDCS can work for many people and serves as a relatively cheap and safe way to improve depression symptoms and cognitive function especially if you are looking for a different therapy route.

Don’t hesitate to do your own research on the therapy and treatment options available to you. Whether you decide to try a DIY tDCS device or consult a therapy center is up to you, but either way, make sure to consult your primary care physician first. All in all, keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to try something new.

A video of tDCS self-administration (skip to 1:56):

A more in-depth explanation of tDCS itself:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4362220/

Some of the top tDCS DIY devices I found online:

https://apexdevice.net

https://www.fisherwallace.com

https://thebraindriver.com

Here is an example of a therapy center:

http://tmslab.org/tmscore-servicesoffered.php

Have you ever tried tDCS?

Let us know what you thought in the comments!

 

References:

[1] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-diy-brain-booster-devices-work/

[2] http://www.mdpi.com/2076-3425/8/5/81

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3387543//

A Lifelong Habit for Increasing Empathy & More

alfons-morales-410757-unsplashDeep down it’s as if we know reading is good for us, yet the majority of us don’t read books very often. In fact, about a quarter of American adults said they haven’t touched a book in the last year. Reading is one of the absolute best techniques to learn, hands down. When you make reading a habit, you constantly expose yourself to new information. This isn’t always a good thing, the constant influx of media thrown our away can be overwhelming and harm our concentration. Then again, this is where reading becomes crucial; when you read books you not only accumulate knowledge and information but also improve your attention span. The benefits of picking up a bo\ok don’t stop here.

Reading & Stress

We live in a stressful world, good thing we have books! Those who have become lost within the pages of a fascinating narrative will understand how books can provide powerful stress relief. Researchers at the University of Sussex in England found that reading was the most effective stress reduction technique. Stress was measured by heart rate as well as muscle tension. After reading for just six minutes, on average the participant’s stress levels dropped by 68 percent. I could have just titled this article “How to cut your stress in half with only 5 minutes of your precious time”, but that wouldn’t give the habit of reading enough credit.

Reading & Memory Decline

kiwihug-393307-unsplashReading offers benefits beyond childhood and well into adulthood. In a study of nearly 300 people, those who engaged in mentally stimulating activities such as reading had slower memory decline than those who didn’t.³ Cognitive decline can creep in as early as the late twenties for some adults. As we age, our brains shrink in volume and our cortex begins thinning. In the study, engaging in a mentally enriching activity such as reading was associated with a 32 percent lower rate of mental decline versus those who didn’t. This is a good indication of how reading can actually preserve the structure of the brain and serve as a potent anti-aging mechanism. In addition, other research identifies a strong association between the habit of reading and being less likely to have Alzheimer’s.

Reading & Empathy

alice-hampson-5714-unsplashI like to think of empathy as a skill in understanding our world and the people around you. Imagine a time where you felt alone or grossly misunderstood, perhaps by a friend or spouse. You were probably in need of empathy, or being heard and understood. This is a basic human need and functions as our emotional support system. It is critical to the interconnectivity of our species. What’s better? Empathy can be learned and practiced.

Authors Maia Szalavitz and Bruce D. Perry, MD, Ph.D. describe empathy: “The essence of empathy is the ability to stand in another’s shoes, to feel what it’s like there. Your primary feelings are more related to the other person’s situation than your own.”

One study showed that by reading fiction we not only decrease our stress levels but we increase our empathy towards fellow humans. The study authors stated, “In two experimental studies, we were able to show that self-reported empathic skills significantly changed over the course of one week for readers of a fictional story by fiction authors Arthur Conan Doyle or José Saramago.” These feelings of empathy go along way and are worth cultivating for a variety of reasons. Being able to see the world as others see it without judgment and communicating your understanding of those person’s feelings can make all the difference to them.

It’s important to note a distinction here. This is a rather subtle and hard difference for some to grasp but empathy is not the same as sympathy. Most people will feel as if they’re being empathetic to someone because they feel sorry for them, but this is sympathy. With empathy, we can build a bridge of understanding by listening without judgment, putting ourselves in their shoes, and relating to them without giving biased or unwarranted advice.

For a more visual understanding of the differences between empathy and sympathy check out LifeHack’s 7 Intricate Differences Between Empathy And Sympathy

Reading and Intelligence

annie-spratt-475541-unsplashAs L. Frank Baum put it No thief, however skillful, can rob one of knowledge, and that is why knowledge is the best and safest treasure to acquire.” Learning new things is one of the best investments we can make. Reading books is one of the most profound techniques to learn new things. Let’s set aside the fact that we can learn just about any skill, hobby, or profession by reading about it and focus on the reading itself. Just the act of reading allows us to learn new words and thereby increase our vocabulary. Children are exposed to greater than 50 percent more words while reading than watching prime time T.V. This is true even when compared to the child listening to a conversation between college graduates according to a paper published by the University of California, Berkeley. Sure, obviously reading more will help you learn new words and improve your vocabulary, but those who read also score higher on general intelligence tests too! I don’t know about you, but reading seems like the smart thing to do. Nonetheless, cultivating a reading habit can be challenging. I’ve failed many times, so I thought I’d share some of the tips I’ve picked up along the way.

Cultivating a Lifelong Reading Habit

  1. Start small read during certain segments in the day. It helps to have 10-15 minute chunks where you know you can read. Make it a habit and do it every day during those certain and short time periods.
  2. Just bring a book with. Going to the beach? Bring the book. It doesn’t hurt to bring your book even if you only read a few pages. Maybe keep one in the car. Make books more available and accessible to you.
  3. Keep a list of books you hear about and are curious to read. Keep it wherever you like but just having a list can inspire you to read more.
  4. Find good books. This may be one of the most important tips. Some books may bore the crap out of you, but that’s okay. Move on; find one that really compels you. A good book will seriously make you want to read.
  5. Lastly, make reading as fun as you can. Maybe that’s cuddling up on a blanket with hot chocolate or it’s going to watch the sunset. Either way, by giving yourself something pleasurable while reading you may grow to enjoy it more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reference:

  1. Lewis, D. (2009), Galaxy Stress Research, Mindlab International, Sussex University, UK
  2. Life-span cognitive activity, neuropathologic burden, and cognitive aging

4. Robert S. Wilson, Patricia A. Boyle, Lei Yu, Lisa L. Barnes, Julie A.Schneider, David A. Bennett Neurology Jul 2013, 81 (4) 314-321; DOI:10.1212/WNL.0b013e31829c5e8a

