How to build an immunity against anxiety and excessive stress

Anxiety and excessive stress are said to be the two key factors that hold you back from psychologically realizing happiness and success. Such factors may even contribute significantly to depression over time.

You may notice people claiming to be anxious, say they were born that way or that they don’t perform well under stress. This is considered social anxiety. This inhibits a person’s ability to make friends and engage with others. Performance anxiety inhibits a person’s ability to perform academically and athletically. Stage fright is a form of performance anxiety that can cripple performers.

According to Dr. Daniel Amen, in his 2013 TEDx Talk,

You are not stuck with the brain you have. You can make it better.

Not only is Dr. Amen’s statement correct but there is evidence to prove that we may be able to cultivate a certain degree of “immunity” from excessive stress, which acts as a form of “psychological body armor.”

Research has shown that your brain is highly responsive to environmental stimuli, along with your thoughts and emotions (Volkow, 2010). This is referred to as neuroplasticity. Neural pathways in your brain are malleable. It allows your brain to create functional neurological pathways and networks and reorganize previously existing pathways and networks in order to create the neurologic infrastructure for virtually every aspect of human behavior. This has crucial implications not only for adult learning, but also for how to understand and better manage stress and anxiety. 

The Nervous System Can Be Tuned

A musical instrument can be tuned sharp and also tuned down to be less reactive. Just like a musical instrument, your nervous systems can be tuned too. Ernest Gellhorn, a physiologist in the 1960s conducted research and discovered that based upon one’s thoughts, experiences and emotions, the human nervous system is capable of being tuned to become irritable, hypersensitive and over responsive. The more negative thoughts you have, the more negative experiences you have, the more negative emotions you experience, and the more you worry about things, the more likely you actually train your brain to experience stress and anxiety reactions with less and less provocation. This hypersensitivity was said to be the foundation for the development of crippling anxiety and other stress related disorders.

Gellhorn concluded that your nervous systems can be desensitized. You should have a highly optimistic perspective of your stress and anxiety disorders even if you once thought you were born that way. The thought is if neural patterns of excessive stress can be acquired, then they can be altered, and more positive functional neurological pathways can be replaced. 

3 steps to Build Immunity Against Stress

Here are the three simple ways to help desensitize your brain’s responsiveness to anxiety and stress and as a result build psychological body armor (PBA).

1. Set realistic expectations and have optimistic beliefs

The key aspects of building PBA are setting realistic expectations, preparation and rehearsal. When the reality that you experience doesn’t match your expectations, the highly neuroplastic hippocampal structures of the human brain seem to be affected in the rise of anxiety reactions. Dr. Donald Meichenbaum (1985) developed a structured approach to prepare people for situations that are stressful. You will find your sense of optimism increases through setting expectations, preparation and rehearsal. Your optimism may then become a positive self- fulfilling prophecy.

2. Mindfulness

It was Dr. Jon Kabat-ZInn (1990) who popularized this concept. Mindfulness is about being present in the moment and is a form of awareness that is attained by focusing your attention on the present moment, acknowledging what is going on in your surroundings, while at the same time quietly acknowledging your thoughts and feelings in the moment. Being inattentive, distracted and not being engaged are contrary to mindfulness, a form of mindlessness. Research on mindfulness reveals a reduction in perceived pain as well as less stress and hypersensitivity.

3. Practice relaxation responses

Dr. Herbert Benson (1974) was the first to systematically study the relaxation response, which may be thought as a state of calmness and relaxation characterized by a resistance to irritability, stress and anxiety. Research has shown that the relaxation response can be induced by practicing techniques like deep breathing, meditation, yoga and prayer. This response will induce a feeling of relaxation while practicing and with continued practice you can start developing increased resistance to stressful events, feelings and thoughts. Imagine it as developing “psychological immunity”. Research at Harvard University and Harvard Medical School spanning over 30 years has shown that you can develop stress resistance to reduce stress arousal in response to stimulants, physical challenges, and even demand in academic situations when practiced on a consistent basis for several weeks.

The three steps mentioned above are just the foundations of creating PBA. Physical exercise can boost cognitive functioning, enhance neuroplasticity, spurring on a state of calmness, while changes in your diet can help develop PBA by lowering stress. Just as you wear physical body armor to reduce the chance of getting physically injured, research suggests that you can create psychological body armor to protect yourself from undergoing stress and anxiety.


Jayashri Jambu
Wellneste Editorial Team
Referred source: Immunize Yourself Against Anxiety and Excessive Stress | Psychology Today

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