“Never, in his brief cave life, had he encountered anything of which to be afraid. Yet fear was in him. It had come down to him from a remote ancestry through a thousand lives. It was a heritage he had received directly…through all the generations of wolves that had gone before. Fear!—that legacy of the Wild which no animal may escape… So the gray cub knew fear, though he knew not, the stuff of which fear was made.” — Jack London (1876-1916), White Fang
In my twenties, I would phone my parents every week, and they would ask how I was doing. I would tell them that everything in my life was going fine but that for some reason my stress was insufferable, that I was in a state of endless panic, and could feel the devastating effect it was having on my body and mind. I was taking graduate courses in clinical psychology and was very familiar with the Western approach to anxiety. Reading numerous books and articles gave me insight into my condition but no relief from it.
It wasn’t until I discovered Eastern and Stoic contemplative/meditative perspectives on stress that I found a way to start to counteract the damage that my tormented mind was inflicting on my body. I think you will find that these perspectives are intertwined with the content from the preceding chapters and that, used together, they will help you tame the unnerving impulses emanating from your brain’s unconscious fear centers.
Neuroscientists have identified seven primary emotions common to all mammals: care (nurturance), play (social joy), seeking (expectation), lust (sexual excitement), rage (anger), fear (anxiety), and grief (sadness).1
These emotions correspond to specific subcortical brain circuits. Each is embodied in a mechanistic device made of brain cells that sits below the level of the conscious cerebral cortex. Both the emotions and the brain areas responsible for them are highly conserved in all mammals and even extend to certain species of birds and reptiles. In their book, The Archaeology of Mind, pioneering researchers Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven explain how these genetically hardwired emotional systems, often referred to collectively as the limbic system, reflect ancestral memories with adaptive functions.
Each emotion is an information processing tool built-in to animals, rather than having to be learned by them. They each steer the progression of thought in a different direction to ensure the animal is responding to its environment with the right behaviors. The fear and grief circuits respond to hardship and, despite being intrinsic to survival, are one of the primary drivers of psychological pain in mammals. At this point, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that they are the emotions most closely tied to status conflict. As such, they elicit muscle tension and distressed breathing. This chapter will focus on how you can interrupt this elicitation by taking control of your thought process.
In newborn mammals, the fear system is only activated by a few things. These are instinctually fear-provoking stimuli and include pain, sudden movement, falling, suffocation, and loud noise. Mammals are afraid of these things by nature because they are predictive of death. After experiencing such stimuli, fear is generalized to the things that the animal has found can be associated with them.2 For instance, newborn rats are not afraid of their natural predators, such as cats, ferrets, and foxes. However, due to their strong instinctual fear of these predators’ odors, they learn to become afraid after being exposed to them. In fear learning experiments, rats can easily be trained to become frightened of a variety of neutral contextual stimuli (like Kleenex or sand) that were coincidentally present during their exposure to instinctual fear stimuli. For example, the smell of a ferret can make a rat deathly afraid of a toilet paper roll.
We, too, overgeneralize our fears. Horror movies are an apt example. They are horrible for our minds because they activate and strengthen our fear circuits. They cause us to associate instinctual fears with all kinds of neutral concepts far beyond the stereotypical hockey players, dolls, dark alleys, clowns, and old houses. Do scary movies further sensitize everyone’s fear circuit, or can some people watch them without repercussions? While I know it’s possible to have such good posture, composure, and breathing that watching a horror flick desensitizes you to fear, I’m certainly not there yet.
When scientists surgically place electrodes directly into the brain’s fear system (lateral and central amygdala, anterior medial hypothalamus, and periaqueductal gray) and stimulate it electrically, this incites an ominous, objectless fear, making the animal afraid of everything it encounters. Animals freeze at low levels of current and take precipitous flight at higher levels. When the same areas are stimulated in humans, they make comments such as “I’m scared to death,” “Somebody is now chasing me. I am trying to escape from him,” and “I feel an abrupt feeling of uncertainty just like entering a long, dark tunnel.”3
Repeated stimulation of the fear center, whether through experiences or electrodes, cause rats to become constitutionally inhibited, skittish, and timid. These rats engage less in play, feeding, sex, and grooming. Repetitive activation of the fear circuit is a surefire pathway to social defeat. When the fear system is activated, every nuance of your body language tells a potential predator that you are unstable and will make an easy lunch. The same body language tells potential competitors that they have the advantage over you. Clearly, the fear system can be insidious, and you don’t want its neural connections to strengthen or spread.