 

 

Our Innate Hunger For Nature and How it Affects Mental Health

nature for overcoming anxiety and vitality

I enjoy time in my apartment; it’s safe and has everything I need to be comfortable. However, as I peer out the window at a small grouping of trees that leads to a larger nature reserve, something draws me towards it. As I walk on a small trail past the edge of the canopy, the outside urban environment slowly fades away into something that feels much more natural. My home is back in my apartment, but something about this little forest feels like home as well.

waterfall nature reduce anxietyHow Our Ancestors Saw Nature

Not too long ago, our nomadic ancestors called the endless forests, plains, deserts, and hills ‘home’. Their days were spent listening and experiencing nature, searching for food and places to take shelter. They had no concept of urbanization and the wonders it would hold. They couldn’t imagine what it would be like to leave the office and drive to the grocery store. Permanent housing that is always kept at 70 degrees despite the season would seem a bit foreign as well to say the least. These, along with all the other conveniences of modern urban life, have revolutionized the way we live.

This new way of life that 50% of humans (70% by 2050) globally experience and benefit from has a darker side that, until recently, has gone largely unaddressed. The wanderers of the past would likely panic at the sound of a blaring car horn. Crossing a road with 2000lb metal machines whizzing past might have been their demise. Although I enjoy my apartment, they might feel claustrophobic and trapped if they were limited to one bedroom and a small living area.

The moral of the story is that humans are becoming more and more urbanized because of the true benefits that can improve life but there are also many ways that cities are harming our mental health. One of these harms is that we are becoming increasingly disconnected with nature which is not as trivial as one may think.

The Link Between Nature and Mental Health

Nature Walks and Wellbeing

Luckily for us, scientists have been studying the link between nature and our mental health because the issue is becoming more evident. We as humans are connected to nature and can utilize that connection to decrease stress and anxiety and improve psychological well-being [1].

person walking nature increased vitalityIn one study, participants walked for just 15 minutes through a forest completely devoid of any signs of urbanization while another group walked in an urban environment. The result was that the forest walkers had a strong response in their parasympathetic state (relaxed) while the urban walkers experienced the opposite; a sympathetic response (fight or flight) [1].

Because of this, the forest group had lower heart rates, lower blood pressure, and a questionnaire showed that they were more relaxed and had lower stress and anxiety than when they started. Unfortunately, the urban walkers did not see these same benefits and many of them actually were worse off than when they started in terms of mental health. While I believe that taking a walk and getting exercise is extremely beneficial wherever it may be, try to make it a nature walk whenever possible.

“Participants [in the forest group] experienced less negative mood states such as tension-anxiety, anger-hostility, fatigue, and confusion and felt more comfortable, natural, soothed, and refreshed after forest walking.”

How Nature Can Change the Brain

Another study took place in an urban nature center like the one across the street from me. Interestingly, participants who walked in the nature center showed a decrease in subgenual prefrontal cortex activity. This part of the brain is associated with much of the negative rumination that is associated with anxiety and depression. In addition to this, they also experienced less rumination which was expected after the brain activity findings. Another group took a stroll through city streets which yielded no change in brain activity or rumination [2].

“accessible natural areas within urban contexts may be a critical resource for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”

While walking through small plots of nature in urban environments and parks is both convenient and great for mental health, researchers found that the larger the nature reserve is, the more benefit there is to be had [3]. It seems as if our brains can’t be tricked into thinking we are in our natural environments by walking around small patches of city trees. We need to completely detach from the concrete jungle if we want a full reset and all of the mental health benefits that come with it.

Time Spent in Nature Increases Vitality

Outdoors vs indoorsAnother aspect of having good mental health is the amount of vitality a person has. Are they vibrant? Is the person full of life and energy or do they look like a wilted flower that hasn’t been watered or seen the sun for a few days? Experiencing true nature is to us like water and sunshine is to a flower.

When study participants went for just a 15-minute silent walk outside, researchers found that there was a statistically significant increase in self-reported vitality (determined from an in-depth questionnaire) [4]. I bet you can guess what happened to the group who went for a 15-minute walk indoors: a slight decrease in vitality.

“individuals walking outdoors reported a greater change in vitality compared with indoor walkers, controlling for social and physical activity”

This same group also did another much simpler study which was interesting nonetheless. They found that just being shown images of nature for two minutes and then imagining that you were there led to an increase in vitality while a photo of an urban environment proved to do the opposite. We as humans are so hungry for nature that we can feel more alive by just imagining that we are in a place free from buildings, streets, and cars.

How You Can Get These Benefits As Well

In terms of you as an individual, your situation may make it easy for you to find nature or you may be far, far away from it. Either way, if you can find just 15 minutes to reconnect with the environment of our ancestors, do it. This is a must if you wish to improve your vitality and decrease anxiety. Make it a habit to detach from city life just a couple times a week. Your mental health is worth it.

What’s your favorite way to connect with nature?

Let us know in the comments!

 

[1] Lee, Juyoung, et al. “Influence of Forest Therapy on Cardiovascular Relaxation in Young Adults.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 2014, 2014, pp. 1–7., doi:10.1155/2014/834360.
[2] Bratman, Gregory N., et al. “Nature Experience Reduces Rumination and Subgenual Prefrontal Cortex Activation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 112, no. 28, 2015, pp. 8567–8572., doi:10.1073/pnas.1510459112.
[3] Tyrväinen, Liisa, et al. “The Influence of Urban Green Environments on Stress Relief Measures: A Field Experiment.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 38, 2014, pp. 1–9., doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.12.005.
[4] Ryan, Richard M., et al. “Vitalizing Effects of Being Outdoors and in Nature.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 30, no. 2, 2010, pp. 159–168., doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2009.10.009.

Use Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction To Super Power Your Focus

focus-2.jpgStaying focused on a task you know needs to be completed should be easy, right? It’s on the to-do list and once you are able to cross it off, you will feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment. Well, for most of us it’s not that easy. My phone has a little light that blinks at me when I get a notification. It’s like an eye that stares until I cave into the pressure.

Maybe what you’re doing is important, but something you’d rather not be doing at the moment. In school, this was an everyday reality. Luckily, there are many ways that we can increase our ability to pay attention to the task at hand.

