What else are those of us with a hyperactive amygdala supposed to do to live in less fear? One technique neuropsychologist Rick Hansen talks about is distinguishing between real and paper tigers—ie stopping to assess whether you’re reacting to a real threat. I like the technique Alan Bean who I first wrote about in The Power of Patience used. Bean was an astronaut who had previously been a test pilot. Test pilots are trained to ask one question when something goes wrong in the air: “Is this thing still flying?” It’s a way of helping the pilot mentally evaluate how serious a problem so he or she can calmly come up with a solution rather than panicking.
Bean’s training came in mighty handy when he was in the Apollo 12 capsule. As the spaceship took off, it was struck by lightning. Suddenly every warning light on the instrument panel flashed. Help! said Bean’s amygdala, we’re going to die. Then he remembered the question. Looking out the little porthole above his head, he realized that not only was the spacecraft still flying, but it was still pointed upward. So rather than aborting the mission, he dealt with each warning light one by one until all functions were restored. And yes, he made it to the moon.
The next time your amygdala goes off, try stopping and asking, “Is this thing still flying?” In other words, is this truly a life or death situation? Almost certainly, it’s not. Recognizing that truth will help your amygdala calm down so you can use the rest of your brain to solve the problem
There are many successful techniques for dealing with a hair trigger amygdala. Today we’re going to look at one: retraining our brains through mindfulness meditation, which in the words of Daniel Goleman, is “an attention-training method that teaches the brain to register anything happening in the present moment with full focus — but without reacting.” Sounds just what is needed!
In a recent study, neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin and Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School offered mindfulness training to the employees of a 24/7, high pressure start up. After eight weeks and an average 30 minutes a day of practice, employees were able to recover more quickly from stress than those who had not been trained. While this was based on half an hour a day, Daniel Siegel of the UCLA Mindfulness Institute has shown similar results in as little as 10 minutes daily. The key is every day. It’s the repetition that creates the new pathways that we need for less reactivity.
Mindfulness doesn’t just create greater resilience. It also increases focus and concentration, and helps us prevent normal cognitive decline as we age.
Here, in Goleman’s words, are the instructions:
Find a quiet, private place where you can be undistracted for a few minutes — for instance, close your office door and mute your phone.
Sit comfortably, with your back straight but relaxed.
Focus your awareness on your breath, staying attentive to the sensations of the inhalation and exhalation, and start again on the next breath.
Do not judge your breathing or try to change it in any way.
See anything else that comes to mind as a distraction — thoughts, sounds, whatever — let them go and return your attention to your breath.
This is similar to the training I did this spring, which included rating my stress level. What I noticed is that I am much better at recognizing what my brain is doing, even if I still experience greater than average anxiety.
I’m convinced that 10 mindful minutes are the best thing each of us can do to train our minds to focus better, be less reactive and maintain our brain power!
The folks in Kagan’s study I referred to in my last posting are in their 20s now and those who were
labeled as highly reactive at birth, “remain anxious just below the surface, their subconscious brains still
twitchy, still hypervigilant, still unable to shift attention away from perceived threats that aren’t really
there,” writes Robin Marantz Henig in the New York Times piece.
Those of you who’ve been reading my blogs on stress know where this reactivity is coming from—
our amygdala, which in high reactors is “prickly as a haywire motion-detector light that turns on when
nothing’s moving but the rain,” explains Marantz Henig. “Other physiological changes exist in children
with this temperament, many of them also related to hyperreactivity in the amygdala. They have a
tendency to more activity in the right hemisphere, the half of the brain associated with negative mood
and anxiety; greater increases in heart rate and pupil dilation in response to stress; and on occasion
higher levels of the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine.”
When I first read this article, I burst into tears at the motion detector metaphor. I felt such a complex
array of emotions: relief that an explanation exists for why I am the way I am; sadness that it has taken
me 58 years to fully understand what’s been going on; compassion for the suffering I’ve experienced
which I now really understand is not “normal,” at least for 80% of us. Suddenly my whole life’s journey
to cultivate the positive emotions—happiness, gratitude, generosity, patience, self trust—made even
more sense. I’ve been trying to cope with a broken motion detector!
