‘WE CAN TEACH THE BRAIN THAT EVERYTHING IS OKAY.’
Anxiety is more than just being a little concerned or worried. It is a
chronic condition that can have serious effects on both your physical
and mental health. In fact, constant anxiety that doesn’t seem to
go away can eventually affect nearly every aspect of your life—work,
relationships, sleep—and even lead to substance abuse. That’s
why it’s important to equip yourself with practical ways to ease anxiety.
In a free online Boulder Community Health lecture,
Bradley Fanestil, MD from BCH's
Center for Mind Body Medicine described how mind-body medicine applies emerging neuroscience theories
to significantly reduce and even eliminate feelings of anxiety.
He explained, “As a primary care doctor, I realized people often
would leave their appointments with a plan but no real cure for what they
have. For the last 10 years, I have been focusing on neuroscience to understand
what is going on in more nebulous and complicated situations that can’t
be corrected with a simple antibiotic or prescription.”
Dr. Fanestil resolves his patients’ anxiety issues without the use
of medications. He uses neuroscience concepts to rewire our brain’s
Watch Dr. Fanestil's lecture on the "Treating Anxiety With Mind-Body Medicine"
What is Mind-Body Medicine
Dr. Fanestil explained that mind-body medicine (MBM) uses our conscious
mind to influence responses in our bodies—responses that we often
think of as being seemingly automatic.
“Mind-body techniques effect changes in the circuits of the autonomic
nervous system (ANS), which is our involuntary nervous system, resulting
in real neurohormonal and physiologic changes in our brains and bodies.”
Dr. Fanestil stated. “The data behind mind-body medicine and the
newer theories on how the brain and body work are well substantiated,
supporting the emergence of mind-body medicine as a legitimate mainstream
In fact, these techniques have been shown to create beneficial changes
in many of the body’s physiological responses at a molecular and
biochemical level, including changes in stress hormone levels, pain response,
immune function and gene expression in white blood cells.
“MBM can be harnessed to influence anxiety, heart palpitations, migraines,
stomach issues, chronic pain and many other physical issues.” He
added, “MBM is a form of self-care that is only successful when
you put in the work.”
What Happens in An Anxious Brain?
Our autonomic nervous system is the autopilot part of our brain. “It’s
the part of our brain,” explained Dr. Fanestil, “that we don’t
have direct control over.” It is responsible for regulating the
body's unconscious actions such as heart rate, breathing, blood pressure
and muscle tension. Dr. Fanestil added, “It’s running all
the time. It’s what allows us to hold a cup of coffee, walk, talk
and open a door all at the same time. Without you even being aware of
it, your autonomic nervous system is constantly doing its one and only
job—getting you through your day safely.”
The autonomic nervous system has two branches, the sympathetic and the
The sympathetic system. Its primary process is to stimulate a response that prepares the body to
fight or flee to an event that is perceived as stressful or frightening
(the body's fight-or-flight response).
The parasympathetic system. It activates when the body is at rest, especially after eating. It helps
you relax, restore, recuperate and digest food.
Many of Dr. Fanestil’s anxiety patients are experiencing an imbalance
of these systems. He explained, “My patients are often running high
on the sympathetic side. They’re feeling a lot of fight-or-flight
without experiencing a lot of relaxation on the parasympathetic side.”
When you experience anxiety, your brain’s not just vigilantly looking
out for danger — preparing the body to fight or flee — it’s
in a hypervigilant mode. This may be the result of previous or ongoing
stresses or life trauma, or it may be caused by repressed or surpassed emotions.
Dr. Fanestil explained, “The danger sensor sets off an alarm mechanism
to let us know something is off, this in turn can set off feelings of
anxiety (fight-or-flight), depression or fatigue; we might then feel pain,
muscle tension or experience insomnia, blurry vision or ringing in the
Thinking About Anxiety in a New Way
Dr. Fanestil stressed, “Anxiety is not a
psychological issue. It’s a
physiological response to stress.” He added, “Anxiety is always in the body.
This is because our body and brain are intimately connected.”
- a protective mechanism,
- an activation of our fight-or-flight response, and
- often a reactivation of hypervigilant neural pathways that were wired together
by the brain long ago—perhaps during a time when it was useful to
be more hypervigilant.
According to Dr. Fanestil, anxiety is the message a scared body sends to
its brain. When your anxiety makes you feel unwell, it’s because
your autonomic nervous system—the autopilot part of our brain that
we don’t have direct control over—is sending signals to your
body to help keep you safe.
“If your autonomic nervous system could talk it would say, ‘I
don’t care how you feel, I’m trying to save your life here
pal. I’m making you feel bad so that we can get out of this situation.’”
said Dr. Fanestil. He added, “The point is that anxiety is not an
illness. These feelings are generated by a healthy brain doing what it
thinks it should to keep you safe.”
Tools to Rewire Our Brains
There are very real tools available to rewire our brains. Dr. Fanestil
noted, “There are things we can do every day to change our brains
and unlearn anxiety. In other words, rewiring your own brain is more powerful
than valium." Tools to consider include:
- Self-awareness techniques
- Mindfulness and mediation (both of which are helpful, but neither of which
alone will cure anxiety)
- Checking in with emotions
- Expressive writing
- Guided Imagery
- Mind-body skills groups
- Breathing techniques—slow abdominal breathing physically results
in changes to your body. Changes can happen in an instant.
- Body awareness exercises
- Yoga or Tai-chi
- Sitting with and accepting anxiety
- Identifying current relationships and issues that are keeping your brain
- Working with therapists for different types of therapy
Things You Can Do Right Now to Reduce Anxiety
- Commit to the idea that you can take control over your own nervous system.
- Keep educating yourself. Read, listen, research and learn more about MBM.
- Expressive writing—take any amount of time to write about how you’re
feeling and what emotions you have. It may be a simple as, “I am
feeling tense in my stomach, and I don’t know why.”
- Active mini-meditation—"For just one second multiple times throughout
the day, drop your shoulders. That’s it. You can add a deep slow
in and out breath through your nose. This exercise gives your brain the
message that everything is okay."
- Consider acupuncture or Reiki to balance your autonomic nervous system.
Center of Mind-body Medicine’s next mind-body skills group.
To wrap up, Dr. Fanestil emphasized, “Mind-body medicine is all about
teaching our brains that we are not in a dangerous place right now. Anxiety
is not a disorder. We can teach the brain that everything is okay.”
Center for Mind-body Medicine website for more information or call 303-415-8615 to schedule an appointment with
Dr. Bradley Fanestil.
Click here to view/download a PDF of slides shown during Dr. Fanestil's lecture. The slides include a list of recommended educational resources including
Ted Talks, videos and books.