Overcoming the Amygdala Part 11
Earlier, we looked at the seven zones of a Personality Ecosystem. Let’s explore the first of those a little more here.
The Panic Zone
Those of you who have suffered a ‘panic attack’ for whatever reason will recognise this as the zone in which so many ‘fight/flight’ buttons have been pressed by the amygdalic mechanism that the individual loses control of his or her physiology — heart rate races, respiration speeds up, bowels go crazy, thinking becomes erratic, emotions are volatile, and so on. In preparing a person for a physical battle or for fleeing a scene, the amygdala accidentally cripples him or her for rational action. Automatic fear reactions are useful in the animal world — and even in certain circumstances in the human world — but to a large extent they have been outmoded in the human world by the development of keen rationality and educated minds. The trouble is that the bypass mechanism is hard-wired in, so we can get triggered despite our best efforts.
Active Meditation is best done when the person is not in this zone — in fact, it’s almost impossible to meditate in any real fashion while 'freaking out' in this state. But Active Meditation, done regularly over a period of time, can prepare a person for when he or she is next overwhelmed by panic — it can train them to reach for certain immediate techniques which will help them to distance themselves from the heart of the turmoil. And it can build a stronger self-image which the amygdala is forced to include in its calculations regarding menace in a person's surroundings — to that person’s advantage.
People in the middle of panic attacks are conventionally advised to do various things, including to accept and recognise what’s happening, breathe deeply, limit stimuli, try to spot what has triggered the attack (enclosed spaces, crowds, or finance worries, etc), exercise and so on. This is all valuable advice and you may have heard it before. But Active Meditation can teach you to view a panic attack in a different way.
When we experience a panic attack, we are effectively ‘immersed’ in the alarm signals which the amygdala activates. Our minds plunge straight into the stress, and we feel we must ‘go under’. Anything less than this, during an attack, feels both physically and mentally impossible and counter-intuitive — surely, a real problem exists and the only way to deal with any problem is to jump into it, to become it, to feel it? The result of this immersive approach is a loss of perspective and sanity. We are caught up in the swirl, we sink into grief, helplessness, apathy, confusion. Our bodies and minds are wracked with anguish; we cry, we writhe, we despair -all as part of a 'preparation to survive', according to the amygdala.
Apart from the powerful alarms going off in our heads, our culture also suggests that this is the way to deal with a problem that arises before us. We must ‘go through’ this storm, somehow exhaust it. It holds that the answers to the stress lie hidden at its core.
All that lies at the core of a panic attack is set of unknowns. It’s those unknowns which trigger the amygdala to create the vortex which sucks us in in the first place. But we are rational beings — we don’t have to journey to the centre of the vortex to discover that there’s nothing there.
Rationally speaking, immersion is not a valid method of dealing with problems. In some cases, yes, the emotional outpourings and insanities which form a panic attack eventually exhaust themselves temporarily, leaving the individual seemingly more able to see a way forward a little more clearly. But that is pretty much where most individuals would have started from in the first place — and the swirling core of unknowns is still in our mental vicinity, building strength for another attempt at capturing our attention as soon as the amygdala judges it’s needed.
So what do we do?
There are two approaches.
In the Middle of a Panic Attack
If a person is in the heart of a panic attack, meditation is out of the question, so instead, they should try this drill:
1. Despite the incredibly loud panic alarms sounding in their head, they should consciously seek out five separate objects in their immediate environment. They should approach these and consciously describe each one to themselves in about twenty words.
2. They should sit down and listen for five distinct sounds in their surroundings, and describe where they think each is coming from.
3. They should identify the main smell in their environment.
The idea is that this conscious effort to engage the senses coupled with the analytical power required to think can effectively bypass the amygdala’s own bypass and re-boot the rational mind. Even if it doesn’t completely end the panic, it can push it away enough for some rational action to take place.
This drill, coupled with the usual steady breathing, acceptance and so on, can orientate a person to rapid recovery from the attack.