One of these has been heavily studied and is an interesting, round-about way to increase focus that I had never heard of it until I was doing research for another article. What I am referring to is mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).

mindfulnessMindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

MBSR pulls tactics from many ancient practices but was largely brought to the Western world by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts. In short, MBSR was developed to help people live happier, healthier and more adaptive lives [1] through helping people live in the present, utilizing exercises such as meditation, yoga, and other practices [2]. The goal is for you to be fully “awake” and in control of your life rather than aimlessly wandering about.

“The consequence of enhanced mindfulness is a shift from non-awareness and automatic, habitual behaviors and stress responses to conscious awareness and effective, deliberate action”

We will go more in-depth on specific practices later, but let’s first explore some of the research. Early studies showed that it did what it was intended for; reducing stress, anxiety, and depression while also improving overall well-being [3]. The benefits that meditation can have on our psyche are very well known (head here for more information on mindfulness meditation), however, further research started producing some more unique results.

MSBR and attentional control

Researchers started to test the effects that the training had on other aspects of our day-to-day life, one of which was focus, otherwise known as attentional control. The results were stunning. Immediately after MBSR training, older adults were found to have made significant improvements in visual attentional control as well as executive control, especially when performing complex tasks[2]. Executive control can be thought of as your brain’s flexibility and processing power.

These results aren’t limited to older adults. Another study showed the same amazing results among young and middle-aged participants as well [4]. Across the board, it seems as if MBSR can significantly help to increase your attentional control and strengthen your mind.

“MBSR improved the ability to orient attention, and direct and focus attention on relevant inputs”

focus-1.jpg

Let’s put MBSR to the test

We now know that this training can help people of all ages, but if you’re still not convinced, let’s see how MBSR holds up to a bit more of an extreme environment. One of the most stressful activities that I can think of is being in live combat. You have tremendously taxing training and the enemy is actively trying to take your life all while you are separated from your loved ones by thousands of miles.

Researchers showed that without any mindfulness training, active-duty military members had a gradual and significant decrease of working memory capacity throughout their enlistment. However, personnel who actively participated in MBSR actually saw an increase in working memory capacity [5].

“ mindfulness training was associated with an increase in working memory capacity, defined as the capacity to selectively sustain and manipulate task-relevant information without becoming distracted by irrelevant information.”

Working memory capacity can be broadly defined as your ability to focus attention along with your cognitive processing power. This is important for everyone especially military members or really anyone who is looking for peak cognitive performance.

How does MBSR change us?

Besides the common benefits that meditation has on our psyche and wellbeing, how does MBSR specifically help us to increase our focus and brain power? Well, there are two interesting routes we can examine: physical changes to the brain and mentality changes.

Mentality Changes

Let’s start with how MBSR has been studied to change us emotionally. One group of researchers found that in addition to enhanced focus and the ability to control where attention is directed, patients became more mindful and, like the name implies, saw a reduction in their stress [6].

As a result of being more mindful, I would imagine that priorities would become much more clear which might be followed by a realization on how futile it is to check your social media in the middle of an important task. It has also been hypothesized that simply relieving your mind of stress and anxiety allows the brain to function properly, allowing the ability to enhance focus and mind power.

In addition to this, MBSR has been shown to increase activity in regions of the brain associated with positive emotions and general emotional control [2].

happy brainPhysiological Changes

The physiological changes to the brain amazed me when I first read the research. This is where things really get interesting. Scientists found that after just 8 weeks of MBSR, grey matter in the brain increased significantly in the left hippocampus among a few other regions [7].

Grey matter contains neurons located near the surface of the brain and is responsible for processing information from the central nervous system. It also contains glial cells which transport nutrients and energy molecules to neurons. The hippocampus is the emotional processing plant in our brains along with regulating wakefulness, vigilance, muscle response and heart rate.

“The adult nervous system has the capacity for plasticity, and the structure of the brain can change in response to training… [and] such increases represent enduring changes in brain structure that could support improved mental functioning.”

Just practicing MBSR for 8 weeks actually changed the shape and composition of the brain in an extremely significant way.

Start Doing MBSR!

By this point, I am sure you are 100% ready to embark on your mindfulness-based stress reduction journey. Let’s go into the details on how you can participate in the practice and see some of the same results.

First off, it would be disingenuous of me to act like you can significantly enhance your focus and change the physical composition of your brain with an “easy 5-minute MBSR hack” or something of the sort. This practice is fairly intense and will take some of your time every day.

focus1.jpg

However, I am hoping that the proven results will serve as motivation to push you through it and hopefully it will become something you enjoy as many do. There are many in-person or online courses that you can participate in to help guide you through, but if that isn’t what you’re looking for or if you don’t have access, I’ll give you some ways to try this at home.

MBSR on your own

Practicing MBSR is very flexible and there are many different methods you can use. Below are some of the most common techniques, though you can find many more through a quick search of the internet. Everyone is different, so choose what works for you and do it. Dedicating 30 minutes to an hour is about the amount of time you should be spending on this if you want to mimic what the methods used in many of the studies.

  1. Mindfulness Meditation: View your thoughts and observe what is happening in your mind. Try to keep a clear mind an not to think about the past or future; the goal is to stay in the present moment as much as possible. Sometimes it is helpful to view your thoughts as an observer, realizing that they are there and what they are rather than analyzing them.
  2. Controlled Diaphragmatic Breathing: Most of us use our upper chest to do most of the work when we breathe. However, breathing with our diaphragm is very beneficial for helping us to be calm. To do this, try to fill the lower part of your lungs with air using inner abdominal/diaphragm muscles. Put one hand on your belly and one on your chest, inhale for a slow count of 5, pause, exhale for a slow count of 5, pause and repeat. Your upper hand shouldn’t move throughout the process. You are sort of filling your “belly” with air. Make sure to focus on every breath and try not to let outside thoughts into your mind.
  3. Body Scan: Lie down and mentally scan different parts of your body, noticing any sensations or feelings that occur. Start at your feet and work your way up, relaxing every muscle on the way. As with the other methods, try to maintain your focus on the body part and banish outside thoughts.
  4. Object Meditation: Hold an object that is special or interesting and focus all of your senses on it. Notice all of the different visual features, how it feels, and how it smells. Do this until you feel that the object is fully examined.
  5. Mindful Eating: Many of us spend our time eating in front of some sort of a screen. While this is entertaining, it is certainly not productive. Practicing mindful eating will help you gain a deeper connection to your food and also will regulate how much you eat. To do this, focus on the feel, look, and taste of the food. If your mind wanders, just bring it back to the food you’re eating. I like doing this with healthy food since I often begin contemplating the effect that it will have on my body.
  6. Walking Meditation: Go for a walk in a safe place at a normal pace, noticing sensations you feel with every step along with viewing all of your surroundings. For example, make note of the colors of the trees and sky, the shape of the path, and the people you see without wondering where the people are going or what they may think of you.
  7. Mindful Stretching: Most people are extremely bound up and tight from a lack of movement and stretching. Mindful stretching fixes this along with helping you maintain your mind in the present. Get your yoga mat and start stretching out your body. Try to balance out your stretching between body parts, feeling your muscles the entire time. Focus on the tension in your muscles and the relief afterward.
  8. Yoga: Yoga is very similar to mindful stretching, but it is more structured. Try to find a yoga routine that incorporates a meditation aspect as well. If it doesn’t, that’s ok, just try to focus on your body and movements, dispelling and outside thoughts.
  9. Exercise: Lifting weights or doing cardio are great ways to keep your body and mind healthy. When you perform either, focus on your movements and how your body feels during them.

