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What Causes An Anxiety Spiral And How To Prevent It

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What Causes An Anxiety Spiral And How To Prevent It

Leah Borski

Certified NeuroHealth Coach, specializing in Stress Management and Integrative Wellness Lifestyle for Work-Life Balance Read full profile

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You know the dreaded feeling all too well—worrying about backlash over something you’ve said, wondering if that overwhelming social situation will push your stress over the edge, and contemplating all the potentially catastrophic outcomes from a single decision.

This can go one of two ways: You might manage to divert your attention by some stroke of magic, or this initial panic will launch you into a downward anxiety spiral.

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Unfortunately, just one trip down this rabbit hole can make it extra difficult to prevent them in the future. Our brain’s automatic reaction against triggers is meant to keep us safe; however, it only perpetuates further feelings of anxiety.

We might grasp at activities that help us avoid or numb the feelings. We may beat ourselves up for not being in control of our emotions. The difficult truth is that the more we fight it, the more anxiety we experience.

What Causes an Anxiety Spiral?

First, it’s helpful to take a look behind the curtain to understand what’s going on in our brains during an anxiety spiral. Simply put, it’s a battle between our logical brain and our emotional brain.

Our logical brain resides in the area of the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Picture this as the penthouse office suite.

It’s located at the top/front of the brain and handles the highest level of brain function. It gives executive orders to all mental processes. Our best, brightest ideas and actions are cultivated here.

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The emotional center lies in the lower part of our brains. Picture this as the gloomy file storage basement. It’s where our memories are processed and cataloged (hippocampus).

Our sensations of fear and threat originate here as well (amygdala). This is where the “fight-flight-freeze” process originates, activating anxiety.

Inability to deal with our triggers at the onset will lead to an anxiety spiral. We get stuck in the ruts of our stress-induced mental pathways. These can keep us trapped in a continuous loop. What’s worse—this process bypasses our logical brain (PFC).

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Triggered anxiety is like an emergency lockdown in our brains. The door to our penthouse office (logic) is slammed shut.

Imagine running up and down the stairwell, desperately seeking escape. (Alternatively, you might freeze, parked in a corner, waiting for the threat to pass.) The blockage prevents you from receiving rational, stress-extinguishing directives from upstairs.

Meanwhile, anxiety skyrockets thanks to the fearful screams coming from the basement.

It’s because of this that we cannot simply reason our way out of anxiety. This is also why anxiety spirals can so easily consume us.

Prevent Anxiety Spirals With These Simple Habits

You wouldn’t wait until there’s a building fire to ensure that the proper safety equipment and escape protocols are in place. Likewise, avoiding anxiety spirals requires that we take proactive measures.

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Here are five simple habits that help reduce and prevent anxiety before it can spiral out of control.

1. Meditation (Outside-the-Box)

This one can be tricky. For some people, myself included, attempts at meditation provoke the anxiety monster inside. Turning off our anxious thoughts while they are hyper-activated is impossible.

This is why it helps to make meditation a practice that we engage in during times of calm. Doing this helps train our brains while the PFC is in charge.

It’s kind of like running repetitive fire drills in your office building. This prepares everyone to take immediate action if a fire does happen. Otherwise, you’ll end up panicked as you try to read the fire extinguisher instructions while simultaneously beating back the flames.

What if you can’t seem to manage sitting still to quiet your thoughts? Fortunately, there are alternative meditation methods.

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When I was starting out, I found that “moving meditation” worked best for me. Doing a task I didn’t have to concentrate on to complete—like washing dishes, cleaning the bathroom, or walking around the block—helped me avoid relaxation-induced anxiety.

I could allow my mind to wander and notice the thoughts that came up. I could let go of the pressure to stop them from coming or hammer them back down like a crazy game of whack-a-mole.

2. E-Motion (Energy in Motion)

Exercise provides many anti-anxiety benefits. It elevates blood oxygen levels and directly activates the PFC (penthouse office suite). This gives our brains the energy and capacity to override those anxiety-inducing processes.

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Exercise reduces muscle tension, which is a common effect of anxiety. It releases feel-good chemicals that help us regulate our emotions.

Regular exercise can also give us a much-needed break from high-intensity thoughts and emotions. It’s important to be aware that this type of break is different from taking an avoidant approach.

The best way to deal with anxiety is to acknowledge it and process it. Putting our energy in motion through movement is one highly effective method for this.

A consistent exercise habit gives us the best of both worlds. It provides a temporary mental reprieve while also priming our brains to effectively deal with adversity.