What about you? Does this resonate? If so, what is the effect on you of attributing how you’ve been
feeling and reacting to life as simply part of how you were hardwired at birth?
Ever wonder why you jump at the slightest noise and your spouse, friend, or colleague barely registers it? Why you might worry or feel anxious a lot of the time while others seem so carefree, even when facing challenges? I’ve always attributed it to some real threat—I feel this way because there are potential dangers out there in the world that could strike at any moment.
But what if the threats not out there, but in our brains? Powerful longitudinal studies by Jerome Kagan at Harvard and others demonstrate that just as babies are born with unique physical characteristics such as hair and eye color, they also come in with natural ways of reacting to people, places and things. And that 15-20% of us has an inborn bias toward reactivity, meaning we’re distressed by novelty from day one and tend to grow up to be more anxious.
This may be sound silly, but until I read this research, I’ve never thought of myself as anxious. I might have said I was more fearful than others, perhaps. But according to psychologists, fear is about something specific—the test results you’re getting tomorrow, for instance, while anxiety is “a kind of fear gone wild, a generalized sense of dread about something out there that seems menacing, “writes Robin Marantz Henig in a great New York Times article. For folks not hardwired to reactivity, they may worry about the test results, but they go back to a generalized feeling of well-being once the tests come back negative. For those of us in the 15-20%, we may feel temporary relief, but we’ve soon found something else to worry about.
In case you wonder why you worry even though you know it does no good for your mental, emotional, or physical health, it’s because your brain is hardwired that way. And there’s a good reason why. Your amygdala is trying to save your life. As we were evolving, our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to keep an eye out for danger at every turn —lions and tigers and bears, not to mention poisonous plants and insects and snakes. Those that could sense danger quickly survived; those who sauntered about just smelling the flowers did not.
Because of the advantage there used to be in perceiving physical danger quickly, write psychologist Rick Hanson and neurologist Rick Mendius in an article in Inquiring Mind, “The brain is hard-wired to scan for the bad, and when it inevitably finds negative things, they get stored immediately and made available for rapid recall. In contrast, positive experiences (short of million-dollar moments) are usually registered through standard memory systems, and thus need to be held in conscious awareness for ten to twenty seconds for them to really sink in. In sum, your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones…..this built-in bias puts a negative spin on the world and intensifies our stress and reactivity.”
Now that mechanism generally works against us. We perceive all kinds of things as snakes or tigers when they’re only pieces of rope or mother-in-laws. And we stay on high alert for any possible threat in a vain attempt to protect ourselves from it.
So what are we to do with this tendency of the brain that doesn’t serve us well? Becoming aware when we’re worried or anxious is the first step. Fortunately our brains can do much more than these negative habits and we can use its amazing other capacities to find the solutions we need. Unfortunately, for some of us it can be harder than for others. Next time I’ll take a look at why that’s true.
I’ve always called myself a worrier and have worked for years on worrying less. As far as how successful I’ve been, the operative word is “less.” I am less worried that I used to be. But I had a powerful experience recently that showed me the level of anxiety I carry all the time (anxiety being the underlying feeling related to worry—more on that next time). I was part of an experiment to test the results of training in mindfulness and compassion. As part of it, I had to rate myself twice a day for nine weeks on a scale of 1-7 on how anxious I was, how calm I was, and several other factors.
Just keeping up with the surveys made me anxious. They were like rabbits breeding in my inbox. The minute I got one out, the next arrived. But what was more telling was to realize that my anxiety number was between 4-5 every day (1 being not at all and 7 being very much). If I’d just meditated, it might drop to 3 but never lower. After all the work I’ve done on myself, it was pretty discouraging until I realized that if I had done such a survey when I was younger, my average would have been 6-7. My big takeaway was that I’ve made progress, but I’m still carrying a pretty heavy “perpetually-waiting-for-something-bad-to-happen” in my being. I’d like to continue to transform that.
What about you? If you had to rate yourself on a scale between 1 (not at all) and 7 (very much), how anxious are you? How calm are you? Does it fluctuate much? What would you like that number to be?
