How Brain Science Can Help You Reduce Stress

Here are 8 simple things you can start doing today to lead a less stressful life, based on science-backed remedies proven to help diminish anxiety.
President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.
July 29, 2013

Studies show that seven out of 10 adults in the United States say they experience anxiety daily, and a third report their anxiety levels are constant. A global anxiety index places the U.S. at the 76th percentile. This is high compared to countries such as Canada (51 percent) and Finland—the lowest—at 46 percent.

Unmanaged anxiety can become an insidious energy drain. As author Arthur Somers Roche put it, "Anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained." While no one is immune to the ills of prolonged anxiety, entrepreneurs in particular can be vulnerable because of lifestyle changes that are inherent when striking out on one's own. The well-known Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale measures stressful life changes. A few of these relate directly to the experiences of entrepreneurs. They are: a major business readjustment; a change in financial state (a lot worse off or a lot better off); a change to a different type of work; taking on a large mortgage or loan; a change in work responsibilities; outstanding personal achievement, and a change in work hours or conditions.

Feeling anxious can be one of the many adverse effects of stress. Anxiety is defined as a vague state of apprehension, fear or chronic worry of what lies ahead. Although anxiety is akin to fear, there is a difference. Fear is a more physiological reaction to something dangerous right in front of you, such as seeing a snake in your path. Fear resides primarily in the amygdala, a set of neurons that function like a "tiny security system" lodged in our head; its job is to help us quickly detect danger, so that we can protect ourselves by fighting, fleeing or freezing.

Anxiety, on the other hand, as Taylor Clark clarifies in Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and The Brave New Science of Fear and Cool, is a cognitive phenomenon, residing primarily in the prefrontal cortex—an area of the brain that helps us plan for the future. Anxious people experience fear of potential dangers that might pop up in the future or that might never happen, such as "Will I lose my job?" As Taylor puts it, anxiety is "the free-floating sense of dread that often goes hand in hand with worry and unwarranted pessimism."  

Managing anxiety is an inside job. And we now have numerous science-backed remedies to grab anxiety by the throat and do something about it before it drives our focus away from what we set out to accomplish. Here are some helpful practices that are grounded in modern neuroscience:

Digital Abstinence

Studies at the Hadassah Medical Organization, in Israel, show a connection between Internet addiction and depression and anxiety. Other studies by Anxiety UK, on the relationship between anxiety and technology (i.e., computers, mobile phones and social networking sites) reveal that for those who are predisposed to anxiety, "the pressures from technology act as a tipping point, making people feel more insecure and more overwhelmed." And a brain scan study by researchers in China shows that Internet addiction can cause brain changes that are similar to those seen in the brains of alcoholics and drug addicts. Being addicted to the Internet may well be the same as being addicted to cocaine. There's no doubt that information overload, the wide array of technology gadgets in our life and involvement with social media fuels some anxiety as we try to keep up with the digital barrage.

This tool developed by psychologist Kimberly Young can help you determine if you are in danger of becoming addicted to the Internet. Do you spend a little longer online than necessary but have control over your usage? Or, is Internet usage causing problems in your life such as a significant loss of productivity? Use the results of the quiz to raise your awareness of the impact the Internet may have on your life and anxiety level. Another worthwhile awareness tool comes from researchers in Norway, who published a scale to measure Facebook addiction. Self-awareness precedes self-management. Know when to unplug.

A Solution in Your Fridge

Researchers at UCLA found that eating probiotic yogurt twice a day can reduce anxiety and stress by changing the way our brain responds to the environment. Scientists have long known that the brain sends signals to the gut, which explains why stress and anxiety can cause gastrointestinal symptoms. This new study proves that signals also travel the opposite way; i.e., from the gut to the brain: "Time and time again," says Dr. Kirsten Tillisch, the study lead, "we hear from patients that they never felt depressed or anxious until they started experiencing problems with their gut. Our study shows that the gut–brain connection is a two-way street." Adding probiotic yogurt as one simple change in your diet may be of help in managing anxiety.

