Overcoming the Amygdala Part 92
Those struggling with their amygdalas need to work out what it is that they would prefer their life to be like instead.
As we have been exploring, rationality is something that we can apply or not apply at will. Our culture tends to assume that the existing set of circumstances with which we are coping is ‘Life’, and that our task is merely to cope with it — which often involves enormous amounts of stress and the corresponding almost perpetual activation of our parasympathetic nervous systems. But if we could outline an alternative path through the application of Reason, we could relatively quickly find our way out of the maze of ringing alarms and achieve some kind of peace and mental health.
As we have seen, this largely depends on our ability to come up with a realistic ideal to which our surrounding circumstances can be sanely compared. Speaking only in general terms then — as individual circumstances will vary widely — let’s try to describe such an ideal.
We probably all want a life in which we can survive without too much effort or stress — a viable existence, with viability defined as a capability of working successfully over time, a 'feasible operation'.
What we need is a measurable statistic so that we can tell, without depending on guesswork or opinion, our relative survival potential.
It’s easy to get ideals wrong. A military organisation once promoted for recruits using posters which described a life of hanging around in bars with women, rather than a more truthful and accurate picture of recruits being trained into competence but with the possibility of being placed in mortal peril as part of the job. This campaign was obviously short-sighted: those who applied based on it would then require far more work to transform them into the kind of people needed to actually perform the tasks of soldiers. A more honest ideal, projected through a marketing campaign, might have resulted in fewer applicants but probably more qualified ones, who would be far easier to train because they had already aligned themselves with the goal.
But let’s go with the broad and quite conservative ideal of ‘A life in which one can survive without too much effort or stress over the next few years.’
Nothing too flashy or unattainable there.
So how do we break that down into measurable parts, elements which can be staticised?
Well, let’s take each bit: what does ‘survive’ mean in this instance? Material survival requires finances and some property as well as a degree of health, all of which can be quantified: how much money? What amount of property? How much health?
Then what does ‘effort and stress’ look like and how much is too much? A person — let’s call her Sandra —would need to work out subjectively what she considered an excessive amount of effort. For sake of argument, let’s quantify this as ’30 hours a week of moderate and not unpleasant work’ and ‘no more than a few hours a week of anxiety’. These could be further broken down into statistics in terms of numbers of hours and relative pleasantness.
If these things were all written down, drawn up as graphs, and kept track of through some kind of simple log book, all of a sudden we can perhaps begin to see how all this works on a practical level. At the end of a predetermined period, Sandra would log all these quantifiable parts: money, property, health, hours of work, amount of anxiety, in whatever form or detail seemed workable. Just the act of keeping a log would be itself an enormous step away from simply reacting to the environment.
At first the log might show an unchanging scene or even a decline. Perhaps income is falling, or property is being lost; perhaps health is worsening and hours of work are going down. But these statistics are showing very clearly the presence of what we have named ‘departures’: omitted items, lies, alterations of time, shifts in importance, illogical sequences. Normally, Sandra might just react to these things with mounting frustration and anxiety, amygdala ringing. But now, equipped with some tools, what should she do?
1. Observe without reacting. 2. Notice a departure of some kind. 3. Compare the noted departure to the ideal. 4. Tally up the departures from that ideal which now should be apparent, and categorise them accordingly.
5. The Biggest Departure will be the largest gap between what Sandra has observed and the ideal. This will be the source of the majority of the departures she has noted.
Let’s say that, in this case, Sandra notes that the hours of work are dropping, affecting income and prompting a loss of property as she has to sell something in order to pay a pressing bill. Over a period of a couple of weeks, she sees a pattern — most of her stress comes from falling income rather than health issues or relationship problems or her frustration with the daily commute or any number of other triggers, the profusion of which usually obscure for her the plain facts which are now being clearly revealed by the log book and statistics.
A light begins to dawn for Sandra: the various problems and issues of her life are still extant, but this particular one — falling hours at work, directly leading to unpredictable drops in income — seem to correlate to the most intense periods of stress.
Just to be sure, she continues keeping the log book and confirms that it’s true: the scene at work with hours is the primary source of her amygdalic stress. This is the thing which she can point to and say ‘A-ha! That’s the cause of most of my problems!’
So she works out a plan to handle that, setting aside for the moment every other issue that might be clamouring for attention. She figures out that, by sitting down with her supervisor, she can come up with a predictable schedule which steadies her income stream. What she finds, as a kind of accidental by-product of this discussion, is that the supervisor is able to come up with a more efficient and smoother working system for the whole workplace. Sandra’s supervisor, recognising her contribution, gives her one of the most stable timetables, which actually results in a 30 hour week of not unpleasant work.
Sandra notes that she has attained a significant part of her stated ideal, ‘A life in which one can survive without too much effort or stress over the next few years.’ Her income stabilises; her amygdala goes quiet. She finds that, though she still has some problems in life, her relative calmness empowers her to deal with them in a much saner fashion.
Sandra has moved closer to her ideal. Should she now throw away her log book? Advisedly, no. What she should do is repeat the whole exercise — probably with more efficiency and calmness now — and isolate the next biggest departure in her life. Handling that then moves her even closer to her perfect lifestyle.
Once Sandra has done this a couple of times, her life will have undergone significant changes for the better — so much so that she might consider revising her statement of an ideal scene, upgrading it, as it were, to something like ‘A life in which one can enjoy a greater degree of leisure while still remaining productive over the next few years.’
This can then be staticised as before. A log book can be kept. Departures can be noted, traced to their source and dealt with.
What’s happened here?
The survival role normally left to the parasympathetic nervous system as a default mechanism has now been recovered by the person. By taking conscious, rational responsibility for moving life towards an ideal, the person obviates the need for a continuously ringing amygdala.
And there’s more to come.