In one of my recent meditation sessions, I couldn’t focus on anything but a surging feeling of anxiety pulsing through my entire body.
A psychiatrist diagnosed me with generalized anxiety disorder when I was a freshman in college. That was after years of irrational worry that started when I was a child.
In elementary school, I constantly worried that I would get AIDS or go blind. I couldn’t watch certain shows or movies without being overcome with hot flashes of deep, irrational fear.
By the time I started college, the anxiety had become more constant and unbearable.
And it took on a social component. Sometimes, I felt paralyzingly terrified of simple outings like dinner or a movie-even with people I had known for years.
The diagnosis of my problem was both scary and relieving. At least I knew what it was and got medicine to help control it. But it never goes away. I’ve just learned to manage it. Medicine, exercise and practicing meditation and mindfulness help.
Recently, I had a conversation about all this with my best friend Mandy, who is a neuroscientist. (I know-badass, right? She’s working on a doctorate in neuroscience at the University of South Carolina.)
Outside my family, Mandy knows me best. She understands my challenges in dealing with anxiety, and she also knows the brain.
I vented about irrational anxiety, and she commented about how she’d love to study my brain, because such anxiety can be a result of the brain overreacting to stimuli.
I asked her to tell me more about the brain so I could understand what happens in my brain to create anxiety.
I have written about the science behind mindfulness and meditation, and from that I understand that the brain is trainable. Through meditation, you can rewire your brain.
Reducing anxiety was a big motivation for me to start meditating.
So my goal was to understand more about what’s going on in my brain to cause anxiety and how mindfulness/meditation might help.
Here’s what I’ve found.
“Anxiety isn’t a thought.”
Those were the first words out of Mandy’s mouth, and they resonated powerfully with me because it’s something I’ve known and haven’t been able to articulate. But it’s what I felt recently during my meditation.
If anxiety were just worrisome thinking, it might be somewhat easier to stop.
I’m constantly pushing away negative thoughts, like most of us. And through my studies, I’ve learned about the ego and how it impacts us daily. The ego makes those worrisome thoughts difficult to get away from.
But that’s not what my anxiety is about. I’m sure the ego doesn’t help, but the ego is more part of the general human condition. Irrational anxiety isn’t.
I feel my anxiety as a physical force. It’s there in my body even when I’m not consciously thinking anything bothersome. It manifests in uncontrollable physical symptoms-rapid heartbeat, hot or cold sweats, difficulty breathing or talking, a feeling of extreme fear or dread for no logical reason.
Fight or flight reaction
The feeling I just described is a result of the part of the brain that evolved early and is responsible for our fight or flight response, Mandy explained. It’s called the hindbrain.
If you saw a predator in the wild, your brain wouldn’t stop and consciously respond-it would react instinctually. That’s all caused by a very primitive part of the brain-it’s the one we share with other mammals.
And, as Dan Harris pointed out in his book “10 Percent Happier,” our brains can still have that paralyzing reaction to stimuli even though we’ve evolved past the need for some of it.
Mandy also explained different parts of the brain and what parts they play. For example, the amygdala is the anxiety center. It communicates more easily with the hindbrain, which prompts fight or flight.
“Sometimes, people are born with a higher level of anxiety sensitivity,” Mandy said. “It can be seen as early as birth. It’s a completely physical response. They can see it in newborns who react to stimuli-some babies are just more excitable than others.”
How do mindfulness/meditation help?
So if anxiety is at least partially a product of the wiring of the brain, mindfulness/meditation might be able to help because studies show that the practices can help rewire the brain.
Mandy explained functions of the neurons in the brain, and what sticks out is the phrase, “The neurons that fire together, wire together.”
I’ve heard this idea from several other people I’ve talked to during my research.
Essentially, every time we have a thought or behavior, it triggers the firing of neurons, which form a larger network in the brain.
And when you repeat an experience over and over, the brain triggers the same neurons over and over, creating a circuit. It’s how we learn. Once a neural path is engaged a few times, it becomes habitual.
Think of a sled that has to go through a thick layer of snow downhill. The first time it goes through, it will be difficult. But if that sled goes down the same path again and again, it becomes easier. That’s how the neurons work. They create paths, and the more they fire together, the easier it becomes.
And that’s where mindfulness and meditation come in, because the very practice of being mindful or sitting in meditation is training the brain, laying down new neural pathways and circuits. It exercises the brain and encourages it to focus on the present moment, which is another way to combat anxiety.
As I’ve written before, I unconsciously hoped that mindfulness/meditation would magically eliminate irrational anxiety.
In that recent case, all it did was let me know that I could sit for 30 minutes with this pulsing anxiety and not die.
And, like with the case of the sled in the snow, the more I do it, the easier it will become.
Brain rewiring for the win.
The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.