Overcoming the Amygdala Part 22
An ecosystem is defined by the dictionary as ‘a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment’ or, in general use, ‘a complex network or interconnected system’.
Your Personality Ecosystem isn’t too complex, though it may seem so at first glance. But it is a network and an interconnected system.
It’s made up of the seven zones we’ve been examining — the Panic, Anxiety, Rhythmic, Calmer (or Karma), Manifesting, Play and Zen zones — plus the rest of you, which may or may not fit neatly into any of these zones. We’ve been picturing the zones as concentric circles with the Zen one in the centre and the Panic one on the outer extremes. It’s the Panic Zone which impacts against the physical world the hardest, if you want to imagine it that way — that’s why it’s in a panic, as those impacts stir the amygdala into a frenzy of alarm-activation, meaning that, if you’re attention is in that zone, you’re immersed in stress and have pretty much lost control.
Using Active Meditation techniques, we’ve explored deep into this picture of You. Before we can go much further in, though, we have to take a look at what we have found so far as an ecosystem.
The Ecosystem of You
The whole thing is interconnected. Just as the Amazon rainforest is pointed to often as a ‘vital part of the global ecosystem’ because it breathes in much of the world’s carbon dioxide and breathes out so much oxygen for others to use, so each circle of your personality has a role to play in the functioning of the overall system.
That includes the Panic and Anxiety Zones.
As we’ve mentioned before, panic has a purpose and the amygdala is designed to protect you. There may be situations in which plunging straight through a window to escape from an explosion with a speeding heart rate and with no thought of anything else is exactly the right thing to do at that moment to preserve your life and limb. That kind of occasion might be quite rare, but there remain certain conditions under which the amygdala is a vital tool for bodily survival. The problem arises, as we have discussed, when the alarm signals are triggered for situations which later turn out to be not dangerous at all, or at least, not of the magnitude that the amygdala believed. So you, the human individual, get to suffer all the trauma that comes with massive anxiety when you really didn’t need to.
Active Meditation is more than an exploration of your inner ecosystem, though: it’s designed to help you use the system in an interconnected way, so that you can ameliorate the worst excesses of the amygdala and become more holistically sound and stable. Just as the Amazonian rain forest and the Arctic glaciers and the oceans of the world all play a part in sustaining and exchanging things of value with each other and all the other components of the global ecosystem, so can what you have discovered so far help you deal with the panic and anxiety you still probably feel in daily life. And it can do so in more ways than by simply teaching you techniques of withdrawing from the outer world through meditation as such — it can help you by enabling you to address the physical world differently, when worries arise.
The Real Reason For Anxiety
If you’re anything like me, you probably sometimes don’t want to emerge from meditation because you know that the same old anxieties await in the ‘waking world’. Yes, meditation dedicatedly practised over a period of time will produce a calmer You — you will discover more and more about yourself and feel stronger, and the amygdala will recognise this and stop ‘triggering’ you quite so much. But there remain those situations in life which are so pressing and apparently irresolvable that anxiety will nevertheless be triggered. So how can you use what you’re learning to deal with that?
When you have anxiety, you are suffering with fear symptoms from stimuli that aren't real threats. Part of the symptoms are physical — upset gut, nervous sensations, sweaty hands, palpitations and so on. But a significant part of them are mental, arising from the ‘What if…?’ scenarios which your mind continually projects.
There are thoughts you don't like and memories you’d rather not recall, triggered by your amygdala along with the unpleasant bodily sensations. You have probably concluded from your history with anxiety that your thoughts and memories make you anxious. But the real reason is because your prefrontal cortex (rational brain) is not able to switch off the false alarms. Or, if you prefer, the higher functions of your mind seem too weak to interfere, leaving you at the mercy of the lower.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the higher brain that is supposed to be the rational one, assessing situations analytically, interpreting them rationally and following up with calm, aligned action. It’s Wisdom, in mind terms, with a capital W — and it’s about behaviour as well as thoughts. This is how it might respond to some random physical and mental stimuli:
Sabre-toothed tiger? Danger. Run as fast as you can.
Kitten? Harmless. Don’t run.
Insane thought from somewhere deep in your psyche? It’s awful, but so what? It can’t really do any harm.
Terrible emotional memory that makes you suddenly want to cry? OK. It’s a memory, that’s all. It doesn’t have to ‘mean’ anything.
Heavy, unreasonable demands from a senior at work? I’ll do my best, but I won’t freak out.
Shamed for making a mistake? Stay cool. This says more about the shamer than me.
Failure at some attempted task? OK, learn what can be learned and rethink.
Sane, sensible responses.
Hardly any of us can maintain those kind of responses, though, can we?
We all face these kind of potential triggers, and many more.
