Overcoming the Amygdala Part 12
How to Get from Panic To Anxiety
We were picturing the Panic Zone as a vast cavern which slowly transforms to be an entire universe full of stars, giving the individual a tremendous sensation of mental space.
If worked on, this ‘imaginary’ sense of space becomes more and more stable for the person and can be not only a kind of psychological refuge from the alarms triggered by our little friend, the amygdala, but an active means of defeating the unwanted aspects of its influence over the individual.
When the objection arises — as it inevitably will — that the space thus created is ‘only in the imagination’, it needs to be remembered that the signals from the amygdala themselves stem from the imagination: the ‘What if…? scenarios painted by the mind/brain’s defence mechanism are often ludicrously unreal. So a person can learn to outwit the amygdala at its own game to some extent. Conscious use of the imagination as opposed to its co-opted use by the amygdala is a fundamental principle of Active Meditation.
The reason that imagining an entire universe inside one’s head works against the panic tactics of the amygdala is because when the amygdala presses enough alarm buttons for the person to be in panic mode, space is compressed: the individual’s world collapses drastically and he or she is driven inward mentally to the point of feeling that ‘there is no space’. Anyone who has suffered a full-blown panic attack will recognise that sense of claustrophobic terror.
Active Meditation, practiced regularly over time, encourages the mind to believe that it has lots of space and this acts to counteract the alarms. This doesn’t happen overnight: Active Meditation is a long term commitment to reshaping the expectations of ordinary thinking — after many sessions, the individual who has been susceptible to panic attacks can find that these are either occurring less frequently or are less intense in nature.
The Anxiety Zone
There’ll be more on the Panic Zone in the future — but in this overview of active meditation practices, we’re going to now take a look at how to progress from the Panic Zone to the Anxiety Zone.
If our overriding image for the Panic Zone is a cavern that becomes a universe, then the image to hold on to for the Anxiety Zone is that of a labyrinth which becomes a tapestry.
What does this mean?
Well, being caught in the Anxiety Zone can feel very much like being trapped in a labyrinth: things go round and round and it seems that there is no way out — it’s not just like being lost in a maze, wandering around: this is accompanied by a sense of desperate urgency, which, if not dealt with somehow, can quickly descend into panic, the zone next door.
You have probably heard the standard kind of advice given for anxiety. If your anxiety is based on a particular situation, such as being worried about an upcoming interview or health appointment, the symptoms are probably going to be short-lived and will usually subside after the anticipated event has taken place. But for someone to be in the Anxiety Zone —i.e. stuck in anxiety deeply or over a prolonged period — it probably means that they have been subjected to ongoing and repeated signals from the amygdala which have pushed them over time into a more or less permanent state of worry.
You will have heard the usual suggestions about how to deal with this: ‘challenge your fears’, ‘practice focused, deep breathing’, ‘use aromatherapy’, ‘go for a walk’, ‘do yoga’, ‘write down your thoughts’ and so on.
All of these things have some therapeutic value, of course — but what we are trying to do with Active Meditation is move beyond superficial techniques and delve into the mechanics which make anxiety take over the person’s world in the first place.
The Tapestry Technique
So here’s what to do, using active meditation:
(Note: Try to do this procedure when you’re not actually fully gripped by anxiety. Think of it as athlete training, done before an event or match.)
1. Relax the body and mind as much as possible using standard meditation, as you will probably have done many times before now if you have been applying this series.
2. Imagine that you are trying to find your way out of a complex labyrinth. This can be an underground maze of tunnels or a garden maze or some other kind of network of passageways, whichever is easiest for you to picture. Every way you turn is a passage leading to another passage, some of which are dead ends, some of which simply lead to further passages. You are gripped by an urgency to find the exit to this maze.
3. Continue to explore the maze while also remaining as relaxed as possible (this will be difficult but you won’t have to do it for long — it’s just to ‘prime’ you for the following steps).
4. As you search for a way out, begin to feel your viewpoint floating upward so that you are looking down on the maze. Instead of a series on passageways, you begin to see a design laid out below you. The sense of urgency begins to fade as you see that, rather than trying to escape from a trap, your progress through the maze has been tracing out a pattern.
5. Pull further back. More of the design becomes apparent. Whereas the passageways you were encountering before seemed planless to your anxious mind, it now turns out that there are more designs than you could possibly have imagined laid out below you. You set your eyes on one part of the pattern and it seems to lead you through all the patterns as though you have discovered the master design. But when you shift your attention to another part of the labyrinth, that also seems to be the master pattern.
6. Now, by a slow and subtle transition, all the interwoven patterns intertwine like cords or bands of light, dashing and winding over and under one another, embracing each other in arabesques and other complex designs. Let this happen, with more and more complex patterns emerging as you sit or lie there relaxed and absorbing the spectacle.
(It might help if you have to hand a piece of fabric with a woven design upon it, like a portion of carpet or other embroidered material. Look at the threads closely — viewed linearly, they are like a maze; viewed from above, they are part of a designed whole.)
7. It’s quite likely that your mind will wander at this point, or that you will fall asleep. Let this happen. regular practice will take you beyond this point, provided that you are getting enough rest naturally.
8. If you can gently push past the point of mind-wandering or sleepiness, see if you can sustain a vision of a wide and broad tapestry, formed of many multicoloured threads and thicknesses.
9. When you are ready, descend back into the design and pick up a thread like a passageway, following it along as before. Can you detect the same sense of anxiety which pursued you when you began the meditation? Over time, with practice, you may begin to feel relief and a sense of renewed purpose: you’ve been able to co-opt to some degree the mechanisms previously usurped by the amygdala and return them to your control.
10. Breathing calmly and deeply, open your eyes and return to the ‘normal’ world.
Note: you may find it useful to re-orientate yourself to normality after an Active Meditation session. More will be said on this later, but for now, looking around the space where you are and locating five distinct objects can help your attention to focus outward again.
Next time, we’re going to explore further ramifications of the Anxiety Zone and see if we can glimpse the next region in your Personality Ecosystem: the Rhythmic Zone.