Not in a Panic Attack Right Now
If the person is not in the middle of an attack at the moment, but has perhaps experienced one recently or is afraid that one may recur, then meditation becomes possible.
Points of Light Technique
1. Relax the body using standard meditation as described in earlier articles.
2. While deeply relaxed, recognise that there is an outer zone in the Personality Ecosystem in which panic attacks occur: the Panic Zone. Set out to explore this zone mentally.
3. Picture it at first as a dark region, which at first seems like a vast cavern. It's cold, the air is still, and you can sense the silence and hugeness of the space around you. Spend some time contemplating this cave.
4. Then, high above, begin to imagine that tiny points of light are appearing. At first, there are only a few, like a scattered handful of diamond dust, but then more and more appear until the points of light are more prevalent than stars in a night sky. Spend more time watching as the number of 'stars' grows. It slowly dawns on you that you only believed that you were in a cave - in fact, it was an open night sky.
5. Eventually (and this can and should take some time) whole galaxies move overhead, incredibly slowly and incredibly far away. Breathe deeply while experiencing this imaginary vast space.
You should take as long as you need picturing this ‘night sky’. It may be possible to spot constellations or patterns or colours in it — not the constellations of the normal earthly night sky, but new ones, fired deep in the outer space of the imagination.
We’ve all been told about the vast size of the universe — but as you sit or lie there pondering this inner universe, consider it at least as equally vast, if not much larger, than the outer one: the distance from your location to the nearest ‘object’ that you can ‘see’ in your mind’s eye should be envisaged as being at least the equivalent of the distance from Earth to the next nearest star system. And there are billions of these imagined stars above you.
Beyond these imaginary pinpoints of light are galaxies of other lights, far larger than anything that a human mind can comprehend; and beyond these are clusters of galaxies, so huge in scope that numbers cease to have any meaning.
The Nature of Imagination
‘But isn’t this all just in the imagination?’ someone might ask. (You probably asked yourself while thinking about this technique.) Yes, of course. All of this is taking place deep in the mind of the meditating person.
But so are all the amygdala's alarms.
All the noise and panic and physiological reactions which the amygdala triggers to prepare the individual to face some kind of threat in the environment also originate mentally.
The amygdala is either a small part of the physical brain, or a mechanism built into the mind, depending on how you want to picture it. Its signals to the rest of your mind and body are internal and depend upon mental feedback; they are just as ‘real’ as the pictures conjured up by your imagination during Active Meditation. In fact, many of the scenarios which the amygdala prompts you to imagine in answer to the question ‘What if…?’ are more fantastic and unrealistic than anything you can create when actively ‘imagining’ something.
For example, a person might be having a panic attack based on having to do a speech in public later that day. Apart from cold sweats, trembling knees, fast-beating heart and all the rest of the physical alarms triggered by the amygdala, various imaginary scenarios might whip rapidly across the screen of their mind: images of being embarrassed, or being laughed at, or losing one’s voice, or having to abandon the stage in shame, or loss of face and so on, on and on, as colourful and unreal as any movie.
These scenarios are all imaginary.
One of the things that Active Meditation does is take the same faculty — the powerful human imagination — and use it to outwit and out-create the amygdala.
So the question ‘Isn’t this all just in the imagination?’ is way too dismissive and based on a misunderstanding: it’s all in the imagination, including most of the terror induced by the amygdala.
Why It Works
Envisaging huge amounts of space around yourself like this works because it runs contrary to what the amygdala is trying to do: it is trying to reduce your space, compress your experience, condense everything into a super-urgent 'act-now-or-die' moment. By 'stealing back' the mental machinery it normally uses and utilising it to create, extend, expand and unfold your mental space, the Points of Light technique starts strengthening you in preparation for the next amygdala attack.
We’ll develop further techniques to help the person in the Panic Zone in the future. For now, practice the Points of Light technique whenever you can if you want to build your inner strength in preparation for any forthcoming suspected ventures into this zone.
Next we will spend some time looking at the Anxiety Zone, and reveal some approaches which challenge some common misconceptions about that, too.