Like an excitable dog, the amygdala is a sensitive beast. You may have genetically acquired that sensitivity, or it may have become sensitive over time depending on your personal anxiety episodes, or both. Just because your amygdala may be ‘jumpy’ doesn’t mean that you will have long-term anxiety — your environment, particular circumstances, the way you were brought up and your own choices all play their part.
As we have covered earlier, the way to re-train the amygdala, even if it is sensitive, is by producing positive memories of yourself dealing with situations which trigger you. Positive memories cannot be built without positive behaviour. Behaving in a way that demonstrates that something is not a threat to you is the way to record an experience so that the amygdala starts to ease off.
The mind/brain can and does change — the amygdala can sensitise and desensitise. You may have heard the story of Leonardo di Caprio after his role in the film The Aviator: he developed OCD for about a year. After getting treated with mindfulness, he de-sensitised his amygdala and recovered.
Is this just a case of flicking some kind of switch in your head? No. Recovering from chronic anxiety is a matter of increasing flexibility in thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, urges, sensations, which are currently troublesome or unacceptable to you. Active Meditation involves evolving: you’re not striving to erase what’s in your mind as much as have different relationship with it. In terms of your Personal Ecosystem, you’re gently shifting the focus from one end of the spectrum closer to the other end — moving away from Panic towards the wisdom and freedom of the Play and Zen Zones. You might not entirely get there, but any motion in that direction is a motion towards sanity and peace of mind. What’s happening is a movement from fixed thinking (cognitive distortion) to nuanced thinking (analytical, imaginative reasoning).
If you wish, you can try other remedies: better medicine, better doctors, a new place to live, a different job, more money or a new relationship; you can pray more and worship different gods. But the only thing that will bring lasting improvement is facing your fears.
If facing your fears was easy, people wouldn’t have anxiety. People try, they fail; they try and get confused and give up; they try and get consumed by the fear.
But only behaviour will change the actions of the amygdala.
You have to deliberately create the exact kinds of experiences that you fear.
Once you are cured of anxiety, it does not mean that you have changed the way your mind/brain operates — it means that you will have created a new one. The circuitry of your mind/brain will be new: it will automatically respond wisely, allowing you to experience emotions but without anxiety. This is possible despite your age or your panic history.
You can ‘understand’ this all you like, but if you don't behave differently, it's not going to work. You need to be able to demonstrate physically to your amygdala that you are in control.
Every time you face your fear, you show yourself that your anxiety symptoms weren't powerful enough to stop you and in fact are now less intense. You are developing strong personal proof to place against the propositions thrown at you by your cognitive distortions — that ‘It was just luck that time’, or ‘It won’t last’, or ‘Wait until you have to face something really bad’ and so on.
Do this enough and the balance tips: you have more evidence of your own competence and rationality than you do of your weakness and fragility. The amygdala is silenced. You > perceived threat = no need for alarms.
Go to the party anyway and pay no heed to the little voice that tells you you are a freak and will be rejected.
Go outside your comfort zone despite the whisper that says you’ll die.
Tackle a new career in the face of the urge to run and hide.
I used to have a mortal fear of public speaking, and, if offered the opportunity to speak in front of a crowd, I would still probably turn it down — but now more from laziness than dread. I conquered the terror of it by doing it. I did it again and again, year after year as a teacher and Head Teacher in a school and in other capacities — on one weekend in 2013 I spoke at nine different events in three days on different topics to different groups. Each time, I began in pure fear — but by the end of this period, I had defeated all the distortive thinking and amygdala alarms to the point where I had hard evidence in my memories that I could speak in front of people competently and confidently despite all the shakes. So I know this works.
It’s not the magic solution that many hope for. Active Meditation along the lines given can help enormously — but in the end, it’s all about action.
Having said all that, there are still more tools to help you, so please stay tuned.