Overcoming the Amygdala Part 49
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that at the heart of many people’s anxieties is a sense of loneliness.
Actually, human isolation is not as simple as just ‘being on your own’. It’s a gradient scale, another spectrum.
We saw last time that social interaction is one of the most effective tools for bringing your entire nervous system into alignment. The presence of friendly other individuals is a major method of ‘defusing’ our own stress. Face-to-face communication with a relaxed, possibly neutral but caring listener can help a person quickly calm down — and, as we have heard before, listening to another, listening properly, as a practice in itself, can be highly therapeutic. This is the fabric of sane human relations.
What’s going on here on a technical level? And how can we use this to combat anxiety in ourselves?
If the above is true, there’s an important conclusion to be drawn: if social interaction and proper listening defuse anxiety, and their absence increases anxiety, we have the beginnings of a spectrum.
1. At the top of that spectrum is an abundance of friendly communication and understanding — so much mutual comprehension and reflected compassion that all our human needs are served and we suffer zero anxiety.
2. Just below that must be an area in which social interaction is occurring in abundance and anxieties are small, an area in which, perhaps, the only worrisome moments are created with the intention of causing amusement, as in a child’s game — hide and seek, or surprise appearances, or information withheld for the purposes of a joke.
3. Then we’d reach a zone in which the anxieties were a little more serious, perhaps, though still resolvable. Here we would be able to interact with others but perhaps not always exactly when or how we would wish; we would be challenged to overcome obstacles to achieve the kind of social communication that we desired.
4. Beyond that, we would encounter a band in which anxieties were more prevalent and not always easily resolvable. Choices would need to be made, and could sometimes be wrong or clouded.
5. Below that, anxiety would make its presence felt in the real absence of others from time to time. Intermittent social interaction would create a personality experiencing mood shifts and moments of real nervousness and perhaps depression.
6. Going further, there might be a zone in which social communication became even more difficult, almost impossible: a person might despair of ever managing to achieve the level of understanding from others — or the ability to understand others —that is needed.
7. Finally, it would seem as though all possibility of real understanding from others would be entirely absent. Anxiety would be at its maximum and would be considered the norm.
Astute readers may have noticed a correspondence between the levels of this scale and our already established spectrum of ‘zones’.
1. In the uppermost Zen Zone, all needs are satisfied and anxiety is unknown.
2. The Play Zone contains only manageable and minuscule levels of worry.
3. The Manifesting Zone reveals a noticeable amount of concern, but it is overcomeable.
4. In the Calmer Zone, anxiety is present but not quite as forcefully as below.
5. The Rhythmic Zone has anxiety moving in and out intermittently.
6. The Anxiety Zone is dominated by fears and worries.
7. The Panic Zone demonstrates a complete overwhelm by anxiety and depression.
Just focusing on this point of social interaction, then, we can make several statements:
Panic and extreme anxiety in social terms is a scarcity of ‘other’. The understanding other person whom we need is entirely absent — resulting in our amygdala going crazy, as that’s a major departure from a social interaction ideal. If we look at this in simple terms, we could say that we are one ‘pole’ and the other person to whom we need to be able to communicate our woes effectively (and to whom we need to listen properly — it’s a two-way flow) is the other ‘pole’.
Panic, then, is an extreme polarity to the point where the other pole is lost — so distant as to seem unattainable.
Anxiety is a pretended or desired other pole who is only available in a phantom or illusory sense.
As we climb out of these lower states, a weak, intermittent other pole may be part of our lives.
This other pole begins to manifest itself more credibly as anxiety recedes — we find at least one other person who understands and can cope with us, and we with them. If all falls into place, this other pole gets stronger, and becomes a stabilising influence.
The opposite of panic, then, in these terms, is the abundance of ‘other’: perhaps we have not only one compassionate partner or friend but many. Surrounded by real, appropriate and needed social interaction, we are at peace.
Note that the mere presence of many people is not a cure for loneliness or anxiety in itself: one can be deeply lonely, and be suffering intensely, in a crowded room as easily as in a remote attic. The above spectrum describes a condition of social relationships, not a demographic of people. But from it we can perhaps extract a purely theoretical framework which can then be of practical use to us.
Let’s name this top level of effective and anxiety-free social interaction as ‘affinity’, pure and simple. In the presence of genuine affinity, affinity which understands and reflects and appreciates and supports, anxiety is virtually impossible.
Let’s go one step further:
Complete affinity is the absence of polarity.
As polarity and division grow, affinity reduces. The word ‘affinity’, after all, means a natural liking for and understanding of someone or something from the Latin affinitas, from affinis ‘related’ (literally ‘bordering on’), from ad- ‘to’ + finis ‘border’. So as one imposes space between two people, geographically or psychologically, affinity can or must drop. Using the above scale we can see that it drops progressively, from total affinity all the way down to a complete absence of affinity. And another way of saying that is that, as affinity drops, so the other ‘pole’ moves further and further way, until we are left with a state of anxiety, depression and possibly panic which reflects, in social interaction terms, the apparent complete absence of the other pole.
Hence the loss of a loved one, or of a prior balanced state or of any condition in which affinity was present in needed amounts results in a plummeting down the scale towards anxiety.
Conversely — and this is where all this becomes of practical use for us — as genuine and appropriate affinity is introduced or reintroduced, anxiety reduces: the other ‘pole’ makes its presence felt and it becomes possible again to ‘discharge’ concerns both ways.
Practically speaking then, someone in anxiety, being overwhelmed by their amygdala, is suffering because of the absence of an effective ‘pole’ against which to release worries and fears, and, in a mutual interaction, to assist in the other pole’s release.
Helping someone who feels trapped in anxiety, therefore, becomes at least partly a process of ‘pole-finding’: discovering the correct ‘other’ who can serve as a pole for the discharging of worrisome energies.
This isn’t all about finding a lover or partner, though that clearly fits into this scheme of things — it’s about locating the other human being who can adequately understand the individual so that relief occurs. This can be a professional therapist of some kind, or a mentor, or a family member or a close friend or whoever — the important thing is that the individual has to feel understood. On being understood, anxieties release and the individual can experience a shift in condition.
This can only partially be achieved by machines or apps or self-applied procedures — the magic of social interaction is that it really is interaction, socially. real people are involved. Substitutes aren’t as effective.