If this topic interests you, keep coming back. I plan to explore worry, fear, and anxiety through a variety of lenses over the next few weeks (and perhaps longer) and share what I’m learning.
I read this book and all I could do was smile as it was so relatable. Attitudes of Gratitude reminds us of all the little things we take for granted like waking up every morning, the sounds of birds chirping, running water, a roof over our heads. I could go on and on but you get the point. I’m sure by now you’ve heard or read about the devastation in Japan. If you haven’t click here (pictures are disturbing). The natural disaster of both a tsunami and an earthquake that has radically changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people this past Friday. It’s so easy for us to take things for granted and then you hear about this sort of catastrophy and of such magnitude. It may put things in perspective momentarily but I think if we make a concisous decision to be more alert to ourungrateful attitudes we can regularly practice having a grateful one. “Make the practice of gratitude come alive in your life.” I hate that we have to be involved or witness something so terrible before deciding we need to be grateful. One of our many flaws humans!
This book is filled with short essays that teaches how to “give and receive joy every day of your life.” There are about 60 short stories, each with a different title. The one that stood out in particular was ”Give thanks for your body.” The reason this one caught my attention is because I behaved in an ungrateful manner about my body (not saying it’s great) the other day when a friend made a positive comment about it and my response was negative; not the tone but the manner. She proceeded to lecture and I took it with love, right Dynell. A few days later I come across this essay. Also, I had just written a blog about how disgusted I am with my cellulite. Isn’t that three stirkes you’re out? I think someone is trying to tell me something:) This is how the essay begins, “this practice is particularly difficult for women, because our relationship with our bodies is fraught with so much difficulty and dissatisfaction.” Isn’t this the truth? I think it’s time for me to embrace the vessel that was specifically designed for me, cellulite and all:)
Say out loud what you are most grateful for and see what sort of emotions are triggered.
BTW, the rest of this short story really hits the nail on the head!!!!
It may sound obvious, but I was struck the other day about how different we each can be when we are at our best versus under stress. The thought was prompted by my work with a very mart, caring and fun client. I always enjoy our interactions. However, I kept hearing reports that other people have lot of difficulties with him, which confused me. Then I had the occasion to witness him firsthand in a less than skillful moment and I realized, “Oh, when she has to deliver potentially bad news, all his people skills go out the window. He becomes a stickler for the rules and the other person doesn’t feel received.”
Where do you go under stress? We each have a particular habit. One of my female clients becomes competitive, looking to show she’s the smartest person in the room, alienating her colleagues in the process. I become speeded up so I’m leaving the room and on to the next thing while you’re still talking to me. With my family, that speed can turn to anger if I sense they’re thwarting what I want. The feeling is I don’t have time to argue, just get on board or get out of my way!
Recognizing our stress habit can be liberating. At the least it’s the first step to transforming it. But for me there has been something very profound in the sheer acknowledgment. It helps me separate out who I am from what I do. Now when I find myself going warp speed and getting angry, at least I know I’m stressed out!
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I was working with a leader who had just taken a job with lots of responsibility but very little structure or guidance. She was about to have a meeting with her staff for the first time. “What should I say?” she asked me in a panic. “I have no idea yet what I should be focusing on.” “Say that,” I replied. “It has the benefit of being true. Explain that you are in the process of figuring out priorities and would value their input. Then do a brainstorm. Not only will you get a sense of what they think is important, but you will gain their trust that you care enough to ask.” She let out a huge sigh and replied, “That feels just right.”
We all know the saying“The truth will set you free.” So why is it that telling the truth can feel so risky? Why can’t we just say, “Sorry, I can’t come to the meeting. I’m overcommitted.” Instead we invent a headache or resentfully go. Instead of saying, “I can’t listen to you right now,” we snap at our kids and spouse. Rather than an “I don’t know yet” to a business problem, we jump to decisions or blow a lot of smoke.
Telling the truth can risky. We risk disapproval, even anger. But when we stand on the ground of our truth, whatever that is, we create alignment with ourselves. We gain the power of integrity. And that is a mighty force that others can feel and respect even when they don’t like the message.