This list incorporates just a few of your many options to practice MBSR. My favorites are walking meditation, mindful stretching, and lifting weights. These are easy to incorporate into my day and give the added benefit of staying fit and flexible. Just remember to stay in the present moment within any activity you choose and stay consistent. These are the two biggest factors for success.

In addition to these two important reminders, there are a few other principles that are universally true to make MBSR successful:

  1. Treat the experience as a challenge rather than a chore. This is your journey to becoming more aware, awake, and in the present rather than something you ‘have’ to do. Remember that you are doing this to make yourself better.
  2. Stay disciplined and practice for at least 30 minutes daily. Missing a session out of necessity is fine, but don’t make it a habit if you want to be successful.
  3. Practicing long-term, though not necessarily as consistent as when you first start, has been shown to be necessary to maintain the positive effects on enhanced attentional control [2]. You will likely find that the way these make you feel is something you deeply enjoy and choose to do willingly.
  4. This will probably be difficult at first (at least it was for me), so treat it as an educational experience. You are learning how to be in the present moment which may not come naturally right away.
  5. Try to bring yourself to the present moment throughout the day even outside of your training. Maybe on your commute to work, just focus on the sensation of the road, your current surroundings and the colors of the cars around you, for example.
  6. It’s hard to do this on your own, so find a partner or an online community to interact with if possible.
  7. Stay flexible with your practice. Don’t skip something just because it is hard, but if something really doesn’t work for you, there are many other practices that can be chosen from.

And finally, here are some attitudes for success from Jon Kabat-Zinn himself:

  1. Be free of judgment for yourself and others.
  2. Have patience, give yourself time and space to grow.
  3. You must BELIEVE that your mindset can be changed.
  4. You must be willing to learn. The quickest way to stop learning is to have the belief that you know everything. Learning is integral to the human experience and is how we grow to become better.
  5. Don’t have a set goal to strive for. This isn’t a competition, but rather a continuous bout of personal growth.
  6. Let go of your control and let the mindfulness take over.
  7. Practice self-compassion. It’s easy to be hard on yourself if you aren’t seeing progress, but you need to be kind and love yourself. The whole purpose of this exercise is to be more stress-free, happier, and healthier.

Begin your journey to superpower your focus

With everything that has been said, I hope that you will be willing to at least try MBSR to see what it can do for you. The risk is low, but the potential for a stronger mind and improving well-being is high. So, pick a few practices that sound enjoyable and doable and get after it.

 

[1] https://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/mindfulness-based-programs/mbsr-courses/about-mbsr/mbsr-standards-of-practice/

[2] Moynihan, Jan A., et al. “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Older Adults: Effects on Executive Function, Frontal Alpha Asymmetry and Immune Function.” Neuropsychobiology, vol. 68, no. 1, 2013, pp. 34–43., doi:10.1159/000350949.

[3] https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/mindfulness-based-stress-reduction

[4] Jha AP, Krompinger J, Baime MJ. Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2007;7:109–119.

[5] Jha AP, Stanley EA, Kiyonaga A, Wong L, Gelfand L. Examining the protective effects of mindfulness training on working memory capacity and affective experience. Emotion. 2010;10:54–64.

[6] Chambers R, Chuen Lee Yo B, Allen NB. The impact of intensive mindfulness training on attentional control, cognitive style, and affect. Cog Ther Res. 2008;32:303–322.

[7] Holzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, Congleton C, Yerramsetti SM, Gard T, Lazar SW. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res. 2011;191:36–

 

Panic Attacks: What They Are and How To Overcome Them

cognitive behavioral therapy

If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack, one thing is for certain: you never want to have one again. However, it’s not as easy as saying ‘wow, I’m never going to do that again.’ Panic attacks are a bit mysterious in their nature which can make them even more tormenting for those who experience them.

Not knowing why it occurred, what symptoms or bodily sensations lead up to a panic attack, and what happens during one can actually make them worse, leading to a downward spiral. Luckily, many mental health experts have outlined just about everything science currently knows. So, let’s learn about them.

Overcome panic attacksWhat Are Panic Attacks?

Panic attacks are different for everybody including what causes them, how you feel during one, and how you treat your relationship with them. Broadly, panic attacks revolve around a sudden feeling of intense anxiety and impending doom that can occur almost instantaneously [1].

During a panic attack there are many abnormal physical sensations such as breathlessness, palpitations, chest pain, choking, dizziness, tingling, hot/cold flashes, sweating, faintness and trembling. If you have had any combinations of these along with feeling like you are in danger or the world is coming to an end, we can consider it a panic attack.

Panic Disorder

Experiencing a panic attack is not an anomaly, and in fact, panic disorder affects up to 5% of the population. Statistically speaking, in a room of 100 people, 5 of them are likely to have this disorder. Keep this in mind when you think that you are the only one suffering from panic attacks; you are not alone.

Panic disorder means that instead of a one-time experience, the attacks are recurrent. This is also accompanied by anxiety about future panic attacks, phobic avoidance (staying away from places you fear will trigger a panic attack), or really any other change in behavior due to the attacks [2]. If you haven’t noticed, the criteria are fairly broad which shows how much it can vary from person to person.

Having this condition is often accompanied by other psychological disorders such as bipolar disorder, depression, general anxiety disorder and so on. In general, being in a poor state of mental health puts you much more at risk for panic attacks and panic disorder.

What Causes Panic Attacks?

This leads us to think about what exactly causes panic attacks. There are a number of things that can cause them and there are likely many more triggers that we aren’t even aware of, so I will go over some of the most common.

