We’ve come a long way in our study of the amygdala, that small part of our biology responsible for our ‘fight/flight’ response. We’ve learned special techniques of relaxation and meditation to help calm the body physically during times of stress, and we have opened up our minds to the ways in which our own thoughts and habits of behaviour can either help or hinder us in our contest with panic.
Hopefully, you realise by now that you play a great part in your own downfall when it comes to worrying. Yes, your amygdala is activating the mechanisms which give you an accelerated heart rate, sweaty palms, waves of terror and so forth —but it wasn’t ever meant to be a kind of genius computer aimed at solving your problems. It’s there to prepare your body to face threats, problems, dangers, issues: departures, basically, from what it primitively considers to be ideal scenarios. When you feel anxious, the amygdala is doing its job. What you have to do is create a framework in which you are operating on your own values, working your way towards your own goals, and presenting the amygdala with hard physical evidence (the only evidence it can accept) that says that you are more dangerous to your environment than it is to you, at least most of the time. If you do that, the amygdala can concentrate on the real threats — your office burning down, that fast-approaching motor vehicle, or the nearby vicious dog — rather than the host of phantom threats which keep you constantly worried when you shouldn’t be.
But there’s an even more fundamental principle at work here which is worth examining in depth.
As I’ve written elsewhere, desire creates emptiness — emptiness moves us.
In other words, the departures that the amygdala detects in our environment — or thinks it detects — are ‘emptinesses’ which trigger it to move us to worry and panic. It does so based on our general ‘desire’ for joy, love, peace, harmony and so on. We ‘beam out’ a fuzzy wish to be happier, safer, better, and the equally fuzzy and often huge departures come back. While we continue to project a desire for something positive or ideal onto our surroundings, even unconsciously, the ‘radar’ signal will continue to return revealing the holes or gaps. Blip - blip - blip.
The problem is exacerbated because our desires could be irrational. Or our understanding of our environments could be wrong. The amygdala reacts to the departures regardless.
But here’s the thing: once you move in the direction of a real ideal, even marginally, your amygdala backs off.
This is what underlies the need for strong values and goals in your life. If you know what you are about and where you want to go, and are taking positive steps towards achieving those goals, the amygdala’s formula comes out in your favour:
You > perceived threat = no need for alarms.
‘Perceived threat’ means any departure of any kind from a projected ideal.
If you are actively reducing this departure, closing the gap, even fractionally, then there’s less need to shout at you with alarms, isn’t there?
A backed-off amygdala brings you relief: your heart rate goes back to normal, your palms cease to sweat, you can breathe and don’t feel dizzy — you can focus and concentrate.
You move out of the Anxiety Zone and into the Rhythmic and perhaps beyond, right out of the reach of worry altogether.
So what should we be focusing on?
Closing the gaps.
‘But surely,’ some may say, ‘we are working every minute of every day to close our gaps anyway? Studying to get good grades; labouring to get good jobs; continually seeking good relationships; desperately striving for good incomes? So how come our amygdalas are going berserk?’
What's going on here?
Think about that for a second: what are you projecting out there as ‘good grades, good jobs, good relationships, good incomes’?
There might be an unreasonable gap between what you desire and what the environment presents. Result? Amygdala triggered.
Perhaps your desire simply cannot be met, or nothing you do can guarantee your desire will be met.
What if you were to reduce your desire?
In other words, instead of projecting an Ideal onto your environment, you projected an ideal with a small ‘i’?
What if you were to work on cultivating an acceptance of existing reality?
The gap would reduce, wouldn’t it? And when a gap reduces, the amygdala backs off and counter-intuitively your anxiety symptoms ease.
Maybe that feels sad. Perhaps the thought of it makes you feel tired. You’re giving up the fight.
Don't do it if this doesn't make sense to you, but if you’re suffering from chronic anxiety there’s a chance that aspects of your life are going unlived because your own projections of what you want or can achieve are simply unrealistic. Unrealistic projections create unrealistic gaps, and unrealistic gaps cause amygdalas to trigger. You’re not actually ‘giving up’ — instead you might be discovering new, realistic values which enable you to live in the moment.
A religious person might view this as ‘being humble’. A reflective person might see it as a loss of hubris. However you want to describe it, one immediate effect is that the amygdala quietens down. Mechanically, you have closed the gap between the existing scene and the ideal, so naturally the amygdala backs away; psychologically speaking, you have reassessed the reality around you.
So you were desperate to be a mother but left it too late? Instead of letting your amygdala trigger you emotionally each day over the loss, a readjusted goal might open up whole new and even bright possibilities.
So you wanted to be a millionaire based on a best-selling book by the time you were thirty? Instead of getting frantic and self-critical every day because you ‘failed’, take a look at some other options and use your existing talents to live in the moment.
So you wanted to live a fit and healthy life until you were ancient but an illness took the edge off that, leaving you fraught with anxiety about your health? Reassess what you can do, what legacy you would like to leave, what the illness might be telling you about the life you were leading, and wander down some new pathways.
The amygdala is just a mechanism. Like a radar ‘blip’, it automatically bounces back from wherever it’s sent.
So send it somewhere else.