Take Your Vitamins

A study at the University of Swansea, in Wales, showed that people who took a multivitamin pill for a month, to supplement any deficiencies in their diet, experienced a 68 percent reduction in anxiety. Dietary inadequacies cause a decline in the function of enzymes, which can cumulatively influence our mood states. Vitamins and minerals come to the rescue by regulating biochemical processes in the brain that affect mood. A recent study at The University of Calgary also found that vitamin and mineral supplements can enhance mental energy and well-being for those prone to anxiety. If your diet is not optimal, supplementation can play a role in lowering your anxiety.

A Volitional Act

An extraordinary tool at our disposal all day long is where we choose to focus our attention. We can focus on things that impact our brains in a positive way, or on self-criticism and senseless worry. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, author of Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time, describes this dual attention as a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: It illuminates what it rests upon and then sucks it into your brain. But we can train our attention—we can develop better control of our spotlight/vacuum cleaner. One tool Hanson recommends is mindfulness, which, simply put, is being steadily aware of something. Mindfulness, as Hanson reports, has been shown to thicken cortical layers in regions of the brain that control attention so we get better at attention itself; it also increases activation of a region of the prefrontal cortex, which helps control and reduce negative emotions that can cause anxiety.  

How do we practice mindfulness? Hanson recommends setting aside a minute or more every day to be deliberately mindful—focusing on sensations of breathing, for example. Throughout the day, grab a few additional times to be mindful by remaining stably present with whatever is happening around you and inside you. You can use recurring events such as meals, a telephone ringing or an entrance through a doorway as reminders to be mindful. Watch how Hanson describes the simple practice of being mindful of your hands as a way to ground yourself and engender positive feelings.

A Stable Bridge

There is a wide body of research that shows the most important influence in our long-term health and well-being is the quality of our personal relationships and social support. Researchers at Concordia University reveal that reaching out to other people during a stressful event, for example, is an effective way to improve your mood, while withdrawing generally increases anxiety and depression, and decreases trust in others. Avoidance is not an effective strategy for reducing anxiety. Work on fortifying the bridge between you and others so you can strengthen your ability to manage anxiety.

A Readily Available Shot of Dopamine

Several studies show that listening to music is an effective antidote to anxiety. Scientists at Kentucky University, for example, show that music is even effective as a non-pharmacological intervention for reducing anxiety before surgery and alleviating pain perception after surgery. If music can do this much during high anxiety events such as surgical procedures, can you image what it can do to soothe everyday anxiety? Listening to music you enjoy gives you a shot of dopamine, the feel-good chemical. When dealing with anxiety, calm, slow and gentle music has been shown to have the most positive result.

What 7 Minutes Can Do for You

A just-released study by Princeton University proves yet another benefit of exercise: Exercise rewires the brain so anxiety is less likely to interfere with normal function—donning your sneakers and hitting the pavement can go a long way toward calming anxiety. No time to exercise? Consider the Scientific 7-Minute Workout, which is a set of just 12 exercises involving only a chair, a wall and your body weight. It fulfills the latest requirements of high-intensity effort, combining a long run and a session in the weight room into about seven minutes of steady discomfort—all of it based on science. (Use this cool, 7-minute Workout Timer to help you keep track.) 

What Tibetan Monks Have Known all Along

Scientists and Zen aficionados have long known that meditation reduces anxiety, but it's only recently that brain research proves how this happens. A study at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center identified which areas of the brain were activated and which were deactivated during meditation-related anxiety relief. "Just a few minutes of mindfulness meditation," says Fadel Zeidan, lead author of the study, "can help reduce normal everyday anxiety."

Researchers found that meditation reduced anxiety by as much as 39 percent. Two quick online meditation videos to help you get started are One Minute meditation by Point of Focus, and this three-minute meditation by Dr. Susan Taylor.

Ultimately, the best way to deal with anxiety is to understand that it's a normal part of being human. There's nothing to be embarrassed about. We are wired for anxiety, which keeps us safe. Hanson puts it best in his video I Love the Brain: "I invite you right now, unless someone's about to jump out of a bush and attack you ... to realize you're actually really all right, right now ... Time and time again during the course of the day, you have a chance to notice that you're really all right, right now." Take an inspiration from his simple yet powerful message and remember right at this very moment you're okay.

Read more articles on productivity.

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

Photo: Thinkstock


President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.