Trauma

Many people experience panic attacks as the result of early-life trauma and PTSD. We become afraid that whatever caused the trauma will occur again. When we enter a situation that we believe will cause that traumatic event to happen again, a panic attack may be triggered [2].

Stress and Anxiety

Another common cause is having an overbearing amount of stress and anxiety in day-to-day life which can lead to a mental breakdown or attack. Related to this, the amount to which someone is sensitive to anxiety can alter the occurrence of attacks [2]. Someone who has developed an anxiety disorder may be much more sensitive to anxiety and experience more panic attacks.

feeling unsafeFeeling Unsafe

Panic attacks most often happen outside of the home in a place that we feel is unsafe. This is exacerbated by loud noises and entrapment that might be experienced on a plane or bus. We may also feel unsafe in situations where we are being judged such as in a job evaluation [3]. Changes in bodily sensations (sudden warmth, heart rate increase, etc) may also be misinterpreted as ‘unsafe’ to your body and could lead to an attack.

Health Factors

Interestingly, having parents with panic disorder also makes you much more likely to experience this yourself [2]. Some other general lifestyle and health-related risk factors include stimulant/substance abuse, smoking, hypothyroidism, respiratory difficulty and hearing loss.

Trouble Assessing Threats

The main psychological reason underlying why we get panic attacks is that our brains have trouble assessing true threats [4]. This is especially true if the attack arises from a source of trauma but can also occur from fears out of the blue as well. Our brains determine that something poses a direct threat and we are in danger, setting off our fight-or-flight response.

However, the problem is unsolvable in the moment, resulting in a rush of anxiety that leads to a panic/anxiety attack [3]. Aside from being unsolvable, it is also unlikely that the situation we are in poses any real danger. Most panic attacks arise from either misinterpreting our environment or bodily sensations as a threat to our safety.

Fear of Future Panic Attacks

Unfortunately, simply having a panic attack can make you more susceptible to future panic attacks. It can be such a terrible experience, especially if it happens in a public place, that attacks themselves become what you’re afraid of instead of the initial trigger. This is called a fear of fear [2], where you become afraid of the anxiety that causes panic attacks.

Ways To Overcome Panic Attacks

Now that we know a bit about panic attacks and their causes, let’s get to the most important part: overcoming them. They can seem to creep up anytime, leaving you without control, but rest assured that there are ways that you can limit their occurrence or possibly eliminate them completely.

Consistent practice of various panic control therapies has been shown to be 70-80% effective and can last for up to two years [3]. With that said, if you suffer from panic attacks or panic disorder you should try to remain vigilant with your therapy and not test how long it will last.

you can stop panic attacks

It’s Necessary

Gaining the ability to stop panic attacks is crucial not only because of their inconvenience and unpleasant nature but also because how you react to them can make other parts of your mental health suffer as well. If you start changing your habits and avoiding situations that may cause an attack, you will likely become more and more isolated which could lead to heightened anxiety and other problems such as depression. This will only make your condition worse.

The best option to gain control is to work with a good mental health expert and have them walk you through therapy, but that is not always an option. Because of this, I will summarize (in no particular order) what the experts believe to be the best ways to stop panic attacks in a way that you can implement on your own.

Therapeutic Options

There are typically three routes you can take: therapy alone, medication alone, or a combination of the two. The question of whether or not to medicate to reduce anxiety and panic attacks should be taken seriously. Medications DO have some value in therapy especially if anxiety is blocking you from even attempting therapy.

Studies have shown that taking medication alone will help to stop panic attacks and reduce anxiety, but the patients never actually solved the underlying issues and there was a high risk of negative side effects or abusive behavior relating to the drugs [2].

“pharmacological treatments have short-term effects, and improvements do not persist after the end of the therapy. On the other hand, therapy has a long-term effect”

A combination of therapy and medication was shown to work best to help individuals lower anxiety and then overcome the underlying problems causing their panic attacks. However, after the risk of abuse and side effects of the drugs are factored in, some experts in mental health concluded that strict therapy led to the best outcomes [2].

Unfortunately though, taking a drug to overcome the problem is the ‘easiest’ route and is what most people follow, at least in the USA.

“Although the nature of the evidence [for behavioral therapy] is robust, such approaches are underused in the USA, compared with drug treatment”

So, now that we know that therapy is the best option, what do we mean by therapy?

cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

The most popular form of therapy for overcoming panic attacks and anxiety in general is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT focuses on reversing misunderstandings (false interpretations of threat) you may have about your environment along with changing how you act in environments that seem ‘unsafe’ [5].

“CBT is the most widely studied and validated psychotherapeutic treatment for panic disorder”

Education About Panic Attacks

The actual therapy is very in-depth, so for time’s sake, I will give a general outline and let you decide if it is appealing enough to do more research on the how-to. The first step for CBT is educating yourself about panic attacks including what happens to your body and mind and what causes them [2]. This education includes correcting misconceptions about fear (how unlikely it is to occur) and correcting distortions you may have in how you think about them.

Controlling Behavior and Emotions

The next step is controlling how you act and think in situations when you are prone to panic attacks. One of the main techniques is becoming more present and gaining control of your body. This is done through attentional focus training where you try to gain the ability to focus on your surroundings as objects rather than abstract fears. For example, if you hear a loud noise on a bus, you just acknowledge that a loud noise occurred and move on rather than think about all of the terrible things that may have caused the noise.

Another purpose of CBT is to allow you to view your thoughts objectively and acknowledge the presence of negative thoughts, but don’t allow them to control you. You will also focus on how the negative thoughts affect you, thinking about advantages and disadvantages of keeping those thoughts. Often times you will realize that the negative thoughts harm you much more than they help.

In addition to this, you are encouraged to think objectively about bodily sensations that may have previously pushed you into a panic attack. For example, an increase in heart rate happens naturally many times throughout the day and doesn’t mean you will have a heart attack.

[Head here for a more detailed explanation of CBT along with how to implement it in your daily life.]

Fear Exposure Therapy

Sometimes you may not know what causes panic attacks, but if you can pinpoint the source, fear exposure therapy has been shown to be an effective option. In our minds, we have deeply rooted fear networks that tell us what we are afraid of and how to act. This occurs even if we know it is irrational [6].

Because of this, if we want to reduce panic attacks, the fear networks must be restructured. Experts in psychology have laid out the groundwork for doing this through exposure techniques. Facing your fears is no easy task and in the beginning it will likely be difficult, but with time and consistency, you will be able to overcome it.

