Your Detour To A Stress-Free Life

Anxious much? Relax: You can train your brain to derail stress, new research finds—and it's simple to do. Happy Place, here you come!

Cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness techniques can ease stress and anxiety.
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Ever feel overwhelmed by worries? Do you find yourself dwelling on concerns big (is my job safe?) and small (that darn clogged sink!)? It's official: You're human and living in the United States.Anxiety levels in this country are the highest they've been in seven decades, surveys show. Not surprisingly, money and work woes top most people's freak-out lists (thank you, lingering recession). All that emailing, texting, and tweeting aren't helping; social technology has reduced actual face time (a known stress reliever) and made us compulsively available to everyone at all times.

Women suffer most—we're twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, which involves excessive worry about a wide range of things (and requires medical attention).

"Women are more likely to feel responsible for taking care of others' well-being," says Robert Leahy, PhD, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy and author of The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping You. And in this you-can-do-it! era, some of us think we can power through anxiety, which only exacerbates the problem.

Chronic stress has been linked to weight gain, depression, and even cancer. But this doesn't have to be your fate. You can actually train your brain to be less anxious. Recent studies have found that both cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—more about this in a minute—and mindfulness techniques can make positive changes to your gray matter, ones actually visible in a brain scan.

What is CBT, anyway?
CBT centers on the idea that we can free ourselves from a lot of angst by becoming aware of our distorted view of situations, particularly stressful ones, and adjusting our behaviors accordingly. A 2012 review concluded that CBT can enlarge the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain associated with weighing thoughts and making decisions—and reduce the size of the amygdala, the region associated with stress and fear. In another study of patients with social phobia that compared the effects of CBT and the antidepressant citalopram, both treatments triggered changes in the parts of the brain that help us process, and act upon, fears.

"Our brains are constantly being shaped, most often unwittingly," says Richard Davidson, PhD, director of the Lab for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin--Madison. "But there are things we can do to purposefully shape them and reduce anxiety."

You can try CBT on your own with the exercises that follow, or, for a more in-depth experience, find a therapist who specializes in it. (Look for one in your area at The more you incorporate these very doable techniques into your life, the more second nature they'll become when anxious thoughts rear their ugly little heads. Try them all, then do the ones that work best daily; in about two weeks, you'll start to see a calmer, happier you.

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Kate Lowenstein
Last Updated: October 01, 2012

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