Overcoming the Amygdala Part 39


Active Meditation’ is a term I invented to describe a set of different approaches to dealing with anxiety. But the underlying principles are not new or strange.

The idea is to prevent anxiety and panic from overwhelming an individual or dragging a person down into a state in which he or she finds it difficult to make decisions and take action, or to overthinking, and so on. Repressing anxiety, as we have seen, won’t work; fear will rise again, sometimes more intensely. But here are some simple techniques you can try based on mindfulness-based stress reduction and cognitive-behavioural therapies. No guarantee that they will work for everyone, but some you may find helpful.

A suggested prerequisite for them all is to relax mind and body as much as possible using standard meditation, though you can attempt each one ‘cold’, as it were — i.e. without any kind of prior de-stressing.

Remember, your amygdala is trying to protect you by predicting what could happen, but it’s geared to predicting the worst that could happen. Just because it’s thrusting those dark pictures at you doesn’t mean that they reflect what will actually happen: they’re just a set of predictions. Look at the objective evidence: how likely is it that the ultra-negative outcome will occur? Might there be anything good — or even neutral— that might happen instead? Which do you think is most likely to happen, based on your past experience and other information you have about the situation? What is your experience in the present? Something that is actually happening and something that might happen are not the same thing, even though your mind may treat them as the same.

1. Uncoupling


Picture your thought stream as a river of moving data passing through your mind, rather than the objective truth about a situation. Your amygdala is hypersensitive to threat and danger and has evolved from its experiences in keeping your ancestors alive in the wild, so it’s reasonable to assume that at least some of your thoughts may just be reactions generated by a biological mechanism that is orientated to simply keeping you alive. Whether or not you believe these thoughts, no matter how forceful they may seem, is up to you.

Get into a mental position from which you can observe your thoughts, like clouds floating by. Note how some of them — perhaps most of them — are a tangle of pictures and significance.

Can you ‘play’ with them?

Can you switch significances around so that they appear comical?

Are you able to at least note which ones attract your attention and which ones repel you?

If you’ve managed to see them as clouds, are you able to increase the distance between them and ‘you’ (the viewpoint doing the ‘watching’)?

2. Labelling


As thoughts sweep by, name them, rather than paying attention to their content. Label them as much as possible as judgments (how good or bad the situation is) or fears (that you are going to fail or experience a loss or suffer pain) or criticisms (how good or bad you are). After some practice, you may start to separate out the literal content of your thoughts and begin to isolate them as thoughts rather than ‘bits of you’.

This can lead into the next technique.


3. Spotting the Story


In the general jumble of thoughts passing through your mind, is there a story being told?

It might be one of four kinds: a story in which you are victorious, or in which you are welcomed back into warmth and security (in which case you’re probably not suffering from anxiety at that moment) or one in which you are individually doomed, leaving everything behind, or finally one in which you and everyone and everything else seems doomed together. If your narrative is one of these latter two, then anxiety is part of the ‘plot’.

Remember, your amygdala is biased, based on negative past experiences. Your more rational imaginative mind then tries to make these negativities ‘make sense’ by weaving everything into a narrative with some kind of meaning, even if the meaning is ‘the meaninglessness of everything’.

After a few sessions of this, you might see a pattern in your thinking which begins to look more and more to you like an invented story rather than a reflection of reality.

You can leave it there, or you can ask yourself two key questions: ‘Who is telling you that story?’ and ‘Why are they telling you that story?’


Your amygdala makes your attention contract and focus on an immediate threat. Of necessity, it excludes and dismisses context. All these things are attempts to put the context back. Is the situation really as important as your amygdala says it is? Will you still care about this problem in the future?

Try these approaches and see how you go.

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