“We have found that patients with comorbid panic attacks are generally successful in quickly reducing their fear”

Peaceful

Education About Your Fear

In order to reduce fear, two conditions must be met. The first is that you must become educated about your fear and begin to think about it in a way that is different than when you were afraid. Learn as much about your fear as possible so that when you experience it again there will be as few surprises as possible. This is much easier with the power of the internet where you can read and watch almost anything.

View the fear from all angles including how you think about it and the chances that your perceived negative outcome will occur. In reality, most of the things we are afraid of will never actually harm us and hopefully, you will come to that conclusion through learning. As a part of this process, try to watch videos of people interacting calmly around your fear or in the situation that you fear. Keep what you learned in your tool belt for the next step of the process.

Facing Your Fear

The second condition is that you must become more familiar with your fear in person, starting small and then working up to facing your fear. Thankfully, this part isn’t very technical but remember to stay safe. You don’t want to try facing your fear in its entirety right off the bat because failure means that your fear will only be strengthened.

Instead, take small steps logical steps that lead up to facing your fear. For example, if you’re afraid of being with large groups of people, start by hanging out with a couple friends. Do this a few times until you’re comfortable in that situation and then go a bit bigger, but not too much bigger.

Maybe hang out with a couple friends and a few of their friends that you aren’t as acquainted with. Repeat this building up over and over until you are to the point where you are facing initial fear. In the beginning, this would’ve seemed impossible, but now it is just another step like all the others you have conquered. Not all types of fear are this straightforward, but just try your best to implement the basic outline of the therapy.

Throughout the process, one of the best ways to remain calm is to practice breathing with your diaphragm. It may seem trivial, but this can have an enormous impact on taking you out of the fight-or-flight state of mind and into the calm. Briefly, breathing with your diaphragm means that instead of inhaling with chest muscles (how many of us breathe normally), you use your diaphragm and fill your lungs around your abdomen. I like to take about 4 seconds on my inhale, pause, and then 4 seconds on the exhale, repeating this cycle until I feel calm.

[Read more about how to face your fears and how to breathe with your diaphragm.]

Other Practical Ways To Reduce Panic Attacks

While CBT and fear exposure therapy were the two methods written about the most in the primary literature, there are also many other steps that can be taken to overcome panic attacks. Since panic attacks include a sudden onset of heavy anxiety and may also be caused by anxiety, techniques that reduce anxiety will only help us out.

journalinJournaling

One of my favorite methods for reducing anxiety is journaling. Again, this method has been deeply researched and proven to help with anxiety. Here is a compilation of what has been shown to work.

Before you begin writing, think about something that makes you happy for as long as you like. Then, write about some troubling thoughts you may be having, but try to incorporate how the negative experience could benefit you. This may be difficult, but it is almost always possible to see some sort of silver lining.

In addition to this, take some time to write about a few things you are grateful for and why. I also like to write about goals and track progress. Completing goals is ultra-fulfilling and just makes you feel good. Doing this on a blank sheet of paper works, but if you want to check out a guided journal we made for reducing anxiety that is explained in more depth, head here.

[Check out an in-depth article on journaling]

Mindfulness Meditation

We saw earlier that a main focus of CBT is viewing thoughts objectively which also serves as a large part of mindfulness meditation. Meditation is also completely free and easy to implement if you have a few minutes of spare time. To do this, sit in a stable, comfortable position, keeping a clear mind and trying to remain in the present moment.

Once you feel that you have control of your thoughts, begin to notice your surroundings and any thoughts that come into your mind. Think about everything objectively and try not to think about the past or future. This has been shown by many studies to work wonders for reducing anxiety.

[Here is some more depth info on the effect meditation has on anxiety]

Conclusion

If you suffer from panic attacks, it might seem like you are alone without control. However, we now know that neither of those are true. Many people experience panic attacks and mental health experts have found ways for us to overcome them. Once again, if you have access to a therapist, take that option. If you are taking any type of medication, keep taking it and discuss your alternative options with a healthcare professional.

The methods listed above are some of the best according to the scientific literature, but I’m sure that there are many more that could work for you as well. The most important thing is that you have to be willing to try and practice consistently if you truly want to overcome your panic attacks.

 

References

[1] Clark, D. M. (1986). A cognitive model of panic. Behavior Research and Therapy, 24, 461−470.
[2] Byrne, Peter Roy, et al. “Panic Disorder.” The Lancet, vol. 368, no. 9149, Sept. 2006, pp. 1023–1032., doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(05)74897-2.
[3] Craske, Michelle G., and David H. Barlow. “Mastery of Your Anxiety and Panic: Therapist Guide.” Oxford University Press, 2006, doi:10.1093/med:psych/9780195311402.001.0001.
[4] Ehlers, Anke, et al. “Selective Processing of Threat Cues in Subjects with Panic Attacks.” Cognition & Emotion, vol. 2, no. 3, 1988, pp. 201–219., doi:10.1080/02699938808410924.
[5] Fava, Leonardo, and John Morton. “Causal Modeling of Panic Disorder Theories.” Clinical Psychology Review, vol. 29, no. 7, 2009, pp. 623–637., doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2009.08.002.
[6] Falsetti, S.A., & Resnick, H.S. (2000). Cognitive-behavioral treatment for PTSD with panic attacks. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 30, 163–179.

Defeat Fear by Facing It

When fear comes into our lives, we can either face it and overcome it or pretend it doesn’t exist through avoidance. The former allows us to maintain all regular activities while at the same time strengthens our confidence for the next time a fearful situation arises. However, the latter limits the scope of what we are able to accomplish and weakens us for any future adverse situations.

airplaneCrippling fear can be extremely disabling, reducing your ability to function which will inevitably lead to a decrease in your quality of life. For example, maybe you experienced heavy turbulence while on an airplane; in that moment you truly worried that you might go down in a fiery wreck. This led to other thoughts about airplanes such as the height you are flying at, the absurd amount of mechanical errors that could occur, and how hard it must be to land especially if it is windy. These thoughts ruminate in your mind and manifest as a sort of monster that comes out whenever the thought of an airplane pops into your mind.

Now there is no way that you can ride a plane without experiencing a panic attack or debilitating anxiety so it seems easier to avoid the situation altogether. However, this decision makes any long-distance travel out of the picture. This is fine if you enjoy long road trips or don’t mind isolation, but more than likely it will have vast undesired effects on your life. This could include never being able to travel to dream destinations overseas, not being able to see loved ones who live far away, missing job opportunities that require travel and many more.

