Overcoming the Amygdala Part 52
Life as an Active Experience
As we’ve seen, the general conditions of most people’s lives are passive in the sense that things just ‘happen’ to them. Genetically, and then in terms of their nurturing environment, most individuals are at the effect point; they are born to certain parents; they are sent to school and allocated a class group, something which often determines life-long connections and associations; then there’s a normally fairly random process by which individuals end up in career paths, which are often narrow channels full of pre-determined choices and priorities set by others.
It’s no wonder then that the average human being finds himself or herself in circumstances not necessarily conducive to help when it comes to dealing with anxiety — indeed, this random selection of conditions may be a significant contributor to the underlying anxiety in the first place. Where are the true friends? Where are the compassionate faces? Where are the people attuned to one’s own innermost needs?
Nothing about the usual pattern of life is aimed at providing the individual with ideal conditions in which to flourish anxiety-free.
Hence the underlying tendency of the amygdala to ring the alarm bells — the amygdala’s operations, remember, are to do with signalling departures from an ideal scenario. If we could somehow surround ourselves with true friends, compassionate faces, and people tuned to our innermost needs, the amygdala would largely fall silent.
Our task is to alter the normal pattern of our passive lives and shape our lives into a more active experience.
Instead of just ‘waiting’ for the right people or conditions to arrive, we have to act to bring them to us or we have to proactively seek them out.
In the days before social media this was very difficult. Trapped by circumstances over which an individual had little control — home life, work life, social routines — a person would have many obstacles to ‘getting out there’ and finding others of like mind. Pubs and bars and other social venues provided one avenue, but these were limited by geography and character; clubs and other societies presented another way of meeting appropriate friends, but were similarly imperfect. Thus, the background ‘noise’ of the amygdala persisted, signalling ‘departure, departure, departure’ until such time as the individual was able — normally through a combination of lucky accidents — to locate another person who could and would act as a ‘discharging point’: a friendly, understanding, capable ‘other’ who would help to relieve the anxiety, reduce the polarity, increase the affinity, and effectively switch off or reduce the activity of the amygdala.
Social media opens the door to a proper solution.
Using social media correctly, one can build an environment which is more ‘user-friendly’ for the individual.
But there are ways of doing this properly and some pitfalls to avoid.
1. One should not ‘rush in where angels fear to tread’ and use social media as a kind of ‘anxiety dump’.
This might seem an obvious thing to avoid, but one sees it all the time in practise in various groups and sites — some people, having established that there are responsive ‘others’ in a group, use the apparent opportunity to offload all kinds of problems. It’s an example of the premature haste to move to specifics which we examined last time: though the person might get some friendly responses, the most common result is rejection. The general audience isn’t appropriate and will turn away or worse, noisily attack such an approach.
2. One should patiently create a general environment of friendliness.
Try these steps:
i) List out some common interests and passions. These can be just about anything, from hobbies to politics to beliefs to favourite books or films, to places visited — anything which gives you a general overview of your life and preferences.
ii) Find common denominators and threads amongst those things listed. Perhaps you find a skein of liberal philosophy, or a passion for animals, or a predilection for certain sports, or a liking for particular genres of literature, and so on. Not everything has to be compartmentalised — you’re allowed to have many contradictory aspects to yourself, not all of which have to perfectly align. But you’ll probably find common trends, values, perspectives in amongst the things you’ve listed.
iii) Seek out or create social media communities which share the same themes, values, ideas, and join them. This might take several weeks until you find enough broad, general groupings that serve your interests and needs.
iv) Interact; make friends. Keep it light. This is where the ‘angels rushing in’ impulse will be at its most dangerous: having found people who share similar passions to yourself, you may want to ‘get to the heart of the matter’ and start having personal conversations which are far too intimate and revealing for the venue. You will get rejected or at best ignored if you move too swiftly.
Your Life Profile and Amygdala Statement
None of this is too taxing; nor is it dishonest. You’re simply making friends or, to lighten up even that statement, associating with colleagues. You’re not trying to lead people into your personal 'web' or trick them into becoming counsellors for you — you’re simply establishing a light, general environment of positivity aligned around your own passions and interests. The effect of this alone can be unburdening for some people — they may never before have found a community of like-minded souls. The amygdala, sensing a general background of friendliness, may start to wind down: remember, amygdalas are polarity detectors, and, by finding ‘poles’ in a broad sense, you are defusing the situation and increasing the strength of the affinity framework around you.
Now you need to create the specific conditions which will draw appropriate attention to your individual concerns.
To do this, it’s advisable to develop a correct Life Profile for yourself. This isn’t about getting some photos together, though they can be part of it: it’s about getting yourself together. Who are you? What are your likes and dislikes? What are your loves? Your fears? Write some things down; make notes. Expand upon the lists you made above. This isn’t for a dating site — you’re not trying to make yourself look attractive, but simply defining yourself so that you have a better understanding of who you are, in both positive and negative terms.
Don’t neglect the positive: write down some achievements; note the better times of your life as well as the bad.
What you’re aiming for here is a one- or two-page document. It doesn’t have to be well-written or presented, it’s for your eyes only, but when you read it over your conclusion should be along the lines of ‘Yup, that’s me in a nutshell.’
It may take you some time to put together, and you may have to combat some interference from your amygdala, which will be ringing in your ears and pointing out all the failures or departures or absences in your life. That may push the life profile towards a negative picture overall. Just do the best you can with it — it’s not a competition and there are no right or wrong answers.
If you wish, pick out a couple of pictures which best capture ‘you’ in your opinion.
Having come up with something you’re reasonably happy with — remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect — in a separate document, describe your deepest fears and anxieties. Don’t focus on one or two, list out as many as you can at first. Give your amygdala its voice. Then, just as when you listed out your interests and passions, see if you can spot themes and patterns in this list: are your anxieties mainly about health? Or relationships? Or finances? Or mortality? Or something else?
Here’s the challenge: having done the above, see if you can summarise those negativities in about fifty words or less. Try to write a paragraph, in other words, which sums up the darkness. This will be your Amygdala Statement.
Your Life Profile and your Amygdala Statement together should make interesting reading — but remember they are for your eyes only. They are tools to help you get specific — and you need to get consciously specific about yourself to move forward in this plan of outwitting your amygdala.
Done well, these two documents may themselves have produced a little relief from stress. The amygdala will feel listened to, and even though it might not consider switching off the alarms in your head, it will on some level recognise that it has done its job — you are paying attention.
While you’re doing all this, you should be keeping up the light social interaction in the groups you’ve joined above.
Now a peculiar thing is likely to happen: at some point, as you finalise your Profile and Statement, people will emerge from the general background of these groups who seem more fitting to your specific needs. Importantly, at this point you must remember that these people are not there simply to service your needs — they are rounded, three-dimensional beings with lives and needs of their own. Nevertheless, as you define yourself, they will also become more defined.
This might sound mystical, and perhaps it is — but one way of understanding what is happening here is to recognise that, as you come to a clearer understanding of your own life, your perceptions become more finely attuned to what you see in others. So you might simply be noticing aspects in certain people which you may not have noticed before: it looks like they are emerging from the camouflaged general background, but it’s just that you are seeing more sharply what lies in that background.
This all takes time. While you’re busy doing all this, you may still be suffering from extreme anxiety and crying out for help. By all means, get help wherever and whenever you can — but taking the above actions is part of building a supportive framework around you so that your cries for help will firstly be heard more clearly, and secondly become less frequent or necessary.