Stress & Anxiety

I Can't Turn My Brain Off!

Have you ever been exhausted, spending night after night staring at the ceiling, trying to play chess with your brain in order to trick it to slow down, to stop? Have you ever wondered who is in charge here - you or your brain?

You may be struggling with stress or anxiety.

Everyone worries from time to time about family, workplace pressures, public speaking, grueling schedules or writing an exam. These body sensations are uncomfortable but are different from the ones associated with an anxiety disorder.


Stress is like blood pressure. You need a certain amount to live, but if there is too much it will kill you. How do you recognize stress and anxiety? What does it look like? Well, when worry is unleashed it becomes a ravenous, insidious, invisible, relentless scavenger roaming the corners of your mind, looking for any negative scraps it can find. It leaves you feeling vulnerable and powerless. It interrupts your concentration; it snarls at you if you try to ignore it, and barks its demand for attention.

It significantly diminishes your ability to live in the moment, to relax or to learn to be content. It sours the sweetest experiences and pops the purest joy.

Worry is more common that we would like to think! We know that at least one in four will meet the criteria of anxiety. That means about 80 million people in North America alone suffer from worry. There are an additional 280 million people whose lives are going fairly well but they still feel the mental storms of worry from time to time.

Chronic worry is called anxiety today, but just a few decades ago, Grandma would call it 'nerves' or just 'fretting'.

Before we can solve problems like anxiety, we need to be able to ask ourselves: what is it?

Anxiety is chronic fear! It is a special form of fear. Once fear reaches the cerebral cortex, the brain refines it, adding other emotions, memories, a heightened imagination and anticipation.

Actually, this process that was really intended to make us feel secure and protect us from harm works against the worrier. The intricacies of the human brain, unlike the brains of animals, use memory and imagination to endeavour to predict danger. In our fight-flight response to real danger, this is a high upgrade from other mammals.

However, when the doctor tells the worrying patient that the mole on his back is not malignant melanoma, the worrier is only momentarily soothed. We can see that this only intensifies his thoughts and hence feelings of powerlessness. Rational reassurances just don't work anymore.

Why do you keep worrying?

Your mind has, in effect, gone into convulsions or spasms that resist relaxing. Someone actually termed it a kind of 'brain burn' because the system is continually pumping out a huge bolus of adrenaline under high pressure.

New research is helping us understand what is actually happening in the nerve cells of the worrier. Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., has revealed that children who are high-strung and highly aroused early on often become tense, shy, anxious adults. Certainly brain scans have shown people who ruminate have excess activity in a part of their brain called the cingulated cortex. It turns out some of us are predisposed to worrying from birth.

Stop Blaming & Shaming

Recent research has enabled us to stop blaming and shaming worriers for their woes and begin helping them to get better. One of our newest and most powerful findings is that brains are adaptable and flexible. You can be retrained, redirected, reassured and reset. You can change your brain!

When life becomes unpredictable many people are vulnerable to worry. It could be an unpredictable death, a lawsuit, a good friend or family member emotionally cutting them off, or someone raging on them and blaming them for something they had nothing to do with. They may be able to go on but they have lost their peace of mind. Their faith in their world is shattered. Worry sets in, with shame nipping at its heels.

Our work with clients involves applying a metaphorical cold towel to their forehead, increasing their constitution with hot chicken soup for their soul and mind, and giving them antibiotics for their emotional infection.

Sometimes life is scary and genuinely risky!

People who suffer from anxiety and/or depression experience prolonged feelings of tension and fear for no obvious reasons. Often they have understandably but wrongfully thought that everyone feels this way. It is only when they disclose how they are feeling that they realize this is not normal to good health.

The condition turns their life into a continuous journey of unease and fear, and can interfere with their relationships with family, friends and colleagues.

Anxiety disorders are the common cold of mental health problems. They affect approximately one in 10 people.

While anxiety disorders are more prevalent among women than men, they affect children and teens as well. Men, however, may just put a braver face to their experiences and rarely share their suffering. A male ego thing, I guess.

Anxiety usually has close cousins in the mental health family. Those who struggle with anxiety often experience depression, substance abuse or physical problems.

Anxiety disorders are illnesses. They can be diagnosed; they can be treated. But all too often, they are mistaken for mental weakness or instability, and the resulting social stigma can discourage people with anxiety disorders from seeking help.

As with many mental health conditions, what causes generalized anxiety disorder isn't totally understood. Health scientists feel that it is a result of how the naturally occurring brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine interact with brain function. It is believed that inherited genetics, in combination with life stressors, are the source of anxiety disorders.

"Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy." (Leo Buscaglia)

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