How To Alleviate Anxiety, Squash Automatic Negative Thoughts, Improve Cognitive Function, & more
Updated: Jul 23, 2020
This post is inspired by Dr. Amen, MD, practicing psychiatrist, brain disorder specialist, and author of Change your Brain, Change your Life. This is a quick guide on the steps, tips, and tweaks to lifestyle, thought patterns, and eating habits necessary to upgrade your brain's processing systems to improve overall health and longevity. If this is a TLDR (Too Long, Don't Read) situation for ya, scroll all the way to the bottom for a brief list of the takeaways.
To build a better brain, you simply have to start doing the things that are good for it and stop doing the things that are bad for it. Simple, right?....
Exercise to stay cognitively sharp and increase blood flow & oxygen to the brain (cardiovascular work is especially great for this). Also, studies correlate an increase in weight gain with a shrinkage in brain size. Note the difference between weight fluctuation and heavy weight gain.
-Increase healthy fat intake.
60% of the solid weight of your brain is fat, so feed it what it runs best on! Fat is necessary to maintain and improve brain function. There are 10,000 individual connections between cells in the brain. If you want to keep these properly firing, you need to consume your brain's favorite food (20-30% of your daily calorie intake goes to your brain). Low fat diets are linked to depression, anxiety, and mood swings because of the brain's inability to run its biochemistry smoothly when starved of adequate fat intake. Fat also helps to stabilize blood sugar levels as elevated fasting blood sugar levels spell disaster for brain function.
-->Increase your intake of Omega-3's. Easy to incorporate examples include, a quality omega-3 supplement (I like NordicNaturals), wild salmon, sardines, high quality grass-fed & finished beef, avocados, flax seeds, and walnuts (funny how walnuts look like a brain, eh?).
--> Additional benefits of increasing your daily intake of Omega-3's are a decrease in inflammation throughout the body (chronic inflammation is the leading cause of nearly every "Western" illness), an improvement in sleep quality, reduced risk of macular degeneration, a leading cause of vision impairment (60% of the retina is composed of DHA- a type of Omega-3 fat), preventative aid in artery plague buildup, and improvement in insulin resistance. A quality Omega-3 supplement is especially important for those with autoimmune diseases as a means to fight the resultant chronic inflammation (ex. Rheumatoid Arthritis, Ulcerative Colitis, Type 1 Diabetes, Crohn's disease and Psoriasis)
-Drink more water.
The brain and heart are about 73% water. Drink more water to lubricate your neural networks and help to balance headaches, improve mental clarity, prevent memory loss, increase blood flow to the brain, and balance mood swings.
-Challenging your brain by learning new things.
Regularly learning new things supports positive neuroplasticity and aids in the prevention of cognitive decline. Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and Huntington's, are characterized by a loss of neuroplasticity and cognitive impairment. Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to obtain and establish new thought patterns, habits, skill sets, recall & form memories. It refers to the strengthening of existing neural pathways (synaptic plasticity) or the creation of new neurons and connections (structural plasticity).
Every Neuroscience 101 student knows the phrase "neurons that fire together, wire together." The neural connections between different parts of the brain can reorganize themselves to establish new connections. This aids in the recovery when part of the brain is damaged, in the development of new habits and thought patterns, and in staying mentally limber. Having strong positive neuroplasticity allows us to adapt, respond, change, and evolve in a constantly changing environment. If you want to remain cognitively sharp as you age, support your neuroplasticity.
-Perpetuating Positive Thought Patterns to become a Fundamentally Positive Person.
As discussed above, maintaining positive neuroplasticity is fundamental to the prevention of cognitive decline and ability to remain mentally agile. Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to establish new thought patterns, new habits, and new emotions. If you become good at establishing negative thought patterns, you create negative habits and negative emotions. However, if you have a strong mental game i.e., a strong ability to adapt and change (neuroplasticity), you can rewire your brain to think positively. Remember, "neurons that fire together, wire together." Avoid negative neuroplasticity (training your brain to think negative or depressing thoughts) by establishing healthy and beneficial thought patterns. By supporting positive neuroplasticity, wiring neurons establish and solidify fundamentally positive thought patterns, habits, and emotions.
Banging your head.