False interpretations of fear

When in a worrisome state, we are most likely falsely interpreting something in our environment as being a threat [1]. This activates our sympathetic nervous system, more commonly known as a “fight-or-flight” state. We try to escape to avoid getting injured, and what easier way is there to escape than avoiding the situation altogether? The main issue here is a constant anxious feeling that arises from knowing our fear still exists along with the regret of missing out important parts of life because of our avoidance. The constant worry about non-existent threats forces us into living our lives as a sort of illusion.

FearWhatever your fear may be, the result of avoiding them will almost certainly have more drastic consequences than the reason you are avoiding the fear in the first place. Facing your fears head on is no easy task, but it is crucial to conquering them. Exposure therapy may seem like you are just using brute force to solve the problem and while it may not be easy, it remains as one of the most effective strategies you can use to reduce fear.

There is a lot of practical information buried in the scientific primary literature regarding specific techniques and practices regarding exposure therapy. Some of the most useful that I will describe come from two papers, one authored by Falsetti and Resnick and the other by Foa and Kozak. While many of these methods can be practiced at home, if your fear is too overpowering don’t hesitate to see a trained therapist to help you overcome them.

Using exposure therapy to overcome fear

Of the many aspects involved in conquering fear, two stand out as the most important. The first is that relevant information must be presented about the fear to give you a better understanding of what it is you’re are trying to overcome. Then, you must create a new relationship with the fear and integrate it into your existing fear structure. In other words, you must become acquainted with your fear and realize that facing it will not harm you. The first part focuses on making steps towards breaking through the barrier that your fear has constructed. This sets you up for the second part which involves a realization that you can conquer your fears using exposure techniques.

Learning about your fear

The first step to overcoming fear might seem a bit obvious, but many miss it. You must learn about your fear before you face it. By educating yourself, you can see the thing you fear from all angles which eliminates as many surprises as possible. Objective information also helps diminish the power you have attributed to your fear through constant rumination. Throughout the process, pick your top three fears and make a diary of all your findings and new things you have learned.

You need to learn facts and statistics about whatever is causing your fear. This is made much easier with the internet. Going back to our airplane example, the first step would be to search for general facts about how planes take off, gets to altitude, maintains altitude, lands, etc. Watch videos of airplane operation including sounds that you might hear and sights that are to be expected. Get as many insights as possible so that you won’t get thrown into a downward spiral (pun intended) when you feel a jolt or unexpected noises the next time you embark on a flight.

Try to learn as much as you possibly can about the background and then move into statistics. Statistics don’t always help, but they do allow us to achieve a baseline understanding of how irrational our fears may be. Thousands of flights are completed successfully every day with almost no incidence of failure.

Expanding to other types of fear

While airplanes serve as a straightforward example, there are many other types of fear that may not have such a clear way of learning about them. For example, let’s say you suffer from social anxiety and you’re afraid of going to dinner in large groups. You may not know exactly what you’re afraid of. For these types, do your best to determine what it is. After examining your thoughts, you may find that the fear of others judging you is the root cause of your anxiety in a group setting. For this, there aren’t really statistics to help you out.

friends.jpgIn this example, change your research to focus on the location and place you will be meeting along with who will be there. Maybe determine a few people that you can rely on throughout the experience to give you comfort. It is also helpful to search for other articles outlining the underlying causes for your specific fear so that you can better understand why you are feeling the way you are. For the statistics part, just think about the likelihood of your fear occurring. More often than not, most people aren’t going to spend the whole night judging you and you probably won’t spill your drink all over yourself. Whatever it may be, think about how unlikely it is to happen.

How is this fear affecting you?

Once you have a grasp on some of the background information, it’s time to switch over to thinking about how holding onto the fear is affecting your everyday life. Write down the advantages and disadvantages of holding onto your beliefs, focusing on the disadvantages. Hopefully, you will see that the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages. This should encourage you to move towards overcoming the fear after you see the consequences of remaining a victim.

Avoiding going out to eat with large groups of people will mean you never have to worry about people thinking negatively of you, which is an advantage. However, staying away from these types of gatherings means that you will become more isolated, miss out on important events, and miss opportunities to make relationships with new people. The disadvantages will hurt you much more in the long run, so you might as well take the steps necessary to overcome that fear.

Exposure therapy and tips for success  

It’s very difficult to successfully overcome fear without having exposure to it. Because of this, many mental health experts have written about effective exposure therapy practices in the primary literature. I will go over some of the most helpful aspects of the therapy that I think anyone can implement to start chipping away at the mountain your fear has become.

Other-side.jpgIn short, exposure therapy focuses on having you do things that you are afraid of so that you will get used to them. Using the same three fears from above, pick the one that you are least afraid of and would like to resume. This will hopefully allow you to build confidence in your ability to face your larger fears. Don’t worry though, the experts make sure that you work up to your fear so that you won’t ever be overwhelmed.

Start small

The worst thing that can happen is to jump off the deep end with your fear and fail, making you more afraid than you were in the first place. Because of this, we are going to start small to get you more acquainted with what the fearful activity feels like. Pick an activity that is related to your fear and feasible to do without failure, doing it a few times until you get comfortable with it. With our group social anxiety example, it would be a good idea to start off small by just getting coffee with a friend. It may be uncomfortable at first but knowing that it will get better makes it a bit more doable at first.

Building up

You will eventually become comfortable with the smaller activity that you chose which will be very encouraging. However, there is still more work to do before achieving your end goal of being free from fear. It’s time to pick a larger activity that pushes closer to your actual fear. This could possibly be going to lunch with a few close friends. Again, do this until you feel comfortable. Keep pushing farther and farther using the same technique.

In addition to the building up phase, visualization of your fear has been shown to be successful as well. This is a bit like meditating on your fear. The exercise won’t be particularly pleasurable, but it will help you along your journey to overcome your fear. Focus on visualizing what you are afraid of including specific aspects that are particularly frightful. Block out at least 25 minutes for this. Watching videos of people calmly interacting with what you are afraid of has been shown to be effective and can serve as a part of your visualization. Like all of the treatment, doing this often and consistently will yield the best results. Another benefit of visualization is that it can be done often and anywhere.

[To learn how meditation can help with anxiety, read more here.]

