The traditional approach to researching and treating anxiety is to target the “on switch.” It involves trying to stop you from activating your fight or flight response in situations that don’t warrant it. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison think we might be looking at anxiety in the wrong way. They believe the problem might not lie with the “on switch” but with the “off switch.”
According to the researchers, anxiety is a normal part of life. In many cases it is helpful. It might motivate you to do better on a test, it might alert you to impending danger. When you work to deactivate your anxiety, you might be stopping a needed reaction. The problem might lie in not being able to turn off anxiety once it has begun and therefore allowing it to blossom out of control. It then becomes a hinderance rather than a help.
The scientists used rhesus monkeys to test their theory of focusing on recovering from bouts of normal anxiety rather than suppressing the reaction. They found that monkeys with an anxious temperament shared decreased communication in the amygdala, the portion of the brain that regulates fear and anxiety. This might prevent the monkeys from shutting off their anxiety.
Dr. John Krystal, the editor of Biological Psychiatry, where the study was published, explains that, “This finding is very important as it focuses our thinking about treatment on promoting recovery after stress rather than suppressing the normal reaction to threatening situations.” The scientists hope that this information can lead to more targeted treatments - helping people learn to manage anxiety rather than eliminate it.
This can help explain why some people have a more difficult time dealing with stressful situations than others. Several studies looked into the role that resilience plays in managing stress. One, reported by Teri Roberts, examined mice and found “the ability to adapt to stress is driven by a distinctly different molecular mechanism than the tendency to be overwhelmed by stress.” Another, explained in the post, “How Resiliency Impacts Anxiety Levels,” found that people who exhibited optimism, a moral compass, faith or spirituality and looked at situations as ways to grow were more resilient and less likely to develop PTSD.
Resiliency helps you “bounce back” from stressful situations. The good news is thatresiliency can be learned. One of the most important factors in developing resiliency is to create supportive relationships. If you don’t currently have a support network, joining a support group can help. Other skills, such as problem solving, communication skills and planning are also important and can be learned through therapy or with the help of your support group. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps you learn to be more flexible in your thinking.
Accepting stress as a normal and essential part of life is difficult, especially if your anxiety switch doesn’t readily turn off. You might rely on avoiding stressful situations and taking steps to eliminate stress and anxiety from your life. The current study suggests learning to accept, focus and move through the situation might help.
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Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.