All of us experience anxiety — even meditation teachers. I was nervous the other day driving down to the airport on my way to lead a retreat. I’d left it a bit late, and thoughts like “what if the traffic’s bad in Boston and I end up missing the flight?” kept popping into my head.
We all have to learn strategies for dealing with our fears.
You can think of there being an “anxiety module” in the brain. It’s the amygdala — a rather ancient part of our wiring. It’s always scanning, looking for “threats” — for things that might go wrong. When we’re in an anxious state, the amygdala is working overtime, and it’s interpreting pretty much everything as a threat (and, in my case, inventing things that could go wrong). And the amygdala is well wired into the rest of the brain. When it’s operating, we know about it. An active amygdala in fact can in fact “hijack” the higher centers in the brain (to do with rational thought, etc.) so that in a way the whole brain is being run by the amygdala. And an over-active amygdala actually becomes larger, like a muscle that’s exercised a lot.
But our higher cognitive centers have wiring running back to the amygdala, and they can (in theory) send back reassurance: “It’s OK, we can deal with this.” These inhibitory activities damp down the activity of the amygdala, and can quell our anxiety. Those pathways may be underdeveloped, but they can grow, with practice.
So the key is to keep bathing the amygdala in reassurance. One way to do this is to accept your anxiety. The amygdala actually responds to its own activity. it creates anxiety and then takes the symptoms of anxiety as a sign that something must be wrong. So if we can simply accept our anxiety, and accept that it’s OK to feel anxiety, then we cut out that feedback loop of getting anxious about anxiety. You can say to yourself, in a soothing tone of voice (internal, if you want), “It’s OK. It’s OK to feel this. Let me feel this.”
You can even send thoughts of lovingkindness to your anxiety. Notice where the anxiety is in the body. welcome it; don’t make it feel unwelcome, because that’s just feeding it. Welcome it like a beloved friend who has turned up at your home in a shaky state. You’d sit your friend down and sooth her. So let your anxiety be there, and wish it well: “May you be well; may you be happy.” Over and over. The aim isn’t to try to make the anxiety go away (again that can end up feeding it, through aversion) but to give it our compassionate attention for as long as it’s there. It’ll go away of its own accord once the mind works out that the anxiety is no longer needed.
Over time, you’ll strengthen the regulatory channels that run from your frontal cortex back to the amygdala. The amygdala will shrink. The bits of your brain to do with reassurance will get physically larger. And in time you’ll feel less anxiety, and when you do feel anxious it’ll be more “contained” within a larger context of patience, reassurance, and kindness.
Oh, and I made my flight with plenty of time to spare. The worry was completely needless.