Break Free from Worry
You wake up in the morning feeling uneasy; almost a trembling in your stomach. What causes this bad feeling, you ask yourself? Could it be the difficult conversation you need to have with your spouse? Is it that you’re required to lay off someone at your company? Or are you worried about having enough money to educate your children or retire comfortably? Your mind goes from one worry to another nonstop! Then you start all over. What can you do?
The brain is designed to worry first and think through situations later. We tend to scan the environment for threat, even when we meet friendly people. In fact, you have the tendency to perceive threat in another person’s posture. The brain reacts to these signals and to other negative input more strongly than positive news. Ironically, this negative bias has served us by keeping us alive. When our ancestors were in hunter-gatherer tribes and saw some tan object in a distance, to mistake the tan rock for a lion only cost a few calories. To mistake a lion for a tan rock means you ended up lunch. Fewer of our happy-go-lucky ancestors survived long enough to pass their genes. We are the decedents of our quick- to- see- danger ancestors.
Even today, if you are a soldier fighting a war, this still gives you an advantage for survival. Unfortunately, most of our worries aren’t the kind that require that type of immediate negative reaction. In fact, your tendency to chronically worry can have a negative impact your physical and mental health. Chronic worry can raise your cholesterol level, blood pressure, lower your immune system, as well as lessening your quality of emotional life.
The good news is you don’t have to be a victim of your genes or learned habits of worry. Neither do you have to take drugs to move past the worry. The neuroscience research is filled with studies that demonstrate how to calm your worries and rumination with simple brain change tools.
One powerful tool is meditation. Years ago Richard Davidson, researcher at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, studied happiness. One of his subjects was a Tibetan monk whose happiness factor was far greater than the other subjects. Davidson was curious how this monk’s brain worked. He placed Matthieu Ricard through a number of brain imaging studies. What Davidson discovered was because Ricard meditated, the data from EEG’s and FMRI showed a calm and stable brain even when exposed to sudden bursts of loud noises. Because Davidson could look deeper into the brain with his studies, he found that Ricard’s amygdala, which normally is a part of the brain that signals danger, remained quiet during these times of stress. The amygdala sends signals to the right prefrontal cortex to send danger signals. This part of Ricard’s brain was quieter. The monk’s explanation was that he had meditated many hours in training to be a monk.
Davidson took another group of monk’s to study and found similar results. He wondered if the normal person could learn to calm the mind without spending hours meditating like the monks. He took a group of chemical plant workers and taught them how to do basic mindfulness meditation. In over a 12 week period, meditating 30 minutes a day, 6 days a week, this group reported less stress and worry and more periods of calm. Those who observed them noticed how much calmer they were as well. The FMRI’s showed the amygdala quieted as well the right prefrontal cortex. Further studies have replicated these findings and demonstrated a person can achieve these same results in a short time.
How do you meditate? Find a comfortable chair and sit down. Make sure your feet are on the floor. Place your hands comfortably on your lap. You can look with a soft gaze about 3 feet in front of you or close your eyes. Breathe normally. Begin to count your exhalations. Start with the first breath and give it the number 1 until you have counted 5 breaths. Begin again. Any time your mind wanders, whether you think about dinner, your schedule, or some self-judgment, just simply think the work, “thinking,” and let go of the thought and return to counting your breaths. We suggest begin by doing this meditation 5 minutes. You can set a timer to let you know when the time is up. Do this each day at approximately the same time. If you want at the end of the week, add one minute. The benefits of mediation are cumulative. Notice the subtle changes that begin to take place.
Carol and Bill will be teaching in Esalen July 26-31 2015. Join them in an amazing experience of regeneration and life change: Life at the Edge of Possibility
Carol and Bill are working on a new book that reveals new strategies based in neuroscience that work for overcoming worry.
As you look toward the summer for some fun and recreation, take some time to review your goals for the year and consider any adjustments you need.
Carol and Bill