As I discussed in another article, your sensitivity to perceived threat, and even your brain’s determination of what constitutes a threat, is unique to your specific brain. The way your brain evaluates and processes danger is a combination of your genes and your past experiences, particularly experiences you had when you were young. As a result, you have little conscious control over either your sensitivity to threat or the criteria by which your brain evaluates danger.
If you feel anxious or angry in situations that don’t seem to warrant it, or you over-react, your brain’s threat calibration may be off. But by understanding how your brain works and doing brain training, you can modify your sensitivity and reactions to perceived threats.
First of all, you should understand that when your brain is activated into full-on fight/flight/freeze mode it doesn’t listen to reason very well, even from you. Talking yourself out of feeling really scared or really angry when you are already in it is really difficult.
Instead, you need to train your brain to not get extremely activated in the first place. This requires practice and repetition. You need to practice a different pattern of thinking and engaging your body that leads you toward feeling calm and safe.
Practices that do this are referred to as mindfulness practices. They are designed to train you to observe your mind and focus your attention purposely, which reduces your reactivity and makes serenity easier to achieve.
Meditation, some kinds of yoga, qigong, some kinds of prayer, tai chi, and even some kinds of dance can all be effective mindfulness practices. What they have in common is slowing you down, quieting you, giving you the opportunity to observe your internal experience, and helping you accept that experience. Soaking in warm water, flotation tanks, soothing music, listening to guided meditation recordings, being in nature, and soothing massage are all tools that may help you slow down and attend to your experience, especially if you have trouble doing so.
Writing down what you are thinking and feeling (called journalling) is another kind of mindfulness practice. Here the goal is not to write things that “make sense,” but to become more aware of your thoughts and feelings. In fact, getting benefit from journalling doesn’t even require reading what you have written; the practice of it is the important part.
Whatever practice you choose, it is very important that you do it regularly, ideally at least once a day, especially when you are starting out. This is important because these practices are similar to physical exercise: you get stronger from lifting weights, not from knowing how to lift weights. Mindfulness practices work in a similar way. It is particularly important that you don’t just do mindfulness practices when you think you need to because you are feeling anxious or upset.
It is also very important that you do not criticize or judge your “performance” at a mindfulness practice. When you start a mindfulness practice, the first thing you notice may be that you are not very good at slowing down your thoughts or keeping your attention focused. This is completely normal! If you are noticing lots of different thoughts or your attention wandering, congratulations! This means you are aware of your mind working.
Slowing down your body goes with slowing down your mind. This is why many mindfulness practices involve paying attention to your breathing or other body sensations. Indeed, you can probably get a good deal of benefit from just deliberately breathing slowly and deeply for 5-10 minutes a couple of times a day.
Because of the body/mind connection, your physical health affects your mental state. An unhealthy diet or not getting enough exercise can make it more difficult to manage your reactivity. Not getting enough sleep can make it hard to function, much less be mindful. Mindfulness practices are powerful, but they can’t negate all the effects of illness or an otherwise unhealthy lifestyle. See your doctor if medical conditions may be affecting your mood or stress.
Be aware that being good at turning down your reactivity when you are alone does not necessarily make you good at staying calm and focused with other people. You will have to practice with other people to be able to bring your brain management skills to the social world. Counseling can be helpful for this.