Health journalist Markham Heid wrote about the groundbreaking panic and anxiety research of SMU psychologists Dr. Alicia Meuret and Dr. Thomas Ritz in the June 2012 issue of Prevention magazine.

The article “Anxiety Is Draining Your Brain, But It Doesn’t Have To” cites the startling findings of Meuret’s anxiety research, which has found that the standard advice to “take a deep breath” actually makes such situations worse.

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By Markham Heid

How’s this for unfair: Women are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety disorders than men are, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. And to top it off, new research finds that those frequent bouts of worrying may be making it hard for your brain to complete even the simplest of tasks.

It’s no secret that feeling anxious isn’t exactly enjoyable, but Michigan State University researchers wanted to find out exactly what goes on inside an anxious brain. They asked 149 men and women who suffer from anxiety to complete a series of puzzles, while tracking the electrical activity in their brains.

The results: Although men and women performed equally well on the simple puzzles, women’s brains were much more active. Later, when the puzzles became more difficult, the women performed worse than their male counterparts.

Why? The researchers speculate that the energy used up on simple tasks robbed the anxious women of the brainpower needed to complete more difficult tasks. In other words, although your brain is technically an organ, it mimics a muscle in that it can be worn down by too much work. And, like carrying around an extra 10-pound weight, anxiety makes everything your brain does more difficult.

But not to worry; you can learn to get a handle on your anxiety with a few easy tips:

Control your breathing. Although you’ve probably been told to breathe deeply when trying to calm down, the opposite is actually true, says Alicia Meuret, PhD, a psychologist and anxiety specialist at Southern Methodist University. “Deep breaths worsen hyperventilation and anxiety-associated symptoms such as shortness of breath and a racing heart,” she says. So how should you breathe? Slowly and shallowly, Dr. Meuret recommends. Try to take in as little air as possible, keeping in the oxygen for a second or two before exhaling, she advises. This will keep your body’s supply of circulating carbon dioxide at its proper level, which will calm you down, she says.


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