The Power of Repetition to Tackle Your Anxiety
Do you ever think about why you have anxiety? Anxiety is a difficult topic to address because everyone experiences anxiety to some degree, but in unique ways. We can generally define anxiety as a feeling of worry or nervousness associated with a negative thought. To better understand why anxiety exists, we need to look at how the brain processes information. More specifically, we need to look at why and how our brain adapts to different stimuli.
One of the key aspects of neuroscience worth exploring before tackling anxiety and depression is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to adapt and change in response to new experiences. Now, let’s dive a little deeper into what neuroplasticity looks like in our brains.
Think of your brain as a sponge that literally absorbs, senses and interprets everything that your body directly or indirectly comes into contact with. Now imagine that you’re a tiny creature that somehow made it inside your brain. What do you see? You’re probably seeing root-like structures with countless protrusions. These are neurons. All you need to know about neurons is that they are the structures in the brain that communicate with each other to carry out tasks from interpreting which toe you just stubbed to memorizing the alphabet. However, the way that these neurons communicate with each other is important. When we refer to plasticity, we are referring to how neurons can move closer or further away from one another.
The processes involved in regulating the proximity of neuronal connections are known as long term potentiation and long term depression. Essentially, long term potentiation is the term used to describe the connection between two neurons being strengthened. While long term depression is the term used to describe the connections between neurons being weakened (this is not related to the depression we associate with mental illness) (Baudry).
So why do these two systems exist? Well your brain can only be so big, and even though you have trillions of connections in the brain, your brain is smart and will only keep the connections that are needed. For example, let’s say that you’re someone who is trying to learn how to play the piano. When you sit down for the first time to play, you’re not very good because you haven’t been exposed to playing before. But after putting in hours of practice and investing time into learning how to read music, you begin to see improvement. Eventually you begin playing songs, and over the course of a few months with consistent practice, you are playing Für Elise. We are all familiar with the power of practice and know that it is a crucial step for success, but why is practice
and repetition necessary?
Let’s circle back to LTP. When you pick up a new hobby such as playing the piano, your brain begins to strengthen connections between neurons involved in controlling finger movements and understanding music. Your brain wants to be efficient, so when your brain realizes that your investing hundreds of hours of practicing the piano, your brain begins to change its wiring so that you can essentially become a better piano player. In addition, now that your investing numerous hours into playing the piano, your brain also begins to weaken other connections that are not being used. For example, now that you are spending time practicing the piano, in order for your brain to be more efficient, your brain will begin weakening connections that were being used to memorize the state capitals. This is the concept of LTD, where we see a weakening of connections between neurons because the neuronal circuits aren’t being activated at a high frequency. Now let’s consider how we can potentially apply LTP and LTD to anxiety and depression. I want to speak briefly about a time where I was able to change my thought patterns in order to reduce my anxiety.
My sophomore year of college I began taking a lot of difficult classes and to say the least, I was stressed out. My goal for that year was to ace all of my classes because at the time I was trying to get into an early medical school program. On top of all of this pressure that I was putting on myself, I began drinking a lot of coffee and I had never drunk coffee before that time. Long story short, the coffee and self-induced stress was giving me tremendous physical anxiety and sensations, such as chest tightness, light-headedness, and stomach pain. These symptoms, convinced me that I was having a heart attack. And every time I drank a cup of coffee, I would fall into this thought trap that would ultimately convince me that I was dying.
Thankfully I was able to overcome this anxiety in a pretty simple way. It all began with telling myself that “I’m okay and I accept these sensations that I’m experiencing”. Now, the key point here is that I needed to consistently repeat these lines to myself. Through repetition, this new thought pattern was essentially giving me a way to accept the tightness in my chest and other symptoms as normal physical reactions to my stress and coffee. As I began to repeat these calming thoughts to myself over and over again, my physical anxiety disappeared. On top of that, I was able to begin to recognize what thoughts and experiences would trigger my anxiety outside of my studies, which allowed me to reduce my anxiety even more.
Reflecting on this experience, considering what I know now about LTP and LTD, the changes I made to my thought patterns demonstrate how I used LTP and LTD to my advantage to reduce my anxiety. Before I began changing my thoughts, my brain was dedicating a lot of energy to strengthening the connections associated with my studying, negative thoughts and physical symptoms. However, once I began repeatedly changing my thought patterns, my negative though patterns began to weaken and my new positive thought patterns were strengthened.
It’s important to note that this discussion of LTP, LTD and brain plasticity is only scratching the surface. These concepts are much more complex than what we currently understand and neuroscientists are still discovering their possible applications. However, in my brief description of LTP and LTD, we can realize the importance of repetition involved in the wiring of the brain. Whether you’re learning a new instrument or trying to reduce your debilitating thoughts, your brain is constantly strengthening and weakening its connections.
So going forward, I challenge you to apply this concept into your own life, however you see fit. Maybe you’re like me and realized that your extremely stressed out, or maybe your trying to pick up a new hobby. Regardless, through repetition, you have the power to consciously change your brain for the better.
Baudry, M. (n.d.). Long Term Potentiation. Retrieved November 24, 2019, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/biochemistry-genetics-and-molecular-biology/long-term-potentiation.