3. Savor Nervous System Supportive Nutrients

Stress and anxiety are easily diminished with simple dietary additions. Vitamin B6 can help shift the body from fight-or-flight mode to a more relaxed state.

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Try these super stress-busting, B6-rich foods: pork, poultry, peanuts, wheat germ, oats, and bananas.

Magnesium is a mineral that plays a key role in regulating our stress response. Much of the general population is deficient in magnesium.

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Interestingly, magnesium deficiency increases our risk of adverse stress effects on the body. High stress also contributes to the depletion of magnesium levels. Combat this vicious cycle by eating magnesium-rich foods.

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High magnesium foods to try: whole grain cereals, spinach, almonds, black beans, and pumpkin seeds.

Want to double down on this strategy? The stress-busting benefits are even greater by combining B6 and magnesium. High-quality supplements are also an effective option.

4. Embrace the Exhale Effect

Feeling out of control activates the emotional brain. But we can trick our brains into believing we are in control by managing our breathing.

A secret bonus to this is that oxygen is one of the most potent fuel sources for our brains. Ensuring optimal oxygen helps to keep our brains from resorting to fear-based pattern-seeking. We can ditch the need for those energy-preserving methods that keep us stuck in anxiety loops.

Breathlessness is both a cause and effect of anxiety. So, calming anxiety swiftly through breathwork is super effective.

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There are many techniques for breathing to calm our nervous systems. One easy trick that’s highly potent for calming anxiety is to take a longer exhale than inhale. Deep inhalations can trigger the fight-or-flight response.

Instead, try this simple breathing pattern: Inhale for a count of three seconds, then exhale for a count of five seconds. This pattern works out to about eight breaths per minute, ideal for supporting our relaxation response.

Repeat this for as long as you like. Two minutes is enough to make an impact on soothing your nerves.

5. Kill the ANTs

ANTs are a major contributor to anxiety, according to world-renowned brain expert, Dr. Daniel Amen. ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts) can accelerate the dip into an anxiety spiral.

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The brain is a pattern-finding machine. Even though it only makes up a few pounds of our body weight, it uses up to one-quarter of our physical energy. To preserve that energy, it likes to take shortcuts. And the shortcuts it takes are mostly unconscious.

This means that if we don’t master control over these ANTs, they will be our default every time we’re stressed. This creates the perfect storm for anxiety spirals.

Putting the brakes on this requires that we rewire our unconscious circuitry. We must invest time and mental energy to change our thought patterns so that we most often operate from our PFC. This helps us ditch anxiety reactions for more positive outcomes.

We can build new pathways by making conscious, consistent efforts to change our internal conversations.

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Final Thoughts

Anxiety spirals don’t have to rule our lives. We can take responsibility for our own mental actions with small, manageable steps.

It starts with understanding how the brain works. Then, we simply train our brains to focus on what we can control, even in fear-inducing situations.

We can use the simple everyday habits above to rewire our brains and process our emotions while avoiding anxiety spirals.

Featured photo credit: Nathan Cowley via pexels.com

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The effect of breast cancer screening is declining

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The effect of breast cancer screening is declining

Screening for breast cancer has a cost. This is shown by a Danish/Norwegian study that analysed 10,580 breast cancer deaths among Norwegian women aged 50 to 75 years.

“The beneficial effect of screening is currently declining because the treatment of cancer is improving. Over the last 25 years, the mortality rate for breast cancer has been virtually halved,” says Henrik Støvring, who is behind the study.

According to the researcher, the problem is that screenings lead to both overdiagnosis and overtreatment, which has a cost both on a human level and in terms of the economy.

Overdiagnosis and overtreatment

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When the screening was introduced, the assessment was that around twenty per cent of the deaths from breast cancer among those screened could be averted. While this corresponded to approximately 220 deaths a year in Denmark 25 years ago, today the number has been halved.

The study shows that in 1996 it was necessary to invite 731 women to avoid a single breast cancer death in Norway, you would have to invite at least 1364 and probably closer to 3500 to achieve the same result in 2016.

On the other hand, the adverse effects of screening are unchanged.

“One in five women aged 50-70, who is told they have breast cancer, has received a ‘superfluous’ diagnosis because of screening — without screening, they would never have noticed or felt that they had breast cancer during their lifetime,” says the researcher.

One in five corresponds to 900 women annually in Denmark. In addition, every year more than 5000 women are told that the screening has given rise to suspicion of breast cancer — a suspicion that later turns out to be incorrect.

