In our exploration of the way the mind works, we have seen that many of the unhelpful thought patterns that we pick up establish themselves as ‘normal thinking’ back in childhood. We all have role models, some more useful to us than others. And we copy them in ways that we don’t fully assess at the time, until that copied behaviour and thinking becomes our own.
But there’s something else which a person subject to anxiety might find predisposes them to be overly nervous in life.
Our minds/brains (depending on whether you think everything is purely material and biological or whether there is a purely ‘mental’ component) are designed to process information.
We are always thinking, imagining, predicting, finding loopholes, questioning, organising, planning, analysing, synthesising, hypothesising. If all of this activity were perfectly rational, none of it would be a problem. Issues arise when our intellects get interfered with.
The amygdala is largely responsible for the automatic part of this mental activity: it triggers its alarms without reference to our more cerebral faculties. But we can also overstimulate yourself by thinking distortedly.
Intellectual energy gives the individual many advantages such as intuition, creativity, problem solving, time management and organisational skills. But slightly too much intellectual energy — or energy of the wrong kind —and a person’s ‘intuition’ can become paranoid, creativity can get into the realms of hallucination, problem solving can involve problems that aren’t real and time management and organisational skills can edge over into neuroses. Then we have OCD, phobias, panic disorders and more.
The imagination, running in parallel with the amygdala, presents us with options and alternatives all the time — it’s a fundamental part of what makes us human. Close your eyes and observe for only ten seconds — innumerable images, connections, thoughts, notions are passing through your mind all the time. This is the mind thinking latitudinally — it’s constantly making associations based on significance.
The red car you see through the window connects with the red car you had as a toy when a child which links with your favourite red coat which bridges over to the red lipstick your mother used to wear and networks to a thousand other connections, all in a split second, most of them subliminal. Why subliminal? Because it’s not the imagination’s job to bring things to our attention immediately — it’s not charged with keeping us alive, but with adding to the meaning of our lives. It usually works in the background, accruing significances and connections — we sometimes get glimpses of its work in our dreams.
Guess whose job it is to keep us alive?
That same red car seen through the window by the amygdala connects up with the motor accident you were involved in two years ago and with red blood and associated pain — and you feel a little anxious suddenly ‘for no reason’. The amygdala’s is triggering an alarm: red car = departure. That’s because it is charged with our linear survival.
You can probably see how these two perpetual scanning systems can get entangled: how a thought prompted by our imagination, meant to be harmless or to do with some distant connection — like the smell of violets reminding you of your mother — might be picked up by the amygdala as a possible departure from an ideal scene — your mother is no longer there = departure from ideal = grief— and the alarms go off.
The linear survival system and the latitudinal enhancement system can get their wires crossed, almost literally.
When an individual is ‘suddenly struck by a thought about something’ which causes alarm, then this crossing of wires comes to light briefly. You might suddenly think ‘I need to wash my hands’ and then compulsively and anxiously question whether you have already done so (OCD); or you might suddenly feel a dread about going outside (phobia); or an odd sensation arising from indigestion introverts you fearfully onto your body (panic attack). The clue is the ‘suddenness’: you might think the fact that something occurs to you suddenly, out of nowhere, means that it has great significance and must be taken heed of. Actually, the ‘suddenness’ is a pretty sure sign of amygdalic influence, while the sense of significance filters over from the imagination.
Hypothesising, imagining and predicting are constant functions of the mind: one kind is pleasant or at least harmless, and is part of an individual making a meaningful path through life; the other kind is compulsive, automatic and not quite conscious and is part of the amygdala’s ‘health and safety overkill’.
Not knowing how your mind/brain works, you are more likely to go along with anything it says: after all, it’s usually saying these things in your own voice. Not to listen to yourself sounds like craziness. The impulse to believe and obey the mind is almost impossible to ignore. But that very urge or push to believe, when compulsive, is a pretty sure sign that it’s amygdalic, rather than coolly rational.
So you have a series of challenges:
1. You have to recognise that not all your thinking is sensible.
2. You have to spot which bits are distorted and are leading you astray.
3. You have to find a way of changing these thought patterns.
Psychologists believe that distortions cannot be erased from the mind/brain. Perhaps the best way to think about them is to put everything again in the context of an ecosystem: a Personality Ecosystem with you at its core. Just as in an ecosystem, we can’t ‘get rid of’ the effects of pollution or environmental damage that have already occurred, so our own lives retain the effects of prior thoughts and behaviour. But, like in an ecosystem, things can be changed, re-aligned, recalibrated. Unwanted things might still exist, but they can be modified, curtailed, relegated and reorganised so that they are not at the forefront of our lives. Some may even be able to be 'recycled'.
One of the first and most important steps is coming to terms with the possibility that it might just be feasible to live with a little uncertainty.
We can learn new ways of thinking and looking at the world — we’ve done it before. This time we’ll have more idea what we’re doing.