Anxiety, Survival, and Wellness

Anxiety and Survival: Genetically Complementary

As it turns out, much of the negativity that humans experience–fear, anxiety, stress response–all are a a natural development in the brain. It’s all a survival mechanism that developed over millennia to “protect” us. But today, we don’t need to escape lions (for the most part) or tribes (for the most part), but the brain doesn’t know that–or much care. If there’s a threat, real or imagined (and most fears for the modern human are often imagined), the brain swings into action to “save the day.” And for the most unlucky people, it can wind up actually harming or even  killing them, performing an out of control “mindless” task of keeping the body/mind in a constant state of fight/flight readiness. The amygdala processes emotions and is a pleasure center, but it’s most known for its role in fear responses. This has a direct correlation to its size (the larger the amygdala, the more aggressive the animal/human behavior (people who have meditated for years tend to have smaller amygdalae!)  Anxiety, autism, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and phobias are believed to be linked to abnormal functioning of the amygdala or other neurotransmitter dysfunction (such as a lower than normally active left pre-frontal cortex).

The amygdala, the tiny “almond-shaped” part of the brain has evolved over millennia to help protect us from harm. But today, in our modern world, it can do more harm than good.

Stress During Childhood can Lead to Anxiety Later in Life. According to Science Daily, “prolonged stress and anxiety during childhood is a risk factor for developing anxiety disorders and depression later in life. Now, Stanford University School of Medicine researchers have shown that by measuring the size and connectivity of a part of the brain associated with processing emotion — the amygdala — they can predict the degree of anxiety a young child is experiencing in daily life. But this can be “turned around.”

Taking in the Good and Building Resilience. The noted therapist and neuro-psychologist Richard Hanson, PhD, summarizes in just a few bullets what everyone needs to understand about their brains. To me, this is the most important discovery of modern science in the last 50 years or so. Here they are, and they are ideas that can ultimately save peoples’ lives from pain, torment, and, potentially even death. At the end of the first chapter of his book, “Hardwiring Happiness,” Dr. Hanson summarizes the key points:

  • Throughout history, people have wondered about the causes of suffering and happiness as they appeared in the mind. Now we are beginning to understand how our experiences are produced by the underlying structures and processes of the brain.
  • The nervous system has been evolving for 600 million years, and solutions to survival problems faced by ancient reptiles, mammals, primates, and humans are active in your brain today.
  • To survive and pass on their genes, our ancestors needed to be especially aware of dangers, losses, and conflicts. Consequently, the brain evolved a negativity bias that looks for bad news, reacts intensely to it, and quickly stores the experience in neural structure. We can still be happy, but this bias creates an ongoing vulnerability to stress, anxiety, disappoint, and hurt.
  • A key aspect of the negativity bias is the special power of fear. We routinely overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities and resources. At the same time, negative experiences sensitize the brain to the negative, making it easier to have even more negative experiences in a vicious circle.
  • Inner strengths such as happiness and resilience come mainly from positive experiences. But unless we pay mindful, sustained attention to them, most positive experiences flow through our brains like water through a sieve. They’re momentarily pleasant but leave little lasting value in terms of changing neural structure. The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.
  • While the negativity bias is good for survival in harsh conditions, it’s lousy for quality of life, fulfilling relationships, personal growth, and long-term health. It makes us over-learn from bad experiences and under-lean from good ones.
  • The best way to compensate for the negativity bias is to regularly take in the good.

Currently, most medical practitioners do not explain this to their patients, up to 80% of whom* see doctors due to anxiety and stress-related ailments. This is a serious problem, because as the chaos of society increases, our stress levels increase, and the brain–the agnostic, no-agenda but basic biological survival ancient brain–sees nothing but threats that must be addressed. The brain cares not whether they’re real (man with a gun) or imagined/potential (what if I lose my job and can’t pay my bills and get sick and don’t have health insurance?), it just goes into “survival mode,” which, as this blog will attempt to explain, can be a scary place, indeed.

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The Good News. There really is good news: our brains have been found to be malleable (what’s referred to as neuroplasticity), and they can be “rewired” for happiness using tools and techniques that have been been around for thousands of years. In fact, it’s been shown that our brains can and are changed at the genetic level. Yes, our DNA is actually being altered on a daily basis, and it’s up to us to have those changes reflect positive, rather than negative experiences and “wiring.” To do this, however, requires practice, and lots of it. Practice–whether it be yoga, TM, MBSR, or other form of meditation–needs to be done as a habitual component of our daily lives.

Take a look around this blog for some of these resources, and if you have suggestions for additional posts, please let us know!

Yours in mental health,

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 The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness

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