Facing your fear

This is the part of exposure therapy that we have been building up to. By now, this is just another step like all the others. You should have worked up to something in the build-up phase that is not far behind what your fear may be. Facing the actual fear may be a daunting task, but with the confidence you have built from the previous training it is something you can accomplish. The first time will be the hardest, but as you do it more and more it will become easier, even to the point where you are comfortable with it. You can now resume the activity and avoid the disadvantages that came from not facing your fear.

This method of overcoming fears is synonymous with watching a scary movie but much more practical and beneficial in your daily life. Imagine flipping the channel to a particularly scary and disturbing movie. You watch it for a while but decide it is too fear-inducing so you change the channel (avoidance). Yet, despite changing the channel, the scenes from the movie are still in the back of your mind where they will stay unless you intervene. If you change the channel back, the scary movie will still be there waiting for you.

canyonNow, if you force yourself to watch the whole movie and then repeat it a few times, the horror will likely fade and the movie may even become boring. The same happens with fearful and traumatic experiences. Ignoring it is like changing the channel; you have avoided the exact cause in the moment, but the fear remains. Fear exposure therapy allows you to habituate the fear and the experience becomes less frightful.

Tips for success

Breathing with your diaphragm

When we acquire an acute fear of something, our body and mind are most likely misinterpreting a threat that in reality won’t harm us. We instinctively go into “fight-or-flight” mode, activating the sympathetic nervous system. This activation works great if we are in the jungle being chased by a tiger, but in our everyday lives it can make things difficult.

Luckily, we can manage our bodies response through a few different techniques, one of which is diaphragmatic breathing. Put a bit more simply, this is what people mean when they say to ‘take slow, deep breaths’. However, more detail than that is needed to calm yourself effectively. Although breathing deeply and slowly will help to calm you down, it doesn’t quite capture all that can be done to when you are afraid and experience anxiety.

The title ‘diaphragmatic breathing’ encapsulates what you are actually doing, which is using your diaphragm to do the work of breathing. In other words, using your abdominal muscles rather than chest muscles to fill your lungs with air. This method of breathing holds a few other benefits such as strengthening your diaphragm, decreasing the effort needed to breathe, slowing heart rate, and decreasing your body’s demand for oxygen [2]. It also helps us transition from the sympathetic fight-or-flight state to a parasympathetic calm state.

How to breathe with your diaphragm

It is best to practice this at home before you embark on your fear exposure journey. Start by laying on your back with your knees slightly bent and head supported. Place one hand on your chest and another just below your ribcage so that you can feel where the inhaled air is being stored. Then, breathe in slowly through your nose using your abs to do the work. Instead of pushing out your chest as you breathe, your belly should push out against your lower hand. Try to not allow your chest to move which can be felt by the upper hand [2].

Breathing

When you exhale, use the muscles in your belly. Your lower hand should move down as air exits and your upper hand should remain still. This may be a bit difficult at first since most of us naturally breathe with our chest muscles and have underdeveloped muscles that control the diaphragm. Practice 3-5 times per day for about five minutes at a time. Then move to sitting and standing once you feel more comfortable with the technique.

It is best to follow some sort of cadence when you are doing the breathing. For me, I like slowly counting to 4 on the inhale, pause, slowly counting to 4 on the exhale, pausing again and then repeating. Whenever you feel anxiety and fear coming on, start breathing using this technique to help calm yourself. While diaphragmatic breathing can be used all day, it is hard to always be mindful of how you are taking in air.

More tips: Journaling practices

Writing has already been done as a crucial step throughout the process, but there are additional in-depth techniques that may be helpful. Broadly, write about the event or situation that causes your fear including what happened and why you are still afraid of it. More specifically, write down the emotions you feel around the fear and think about how it is just a memory and not an event that is reoccurring or one that will reoccur.

diaryIdentify which parts of the experience caused the most pain and trauma through your writing. As a part of this, identify distortions in your perceptions of your fear that were found through research. Allow yourself to let go of some self-blame that often occurs as trauma. It’s hard to accept this as a reality, but sometimes bad things do randomly happen to good people. Blaming yourself or others may just be a coping mechanism to make you feel safe, but again, sometimes negative events do happen randomly and likely won’t occur again. With that said, write about how you can prevent events that cause the fear or trauma from happening in the future as well. Both of these are meant to empower you over your fear.

Read what you have written daily and continue writing with this method as many times as you like. The more you do it, the more helpful it will be. Your first writing therapy session will likely be the most difficult, but like the scary movie example above, it will become easier and help you better understand your fear every time you do it. Although what happened may have been random, there is a reason and you are not completely helpless.

[If you’re interested in the benefits journaling can have for general anxiety, check out Journaling for Anxiety.]

Utilize thought restructuring 

Thought restructuring is a practice that branches from cognitive behavioral therapy. In short, the purpose is to restructure your thinking patterns to allow you the ability to view your fearful thoughts objectively. When you do this, you gain the ability to realize that what you are afraid of doesn’t warrant the fear you have attributed to it. Instead of restating how to go about thought restructuring, it would be more useful to head here to read an in-depth article about it on our blog.

Other useful info about exposure therapy

Depending on your fear, the time it takes to overcome it will vary along with the difficulty. If it doesn’t work at first, the worst thing you can do for your wellbeing is give up. Go at it again in a safe manner, using as many techniques as possible to stay relaxed throughout the process. Also, as you do this try to weaken the link in your mind between the activity or situation and perceived harm. If you constantly have thoughts running through your mind that you will be harmed, you will stay in fight-or-flight mode which makes it almost impossible to reduce your fear.

While mental health experts have shown that exposure therapy can help many conquer their fears and achieve a higher quality of life, it won’t work for everybody depending on the type and severity of your specific fear. The above technique is great if you are comfortable with doing the training on your own or don’t have access to a therapist, but I would recommend seeing a therapist if you have the ability. With that said, I believe that with persistence you will be able to find success in reducing your fear and living the life you desire.

Have any experiences with thought restructuring? Comment Below!

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[1] Borkovec, T.D. (2002). Life in the future versus life in the present. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 9, 76–80
[2] Clevland clinic diaphragm breathing.
[3] Falsetti, S.A., & Resnick, H.S. (2000). Cognitive-behavioral treatment for PTSD with panic attacks. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 30, 163–179.
[4] Emotional processing. Foa, Edna B., and Michael J. Kozak. “Emotional Processing of Fear: Exposure to Corrective Information.” Psychological Bulletin, vol. 99, no. 1, 1986, pp. 20–35., doi:10.1037//0033-2909.99.1.20.