Overcoming the Amygdala Part 51
We’ve been focusing on social interaction as a major factor behind anxiety, and have outlined the idea that proper and full appropriate social interaction — having on hand the right people who really understand the individual — is perhaps the most important part of dealing with anxiety as it actually manifests itself.
An understanding parent, a compassionate partner, a wise therapist and so on — these are all vital if we’re aiming for a full and happy handling of the alarm signals broadcast by our amygdala, at least as part of a foundation.
There are obvious problems with this, though: such people are not always available when you need them; and Life is a two-way flow — except perhaps for a paid therapist, these ‘others’ have their own concerns and preoccupations, and don’t exist just for the individual’s benefit. Life as a whole is going on for others, even as any particular individual faces critical moments of panic and anxiety in their life. Even the most understanding partner or parent or helper has demands upon their time other than a single person under stress. The perfect affinity that we are looking for, and which we examined last time in mechanical terms, is not always in the immediate vicinity, geographically or psychologically.
How can we deal with that? Are there any steps we can take to alleviate the absence of affinity?
Yes, there are.
Life as a Passive Experience
Most human beings live their lives as passive ‘particles’ in a flow of events. Much like a leaf drifting down a stream, they wake up each day and get caught in the current of what's happening. Viewed like this, Life becomes something which affects them, and over which they have very little control. Yes, they can determine some circumstances to some degree — they may have some power of choice over where they live or which job they accept, for example, but for a huge proportion of people even these things are limited. Each person is born with, and has to accept, a genetic package which may present opportunities or difficulties depending on the environments in which they find themselves; each person has had an individual nurturing which has developed strengths and weaknesses in their make-up which shift in value as the surroundings shift: an intellectual librarian of weak physiognomy may flourish in a university environment but struggle to survive in a rough dockside hotel; a French-speaking woman with money may thrive in Quebec but starve to death in an Indian jungle, and so on. Because we have little power of prediction over the flow of events in our lives, it’s hard to see our existence as anything other than passive.
To a large extent this influences the way we regard our inner worlds. If we ‘feel’ a certain way, we tend to accept it passively in the same way as we accept external events; if we are panicked or upset by something, that panic and upset claims the same kind of legitimacy as the outside weather in terms of its dominion over us: we can’t do much about it, it seems.
Attacked by anxiety in such circumstances, we take a ‘cry for help’ sort of approach. We simply turn to anyone nearby and demonstrate a need for assistance in some way. In those places with professional health services available, individuals may be lucky enough to contact a sympathetic counsellor of some description, but this is probably after the person has tried and failed to attract the right kind of attention from family or friends. It’s a matter of obvious truth (and concern) that many people who suffer anxiety do so in silence simply because it seems that there is no appropriate help in their immediate surroundings. Caught in the flow of events, they drift along hoping for the best while all the time fearing the worst.
For people in these circumstances — and they number in the millions — there is nothing for it, it seems, except to randomly from time to time cry out for help and hope that someone passing by understands what is needed.
It’s called ‘the human condition’ and existentialists made a philosophy out of it: the essential loneliness and isolation of the individual which endures the cold void without hope and without help.
But it might be possible to take a different approach…
Even while we ponder the cold isolation described above, it may occur to us that there are notable exceptions: a loving relationship between parent and child; a romantic love between two well-matched partners; an effective and accurate treatment from a wise professional; a mutual helpfulness demonstrated by good friends; the support of truly loving family members and so forth — all of these exist, and are as real and prevalent as the negative picture we’ve looked at so far. Indeed, for humanity to flourish as it has done over the last thousand years in particular, these conditions must occupy a large territory, if not the bulk of the territory of humanity.
You may be able to think, right now, of someone who has demonstrated appropriate and effective affinity for you at some point. Perhaps they are still with you, perhaps they have moved on somewhere, perhaps their influence was fleeting — but it’s unlikely that any individual has totally missed out on this experience on some level.
Given that the positive picture is at least as real as the negative, how can we progress from one to the other?
1. We need to create the general conditions which will attract the right people.
In other words, rather than going ‘hunting’ for them, we need to bring them to us in a broad, non-specific fashion at first. We’ll look at how to do this in more detail soon — but it’s important first to note that this general step comes before the specific step below. It might sound like a lot of work ‘creating’ general conditions, but it could alternatively be stated ‘find the general conditions’: there may be such circumstances already in existence and we just need to connect up to them. But they have to be right for us, as individuals, or little progress will be made.
2. We need to create the specific conditions which draw appropriate attention to our individual concerns.
Part of the problem faced by people suffering from anxiety is that they try this step too soon — before they have done step 1 sufficiently. An anxious person tends to be so upset that they will approach anyone, even someone clearly inappropriate, to seek help and/or support. Frequently, this backfires or at best is completely useless — the inappropriate person reacts in an unhelpful way to some degree, occasionally very negatively. After a couple of times trying this specific approach, the anxious person learns to shut down and may cease to reach for any help at all. An anxious individual needs to find the right general conditions before ‘baring their soul’ will be effective, or even safe.
3. Trust a correct person fully — and where appropriate make the help two-way.
Having drawn an appropriate person close enough in affinity to be able to share an individual’s deepest fears and concerns, it’s important that the anxious person is completely open and honest about their amygdala’s effects. Only in this way will any effective progress be made. And in some cases, the forthcoming interchange between the individual and the ‘other’ may be strengthened by being two-way — a sharing of thoughts and feelings that goes both ways, keeping in mind that listening properly to another is often as effective a tool as being listened to.
4. Make progress.
That might sound too obvious, but having a forward-looking plan and visualising a positive future is a part of emerging from the domain of the amygdala in a lasting way.
One scenario which might have occurred to some readers already is that of online dating. It has some parallels, but shouldn’t be thought of as a model. Someone looking for a life-partner may join a dating agency website and explore in general terms who else is looking. Finding a likely person, one then risks giving slightly more personal details. Tentatively, communication moves forward (or doesn’t) depending on circumstances and honesty. The ‘polarisation factor’ — the distance between the two people — is gradually reduced; affinity grows. If at some point either of the parties discovers something inappropriate or ill-matching about the other, the communication can quickly terminate. Sometimes, due to dishonesty or other failures, these terminations can be emotionally painful as one or both parties has progressed to stage 2 — specifics — too quickly and subjected themselves to emotional pain.
That’s the flaw with most online dating, as it is with trying to deal with anxiety generally: the rush to specifics is too rapid. The individual, full of aching need, empties their soul prematurely — and suffers rejection in one form or another. It’s that first step, to do with establishing general conditions, which is missing.
We'll take a look at that next.