In general, I think of myself as a pretty confident person. But every once and a while, anxiety strikes and I freeze up. It usually happens when I’m trying to do something that I consider very important, and when I am trying to do it well. And the anxiety makes it so that I am either paralyzed or I flub up on whatever it is that I am trying to accomplish. So basically, anxiety is a real drag.
I recently had a realization, however. It sprang in part from having watched Shawn Achor’s TED talk on positive psychology, and also from a conversation I had with a friend about the neuroplasticity of the human brain. Neuroplasticity refers to the fact that our brains are constantly changing throughout our lives due to factors in our environment, and (most importantly for my purposes) due to our choices and actions. The way we choose to act, and the way we choose to react, to our circumstances affects the synaptic connections in our brain. In other words, we are capable of contributing to major rewiring of our very own brains. And that, my friends, is nothing short of revolutionary.
So. What does this have to do with anxiety? Here’s what: my anxious reaction to stress is merely one set of well-worn neural pathways. Every time I react in an anxious way, I reinforce these pathways. If I can recognize this fact, then I can begin to cultivate new and healthier patterns. I can take a deep breath when I feel anxious. I can go out for a walk. I can do any number of things, so long as I am moving in a new direction and not just repeating the same old patterns of thinking and doing. I also have to pause here to give credit to Bill O’Hanlon, who outlines a very similar approach in his book Do One Thing Different. O’Hanlon advocates noticing our patterns when things are going badly, and changing anything about these patterns, no matter how small. (He also advocates noticing what patterns contribute to our feeing better, and repeating these patterns.)
So there you have it. Our brains are plastic. We can learn, cultivate and practice healthier patterns of thinking, and we can start today. Right now. Are you with me?