And we all have rational brains that have the power to resolve conflicts in constructive and healthy ways.
Though it may not seem like it at times, we all have the tools to turn off the amygdala's emergency alarms. Once switched off, their fear dissipates and everything returns to balance.
In other words, the higher mind/brain has the power to rescue you from anxiety.
So why doesn’t it?
How does your mind navigate your internal life? Which is another way of asking ‘How wise are you?’
When anxiety is all too real, it usually means that your own wise mind is not working well enough to solve your problems.
That’s because your rationality itself is distorted.
Psychology calls this Cognitive Distortion. Here’s a list of such distortions— but don’t worry, you don’t have to remember them, though you may recognise your own thinking processes in some of them. In fact, see if you can count the number of distortions you might engage in from time to time:
1. Catastrophizing: You tell yourself that the very worst is happening or is going to happen — sometimes (you argue inwardly) so that it ‘won’t really happen’.
2. Chronic Underestimation of Your Own Abilities: You tend to overestimate difficulty or danger in any given situation, while drastically underestimating your ability to cope with that situation.
3. Binary Thinking: You tend to leap to extremes of ‘black’ or ‘white’ when viewing a situation rather than seeing it as a continuum of possibilities.
4. Over-generalising: You tend to believe that future experiences will be similar or identical to past experiences of the same general sort.
5. Self-Confirmatory Bias: When examining a set of circumstances, you tend to ignore things which deny your beliefs and see only those things which help you justify or maintain your belief system.
6. Emotional Reasoning: You think something must be true simply because it ‘feels’ true.
7. Overvaluing Thoughts: You have an inclination to load credibility and meaning onto senseless or random thoughts.
8. Overvaluing Sensations: You tend to misinterpret bodily sensations as being exaggerated, life-threatening or dangerous.
9. Worrying as Superstitious Thinking: Similar to 1. above, worrying helps you feel that you will not be caught off-guard by something unexpected. Perhaps the constant worrying could even ward off the dreaded situation somehow, you think.
10. Foreclosure: You focus on the possible ways that a situation might come to an end, because the state of uncertainty is unbearable.
11. Mind Reading: You guess or assume what others are thinking, having perhaps rehearsed conversations with them in your head, while neglecting to check whether your impressions are correct.
12. Should Statements: You’re trapped in a version of the world how it ‘should’ be, holding to a rigid perfectionism and a narrow set of values.
13. Discounting the Positive: Any positive feedback or perspective is automatically minimised, while negative outlooks are maintained, partly because they are ‘comfortable’ through familiarity.
14. Beck’s Negative Triad: You hold with a negative view of the self, the world and the future.
15. Authorship Confusion: You mistakenly assume responsibility for causing an event, simply because your thought about it preceded the occurrence.
16. Believed-In Imaginings: You affirm the existence of improbable things — something which is hypothetically true quickly makes the jump into something that ‘must’ be true.
16. Causal Mistakes and Reasoning Errors: You tend to take unrelated events and connect them, creating the feeling that there is a meaningful relationship between the two.
17. Cognitive Fusion: You believe your thoughts to be literally true when perhaps they are not, because ideas arise convincingly inside your head using convincing inner language. You become ‘fused’ with your thinking and won’t budge.
18. Cognitive Motivation to Reduce Uncertainty: You are highly motivated to secure explanations, so as to remove uncertainty — incorrect or even catastrophically incorrect information is better than tolerating the unknown. In this way, disturbing beliefs gain credibility.
19. Congruence is Preferred Over Truth: You tend to believe something simply because it matches up with how you feel — as in a panic attack, where you think your nervous system is providing evidence that your death or insanity is imminent.
20. Magical Thinking: In moments where you feel a loss of control over events, you believe that thoughts can influence the actual world. Most of the distortions described here are a form of magical thinking. Magical thinking is an attempt to control the uncontrollable.
21. Negativity Bias: Your thinking becomes very aligned with the amygdala’s in that you think you cannot afford to miss any danger signals and would rather have false alarms than miss anything menacing.
22. Overvalued Ideation: You tend to make random, fleeting thoughts more meaningful or threatening than they actually are and come to believe that your concerns are entirely realistic.
23. Thought-Action Fusion: Your transient thoughts make you concerned that you might actually do the things you occasionally think about randomly.
If many of these sound like 'ordinary human thinking', you'd be right. Cognitive distortion is commonplace. Some of these overlap or are very similar; all of them are distortions of healthy thinking, and fail to solve the fears in our heads. You can probably see how they are not quite pure amygdala thinking, but are reasoned approaches up to a point: the problem is that they twist reality, and when you then behave according to the above, the amygdala registers you as unable to deal with threats and off go the alarms even louder.
How do you remedy these distortive habits?