Over the past year, I’ve worked with several ideas and tools to manage my issues of anxiety, depression and distraction brought on by my mTBIs. I’ve written about my bullet journal, my daily practice and the book that worked like a “key in a lock” for all of it. One of the most recent tools, and perhaps one of the more practical, was a simple sentence I heard from my wife.
We were discussing the ideas of mindfulness, staying in the present and battling anxiety. She brought up information she had been given in a leadership workshop and said, “Did you know there have been studies done which show the brain cannot contain thoughts of anxiety and gratitude at the same time?”
I immediately began chewing on this and coupling it with my current practice. I decided to put that statement to the test as soon as possible.
One of my biggest issues had been that shortly after settling into my breathing, my environment and the simple truth of the present moment, my heart would take off and wave upon wave of anxiety would hit me. Little panic attacks would shock through my system and I’d get hit with a flood of adrenaline. I’ve written about this previously and how it refused to stop. Though recently I had been able to work with the anxiety, it still arose occasionally.
I also had found that I could be in a quiet, relaxed state of mind and anxious thoughts would still skitter across my awareness, like mice scurrying in the corner of your eye. Occasionally, I would unwittingly latch on to one of those thoughts and found myself taken for a ride.
However, now I had been given a new tool! If anxiety and gratefulness basically had some sort of oil and water combination in the brain, I could use that to my advantage. Basically, the same as offering a chew toy to a dog that is chewing on your shoe. “No, no, bad brain. If you’re going to chew on something chew on this.”
The moment I began to become aware of my anxiety or a thought based more on depression, I would immediately find one or two things I was grateful for in that moment. If I could not find something immediate, I could easily find something from my life or my family. I would then focus on the grateful thought instead of the anxious one.
I coupled this with the information I read a few days later. You can retrain your brain based on how you respond to a situation. You have two choices, Love or Fear. Your brain will wire itself accordingly. If you have been wiring your brain with Fear based responses (which a good chunk of the population has been doing for decades) then it will continue along those neural pathways you have built.
However, thanks to recent research, the brain retains a plasticity and, if like me, you realize your mistakes you can begin to rewire things. Like your own personal brain garden you can begin retraining neural tendrils and vines that have grown closer together due to anxiety. You can redirect them to move apart and reconnect through gratitude, Love and optimism. Just like a garden, it won’t happen quickly. You will have rainy days, tangled roots and pests but it will happen.
And so I began applying all of this, joining it with my mindfulness practice, my meditations. Whenever I found myself thinking an anxious thought or letting myself rush to quickly towards the future, I’d drop back. I’d think about one thing I was grateful. If that didn’t replace the anxiety, I’d find something else. It didn’t have to be complicated. It could be as simple as feeling the wind on my face, being able to climb stairs, being able to read, having a comfortable work chair. Anything. I focused on my blessings.
In my bullet journal I created a gratitude journal where I listed the top two things every day that I was thankful for having. Some days I’ve written, “A warm bed,””Amazing sunset,” or “Time with family over a board game.” Other times it was, “Grateful for a safely built dishwasher that didn’t catch fire.”
Currently, my strategies are working. It’s been like the anxiety has had the rug pulled out from underneath it. It has no traction and slides away. It’s not perfect, of course. It still comes back. When it does I simply meet it with more gratitude. It slides away again. At work, I noticed my days moving faster. I’ve noticed things going smoothly, or, at least my reaction to them has changed.
I was retraining my brain.
I still have reactions that are the old way of thinking. Just yesterday, at work, I fell down the yucky rabbit hole of frustration, anxiety and anger. However, instead of sitting in it I did something else. I left my desk. I took a brief walk outside. I got back to the present. I didn’t scold myself for getting angry but instead started focusing on what I was the most grateful for in my life. I realized I was allowing myself to get too invested in my work. I sat and watched nature around me, watched the wind in the trees and repeated how grateful I was. Things calmed down quickly.
The difference between that and what might have been a year ago? Before, I would have allowed it to tank my day. I would have gone home exhausted and distraught. Now? The whole thing took 20 minutes and I was able to get back into my day, get things done and go home in a good mindset.
And the first thing when I got back to my desk? I sat down and took a moment to be grateful for having a job that allowed me to go for a brief walk. I have had more than a few where that could not have been an option.
And today? Today I simply start all over again.
Just me and my brain garden.
Here are some other links that have helpful information: