Why our brains hold the key to recovery from anxiety

October sees two key events in the health sphere – Children’s Health Day on the 4th and World Mental Health Day on the 10th. Both give us an apt opportunity to reflect on the impact the past year-and-a-half has had on our mental well-being. As a result of the pandemic, the whole world has been put under enormous stress and we are seeing more and more children and adults suffering from mental health issues such as stress and anxiety.

Such conditions are inevitable given the current state of the world. Our brains seek safety, and need consistency and predictability in order for safety to be felt. We need the feeling of safety in order to have the freedom to think clearly, to learn, to be open and joyful, and to thrive. The opposite of all these is anxiety. It’s a state in which we feel under threat, enclosed, and exposed to fearful anticipation. COVID-19 has done more than damage the bodies of many of those unfortunate enough to be infected. It has intensified uncertainty and increased the prevalence of stressful situations for everyone, infected or not.

Consistency and predictability have both been lost with schools shutting down, work patterns disrupted, businesses going bust, people getting seriously ill, some for the long term and, of course, people dying from this dreadful virus. At no time in living memory has the future looked so uncertain, the way forward so clouded, with no end in sight to the disruption caused by the pandemic.

As a result, our brains are challenged, there is increased and intense demand on our nervous systems, and we are suffering. Anxiety is not helpful for either mind or body. As well as interfering with health and wellbeing, it makes learning very difficult for children and adults. When we are stressed, what we refer to in Anat Baniel Method® NeuroMovement® as “The Learning Switch” is in the OFF position. The brain is focused on surviving, not learning or thinking clearly. For children’s return to school and adults’ return to work to be productive, we need those learning and thinking switches to be ON. We need to help our brains by relieving the stress.

The brain under stress

Anxiety produces regression, causing lower, more primitive centers of the brain to kick in, while leaving the higher centers less in charge of our executive functions. When we’re anxious or stressed, the brain reverts to less differentiated, less complex and less refined patterns of coping. The approach to life, oneself and others becomes more black or white rather than nuanced. And this invites catastrophic thinking, reduces creative thinking, compromises our health, and limits effective solution finding.

The brain reverts to a more primitive state, a survival mode dominated by the freeze, fight or flight way of acting that served our ancestors well. This can help explain how so many good, loving, and well-meaning people are acting more aggressively and even violently towards others. Parents assaulting other parents in school meetings. Checkout cashiers being attacked by customers.

In a state of anxiety, the full potential of the brain goes to waste. And anxiety and agitation quickly build on themselves and become habituated, something that’s happened to many as the pandemic has continued.

So how do we re-engage ourselves in a more harmonious, healthy, and whole-brain way? How do we give ourselves the scope to regain the freedom we need to create new solutions that will help us adapt and thrive in the changed world and altered personal realities we all face?

The Role of NeuroMovement®

In NeuroMovement®, we say that “movement is the language of the brain.” We know that when movement is performed in specific ways, we can have an immediate and powerful impact on the brain through positive brain change (neuroplasticity), upgrading its functioning by utilizing the brain’s amazing capacity to create and invent new solutions that enhance our life and vitality.

With NeuroMovement® we can shift ourselves away from the limited, anxiety-dominated state in which we have little freedom of thought and action. We can regain our creativity, and flick the learning switch back on, so children become better learners, adults become more focused, and all of us can experience joy again and the feeling that we are OK, and in a position where we can thrive.

Anat Baniel Method® NeuroMovement® is expressed through the Nine Essentials. Each of the essentials wakes up the brain so that it can resume the work of making new and beneficial connections and patterns in the brain in a highly potent way. These are explored in more detail in the books Move Into Life and Kids Beyond Limits. Of those essentials, four are most useful to help us overcome anxiety and get our brains into a more positive state:

Slowing down – Slow gets the brain’s attention, increasing its activity and forming new patterns. It allows us the time to experience the feelings and thoughts that are causing stress, and doing so can cause our fears to diminish.

Reduction of force and the power of gentleness – when we reduce force, we become more fully present, more sensitive to what we’re doing, and we begin to notice finer differences. The ability to differentiate is vital for proper brain function.

Paying attention to what you feel as you move – one of the most important ways to improve the quality of the information we provide our brains is though bringing attention to our movements.

Variations – our brains welcome variations, which are to learning as breathing is to life. When we introduce variations, we grow new neural connections, no matter our age or state of health.

Child Health Day and World Mental Health Day provide an opportunity for us to pay particular attention to improving the functioning of our brains. And NeuroMovement® gives us a way to help our brains make new connections so that we may begin to move past crippling anxiety toward a more peaceful and content way of being in the world.