Last time, we looked at a whole range of distorted thinking which gets us mired in anxiety and can lead to a worsening mental scene. The range included telling yourself that the very worst is happening or is going to happen so that it ‘won’t really happen’; drastically underestimating your ability to cope with situations; ignoring things which deny your beliefs; misinterpreting bodily sensations as being exaggerated, life-threatening or dangerous; affirming the existence of improbable things; believing something simply because it matches up with how you feel, and a whole lot more. Many of these can be summed up as ‘magical thinking’, an attempt to control the uncontrollable using thought. These patterns of thought and belief don’t come from the amygdala directly but they are crucial to our understanding of why we get stuck in anxiety. That’s because they tend to be aligned with the amygdala.
Here’s the sequence of what happens:
1. The amygdala continually scans your environment looking for trouble. It defines ‘trouble’ as anything that doesn’t seem to match the template of ‘ideal scenario’ that it’s projecting.
2. When it finds something odd, missing, out of sequence, or anything that appears to be a departure from the ideal, it makes a quick calculation — it compares your existing condition with the apparent threat. If You look good, strong and ready as an organism in comparison with whatever the threat is, it does nothing; if it finds you looking small, weak, or in some way unprepared, it triggers an array of alarms based on past experiences of a similar order — physical triggers, like raised heart rate, sweaty hands and so on, and mental reactions, like nervousness, revulsion and so forth. These are designed to ‘jump start’ you into action so you can fight whatever the threat is, or run away effectively.
3. What happens next is key, and is something we haven’t looked at in detail yet: your conscious rational mind, so far bypassed by the amygdala’s primitively wired system, either steps in with some associated wisdom and comes up with a plan, or it backs down and gives in to the alarms.
4. You behave accordingly: you either rationally process everything and decide to act sanely, or you collapse into a heap to some degree and succumb to the anxiety.
What makes some people respond rationally while others crumble into chronic worry?
The distortive factors above.
If you have too many of these factors affecting the way you think, you will tend to go into alignment with the amygdala and suffer.
The good news is that it’s possible to retrain your mind to reduce the distortion, strengthening your rational faculties and empowering you to decide not to follow the amygdala’s signals and to act much more calmly and sanely instead.
How Distortion Arises
To understand how to do this, let’s take a look at an example of how distortive thinking comes about.
1. A primitive organism runs into a threatening situation.
2. Rudimentary protective systems automatically trigger ‘fight/flight’ responses.
3. Add in a basic conscious rationality, so the organism is no longer 'primitive'. This part of the mind is designed to present sane solutions -but, affected by what just happened, it can rapidly process information under stress and come to an erroneous conclusion: maybe, just before the threat occurred, the organism was eating a particular meal. Under pressure, the rational computers note that perhaps this meal had something to do with the threat.
So far, so good. Probably no distortion would occur in the organism’s thinking if the next step didn’t occur:
4. Another threatening situation occurs while the organism is eating the same food, but the organism avoids the worst of it because it leaves the food alone in time and is some distance away when its companions are attacked. In the mind, this further associates the meal with the threat, but the organism comes to the ‘superstitious’ conclusion that the meal and the threat are somehow connected.
5. It adopts a firm policy: avoiding such-and-such a meal will avoid such-and-such a threat.
All it now takes is one more instance of avoiding the threat by avoiding that particular meal somehow — a total coincidence in reality — for the organism to become convinced that there is a connection and that it must avoid those meals forever.
It’s a primitive example, but you might be able to discern from it the kind of thing that happens in Life. These distortions only happen when the rational part of the mind is put under undue pressure: if all was calm and the amygdala remained untriggered, there’s no way that the sane organism would come to such conclusions. But in the heat of the moment, and with alarms ringing loudly, a rushed mental note can become a fixed pattern of behaviour.
The bad news is that the organism stacks up thousands of such micro-associations as it lives its life. Many of them are discarded upon inspection as ‘nonsense’ and cause no harm; but some make it through into ‘Behavioural Control’ and become our standard approaches to various situations.
The good news is that every single one of these, upon being closely inspected, can be dismissed, strengthening the rational mind enormously and returning to it the power of controlling amygdalic alarms which it seems to lack.
We’ll look more at this soon.