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Peaceful, small nodes — but in who?

Henrik Støvring notes that the result is not beneficial for the screening programmes. According to him, the Norwegian results can also be transferred to Denmark. Here, women between 50 and 69 are offered a mammogram screening every second year. This is an X-ray examination of the breast, which can show whether the woman has cellular changes that could be breast cancer.

The Danish screening programme became a national programme offered to all woman in the age group in 2007 — three years after the Norwegians. Approx. 300,000 Danish women are invited to screening for breast cancer every year.

According to the researcher, the challenge is that we are not currently able to tell the difference between the small cancer tumours that will kill you and those that will not. Some of these small nodes are so peaceful or slow-growing that the woman would die a natural death with undetected breast cancer, if she had not been screened. But once a cancer node has been discovered, it must of course be treated, even though this was not necessary for some of the women — we just do not know who.

“The women who are invited to screening live longer because all breast cancer patients live longer, and because we have got better drugs, more effective chemotherapy, and because we now have cancer care pathways, which mean the healthcare system reacts faster than it did a decade ago,” says Henrik Støvring.

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Materials provided by Aarhus University. Original written by Helle Horskjær Hansen. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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Thin-film photovoltaic technology combines efficiency and versatility

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Thin-film photovoltaic technology combines efficiency and versatility

Stacking solar cells increases their efficiency. Working with partners in the EU-funded PERCISTAND project, researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) have produced perovskite/CIS tandem solar cells with an efficiency of nearly 25percent- the highest value achieved thus far with this technology. Moreover, this combination of materials is light and versatile, making it possible to envision the use of these tandem solar cells in vehicles, portable equipment, and devices that can be folded or rolled up. The researchers present their results in the journal ACS Energy Letters.

Perovskite solar cells have made astounding progress over the past decade. Their efficiency is now comparable to that of the long-established silicon solar cells. Perovskites are innovative materials with a special crystal structure. Researchers worldwide are working to get perovskite photovoltaic technology ready for practical applications. The more electricity they generate per unit of surface area, the more attractive solar cells are for consumers

The efficiency of solar cells can be increased by stacking two or more cells. If each of the stacked solar cells is especially efficient at absorbing light from a different part of the solar spectrum, inherent losses can be reduced and efficiency boosted. The efficiency is a measure of how much of the incident light is converted into electricity. Thanks to their versatility, perovskite solar cells make outstanding components for such tandems. Tandem solar cells using perovskites and silicon have reached a record efficiency level of over 29percent, considerably higher than that of individual cells made of perovskite (25.7percent) or silicon (26.7percent).

Combining Perovskites with CIS for Mobility and Flexibility

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Combining perovskites with other materials such as copper-indium-diselenide (CIS) or copper-indium-gallium-diselenide (CIGS) promises further benefits. Such combinations will make it possible to produce light and flexible tandem solar cells that can be installed not only on buildings but also on vehicles and portable equipment. Such solar cells could even be folded or rolled up for storage and extended when needed, for example on blinds or awnings to provide shade and generate electricity at the same time.

An international team of researchers headed by Dr. Marco A. Ruiz-Preciado and tenure-track professor Ulrich W. Paetzold from the Light Technology Institute (LTI) and the Institute of Microstructure Technology (IMT) at KIT has succeeded in producing perovskite/CIS tandem solar cells with a maximum efficiency of 24.9percent (23.5percent certified). “This is the highest reported efficiency for this technology and the first high efficiency level reached at all with a nearly gallium-free copper-indium diselenide solar cell in a tandem,” says Ruiz-Preciado. Reducing the amount of gallium results in a narrow band gap of approximately one electron volt (eV), which is very close to the ideal value of 0.96eV for the lower solar cell in a tandem.

CIS Solar Cells with Narrow Band Gap- Perovskite Solar Cells with Low Bromine Content

The band gap is a material characteristic that determines the part of the solar spectrum that a solar cell can absorb to generate electricity. In a monolithic tandem solar cell, the band gaps must be such that the two cells can produce similar currents to achieve maximum efficiency. If the lower cell’s band gap changes, the upper cell’s band gap has to be adjusted to the change, and vice versa.

To adjust the band gap for efficient tandem integration, perovskites with high bromine content are usually used. However, this often leads to voltage drops and phase instability. Since the KIT researchers and their partners use CIS solar cells with a narrow band gap at the base of their tandems, they can produce their upper cells using perovskites with low bromine content, which results in cells that are more stable and efficient.