As one who frequently runs into things and falls off her bike, I understand some things are outside your control. But try to limit it as much as possible. If you want a good scare, look up studies on the brains of deceased professional football players. When you hit one side of your brain, you actually momentarily turn off the opposite side. Yikes, that can't be good. Keep repeating, and that definitely can't be good. Dr. Amen compares the long term effects of playing football and the resultant head trauma to the effects of persistent Cocaine use on the brain. The links between repeated brain trauma, inflammation, misshapen proteins at the site of brain injury, and neurodegenerative disorders and events is irrefutable. Read a quick synopsis here.
Eating so much sugar.
The brain uses the most energy out of any organ in our bodies. When exposed to excess sugar, our cognitive functions and self-control are impaired. The sugar stimulus leaves us wanting more. Pleasure centers in our brains light up at the thought or sight of high-glycemic foods. Once upon a time, this was helpful because such stimulus led us to eating larger quantities of calorie-rich foods, necessary for our survival. That is obviously not the case anymore. High-glycemic, caloric, and chemical laden foods are cheaper and easier to come by than low-glycemic, nutrient-dense, and less calorically dense foods. Chances are that you are not currently in a death hunt to find your food scenario. When our ancestors where in this situation, the calorie-rich foods that their survival depended on were not chalk-full of biochemical altering substances like they are today. As such, today this primitive response to high-glycemic foods feeds our epidemic of obesity and disease.
Not only is consuming too much sugar disastrous for inflammation throughout your body, having excess glucose in the blood will lead to damaged blood vessels. This results in cognitive decline, a decrease in attention span, memory problems, mood swings & disorders (due to a decreased ability to process emotion), and more. The root cause of nearly every "Western" disease is chronic inflammation. Sugar is a huge contributor to inflammation. Research on long-term diabetics show progressive brain damage leading to the aforementioned consequences. Higher HbA1c levels have been linked with an increased degree of brain shrinkage, as chronic exposure to high glucose levels decreases mental capacity. Read more here. Many of these consequences are attributed to a combination of hyperglycemia, hypertension, insulin resistance, and elevated cholesterol; all rooted in excess sugar intake and consequent inflammation.
Now on to alleviating anxiety.....
On Overcoming Anxiety
Ask yourself these five questions about an anxiety-inducing thought. I find it most helpful to write it out longhand:
1) Is the thought true?
2) Can I absolutely know for certain that the thought is true?
3) How do I feel when I believe the thought?
4) How would I feel and who would I be if I didn't have the thought?
5) Flip the thought to the exact opposite scenario and find supporting evidence.
(Ex: Anxious thought- I do not belong at this race.
Opposite thought- I do belong at this race.
Evidence- I have trained for this race, have dialed in my nutrition, and have prepared to the best of my ability.)
This protocol for overcoming anxiety has helped me in many situations from races, like the example above, to interviews, to public speaking, to performance reviews...you name it. It has the power to quickly turn the downward anxiety spiral of thoughts on its head and save precious time and energy. Because anxiety arises when the emotional part of your brain is in overdrive, by asking yourself these questions and answering them, you are communicating with and slowing down the emotional turmoil of your thoughts.
A.N.T.S (Automatic Negative Thoughts) & How to Squish Them
I think there is a tremendous point to be made in differentiating between positive thinking and accurate thinking. To overcome our fears and anxieties, we are taught to "think positively." However, positive thinking is not necessarily accurate thinking and I think people get bogged down in false optimism, hoping the outcome will be different than the reality of a situation. Surface level positive thinking is not grounded in fundamentally established thought patterns (as discussed above). Optimism is great, but with the caveat of it being supported by mindful logic and consciousness thinking. False optimism can to an inhibited ability to deal with potential negative consequences of a given situation. A.N.T.S are squished when you are mindful of a situation and have the knowledge to act in the manner most aligned to produce a positive result, alleviating any associated anxiety with an unknown outcome.
If you are interested in additional brain health facts and ways to improve your own brain health, visit https://brainhealthassessment.com/ to take a short quiz created by Dr. Amen & get customized advice pertaining to your personal brain health. He created this quiz because not everyone has the means to get a brain scan.
*Check out 11 Risk Factors That Destroy Your Brain, or one of his Tedx Talks