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Overcoming the Amygdala Part 45

You are exposed to loads of sensory information, and, since attention is a limited resource, you cannot pay attention to every bit of it. You have to learn to focus on things that really matter.

1. Identify Importances

You probably have a long to-do list. Stressed out by worry, you naturally most likely choose to do the easiest things first so you can have the satisfaction of crossing something off your list. Perhaps you tend to push the difficult tasks to the end of the day, or even into tomorrow.

Sandra Chapman, a cognitive neuroscientist, suggests focusing on your two ‘elephants’ when writing your to-do list, these elephants being the most important things you need to do on that day to forward your goals.

When you are able to identify the things you need to ignore and where to devote your energy, you’re able to tackle the more difficult tasks when fresher and more alert.

2. Identify Specific Answers That You Need

Before browsing the web for information, for example, prepare a list of questions that you really need an answer for. Set out clear objectives for seeking information. Of course, the World Wide Web is full of ‘vacuums’, swirling attention-grabbing machines which are precisely designed to enticed to click different contents in order to steal both your attention and time — but if you are clear with your questions, you’ll have directions on what kind of information to hunt down. A hunter in a forest might find a thousand distractions from his or her prey — but knowing specifically what the target of the hunt is, it will be easier to trace and find.

Easier said than done, perhaps: you might be searching for remedies for a health problem which is causing you great anxiety, and find all kinds off ‘pop-up’ information which may or may not be connected. That’s why, to strengthen your selective attention, you must also develop your ability to ignore.

Think again of the forest hunter or tracker: part of tracing a hunted animal is being able to ignore all the evidence of other animals in the vicinity.

Selective attention helps you filter out all the noise and focus on the target. Easier said than done? The next point might help.

3. Identify Greater Rewards

This is the key. Unless you can substitute greater genuine rewards for the short-term lesser rewards offered by distractions, you will always struggle with ‘temptation’ - and this leaves the door wide open for the amygdala.

It comes back to establishing your own values and longer-term aims. If you really want to conquer anxiety, you need to be clear on what it is you consider to be an ideal scenario, not as a fixed set of physical circumstances (which is impossible) but as a set of actuated values. If you don’t know what it is that you want, what things do you consider ‘good’, what aspects of life are to you valuable above all others, then the amygdala will decide for you — and the cycle of anxiety will never end.

You can simultaneously engage in different tasks at the same time— if done well, it can lead to you actually being productive. But instead of constantly switching your attention between two tasks, devote more of your focus to one important task and identify the greater reward for finishing it. Then have a second or third task of almost equal importance standing by and focus on that. Continual switching between small, unimportant jobs saps attention needed for the bigger, important ones.

Address the novelty that the brain needs by engaging in a different task only after devoting enough time to the primary task.

It might be hard at first — but after a while you’ll notice that the major task, inch by inch, approaches completion, while the lesser but still significant jobs also crawl forward. Then there will be times when a shower of tasks get finished at around the same time, yielding a boost to your morale and other rewards.

4. Improve Your Attention

In human history, our species used to forage for food and move around the landscape seeking sustenance. Unsettled, forever moving into new, dangerous territory, always surrounded by unknowns and little shelter, it was a precarious age. The amygdala was very active. About 12,000 years ago a big change happened: humans discovered that they could grow their own food and domesticate livestock. That meant no more roaming the countryside; it meant settlements, shelter, security, longevity; it led to a whole host of things including art and culture.

It gives us a powerful analogy for defeating anxiety. If we want to succeed at something, improving our attention instead of becoming distracted is key. But even more essential is discovering what it is that we consider to be valuable and good, and being able to provide that without constant searching.

The amygdala is a hunter’s tool: it seeks out departures from the ideal in a moving environment, and strongly alerts you of dangers, real or supposed. But what if you aren’t a hunter anymore? What if you know what you want and can build at least a skeleton of it around you? Maybe the hunter’s tool can be hung on the wall as a memento of earlier times, or beaten into a ploughshare to help you manage what you have, rather than seek out what you don’t.

If you can master this, you’ll change from someone who forages the same patches desperately and then jumps from one to another. You’ll be the boss of your own patch, and be able to make it fertile.

You’ll gain confidence as you stop desperately juggling tasks and actually start producing something.

In turn, you’ll see a great improvement in your spirits. Your output will determine who you are and who you want to be, not your amygdala.


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