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“Our study demonstrates the potential of perovskite/CIS tandem solar cells and establishes the foundation for future development to make further improvements in their efficiency,” says Paetzold. “We’ve reached this milestone thanks to the outstanding cooperation in the EU’s PERCISTAND project and, in particular, thanks to our close cooperation with the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research.” Important groundwork was done in the CAPITANO project funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK).

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Materials provided by Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT). Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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Ancient microbes may help us find extraterrestrial life forms

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Ancient microbes may help us find extraterrestrial life forms

Using light-capturing proteins in living microbes, scientists have reconstructed what life was like for some of Earth’s earliest organisms. These efforts could help us recognize signs of life on other planets, whose atmospheres may more closely resemble our pre-oxygen planet.

The earliest living things, including bacteria and single-celled organisms called archaea, inhabited a primarily oceanic planet without an ozone layer to protect them from the sun’s radiation. These microbes evolved rhodopsins — proteins with the ability to turn sunlight into energy, using them to power cellular processes.

“On early Earth, energy may have been very scarce. Bacteria and archaea figured out how to use the plentiful energy from the sun without the complex biomolecules required for photosynthesis,” said UC Riverside astrobiologist Edward Schwieterman, who is co-author of a study describing the research.

Rhodopsins are related to rods and cones in human eyes that enable us to distinguish between light and dark and see colors. They are also widely distributed among modern organisms and environments like saltern ponds, which present a rainbow of vibrant colors.

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Using machine learning, the research team analyzed rhodopsin protein sequences from all over the world and tracked how they evolved over time. Then, they created a type of family tree that allowed them to reconstruct rhodopsins from 2.5 to 4 billion years ago, and the conditions that they likely faced.

Their findings are detailed in a paper published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

“Life as we know it is as much an expression of the conditions on our planet as it is of life itself. We resurrected ancient DNA sequences of one molecule, and it allowed us to link to the biology and environment of the past,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison astrobiologist and study lead Betul Kacar.

“It’s like taking the DNA of many grandchildren to reproduce the DNA of their grandparents. Only, it’s not grandparents, but tiny things that lived billions of years ago, all over the world,” Schwieterman said.

Modern rhodopsins absorb blue, green, yellow and orange light, and can appear pink, purple or red by virtue of the light they are not absorbing or complementary pigments. However, according to the team’s reconstructions, ancient rhodopsins were tuned to absorb mainly blue and green light.

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Since ancient Earth did not yet have the benefit of an ozone layer, the research team theorizes that billions-of-years-old microbes lived many meters down in the water column to shield themselves from intense UVB radiation at the surface.

Blue and green light best penetrates water, so it is likely that the earliest rhodopsins primarily absorbed these colors. “This could be the best combination of being shielded and still being able to absorb light for energy,” Schwieterman said.

After the Great Oxidation Event, more than 2 billion years ago, Earth’s atmosphere began to experience a rise in the amount of oxygen. With additional oxygen and ozone in the atmosphere, rhodopsins evolved to absorb additional colors of light.

Rhodopsins today are able to absorb colors of light that chlorophyll pigments in plants cannot. Though they represent completely unrelated and independent light capture mechanisms, they absorb complementary areas of the spectrum.

“This suggests co-evolution, in that one group of organisms is exploiting light not absorbed by the other,” Schwieterman said. “This could have been because rhodopsins developed first and screened out the green light, so chlorophylls later developed to absorb the rest. Or it could have happened the other way around.”

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Moving forward, the team is hoping to resurrect model rhodopsins in a laboratory using synthetic biology techniques.

“We engineer the ancient DNA inside modern genomes and reprogram the bugs to behave how we believe they did millions of years ago. Rhodopsin is a great candidate for laboratory time-travel studies,” Kacar said.

Ultimately, the team is pleased about the possibilities for research opened up by techniques they used for this study. Since other signs of life from the deep geologic past need to be physically preserved and only some molecules are amenable to long-term preservation, there are many aspects of life’s history that have not been accessible to researchers until now.

“Our study demonstrates for the first time that the behavioral histories of enzymes are amenable to evolutionary reconstruction in ways that conventional molecular biosignatures are not,” Kacar said.

The team also hopes to take what they learned about the behavior of early Earth organisms and use it to search the skies for signs of life on other planets.

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“Early Earth is an alien environment compared to our world today. Understanding how organisms here have changed with time and in different environments is going to teach us crucial things about how to search for and recognize life elsewhere,” Schwieterman said.

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