The Brain Circuits Responsible for Grief
The grief system is separate from the fear system. Just as the predation and aggression systems are dissociable (as discussed in Chapter 1), grief and fear involve distinct neural pathways. They even use different chemicals and respond differently to drugs. Electrical stimulation of brain regions containing grief circuitry shifts people into a state of desolation and despair that lifts rapidly when the current is turned off. The general anatomy of the human grief system (anterior cingulate, dorsomedial thalamus, and periaqueductal gray) overlaps extensively with the system responsible for separation calls in other animals.
Baby mammals and birds emit distress vocalizations when separated from their mothers. These are reflexive cries generated by the activation of their grief system made to help their mother locate them in space. We usually subdue the impulse to cry out, but much of our psychological pain involves the arousal of these same areas. Can you find the lost baby animal inside of you now? Can you feel the stress of the last week and how it puts pressure on your voice box as if you wanted to cry out and be rescued? Baby animals stop crying out, and their grief system shuts down as soon as their mother finds them. Our grief system can remain operative for years at a time. Of course, this leads to repetitive strain of the vocal tract, which Chapter 12 will show you how to overcome.
When baby monkeys are separated from their mothers for even just a few hours, they experience grief that can affect them for the rest of their lives. Some primatologists force these separations in “adverse rearing” experiments so that they can study the factors involved in risk and resilience to mental illnesses such as anxiety. Monkeys that have been separated from their mothers repeatedly develop chronic despair. As adults, they tend to have fewer social alliances, less social support, fewer grooming partners, impaired social skills, and reduced social competence.4 They are poor at finding sexual partners, make deficient parents, and are less affiliative and more aggressive toward their peers.5 They are also consistently more subordinate and inhabit rungs lower in the social hierarchy.6 These things are also often true of monkeys that have been neglected, abused, or orphaned. Allowing ourselves to wallow in a state of grief, loneliness, or discontentedness results in the same outcomes.
The emotions of fear and grief intend to keep us safe and from finding ourselves isolated. In most people, however, their signals are too intense and have stayed on for too long. Unchecked, fear and grief maintain a negative state of mind that cripples us socially and mutilates our reality. We need to convince the baby mammal in the center of our brains that we are not desperately trying to find our mother, that we are not lost, that we are not missing anything or anyone, and that we are exactly where we are supposed to be.
Illustration 7.1: A. Guinea pig brain cross-section; B. Human brain cross-section. Both illustrations show the fear system [amygdala (AM), hypothalamus (H), and periaqueductal gray (PAG)], and grief system [(anterior cingulate (AC), dorsomedial thalamus (DMT), and periaqueductal gray (PAG)]. Note that even though these two brains are not shown to scale, the relative size of the emotional areas is smaller in humans, and this reflects our capacity for deliberate emotional regulation.
Common to both the brain’s fear and grief systems is a panic center called the amygdala. This structure is tied to the sympathetic nervous system and acts to elevate muscle tension, blood pressure, stress hormones, and heart and respiration rates. The amygdala ensures that threatened animals respond to negative situations with energy. Its messages about fear override ongoing processing elsewhere in the brain and cause us to refocus our attention on threat. Many of our most negative behaviors occur when this subcortical nucleus assumes control over the brain’s higher cognitive centers in what is commonly referred to as an “amygdala highjack.”
Like the fear and grief systems that it potentiates, the amygdala is always active. It is constantly running its information processing algorithms, though usually at a low level. Brain scans show that the amygdala’s activity level rises when we feel threatened. 7 It is more active at rest in people with anxiety or depressive disorders and less active in those who report being happy and well adjusted. We can never be certain what will set it off, and we often are not even aware when it has been activated (for more on the amygdala, see Chapter 19).
The amygdala, and by extension the fear and grief systems, work on the smoke detector principle. Just like smoke detectors, they are calibrated to be so sensitive that they are liable to go off by accident. They are set this way because a few false alarms are tolerable if it ensures that we can recognize real peril when it arises. In terms of reproductive success, it is better to overreact to a non-threat than to underreact to a true threat.8 This is a reasonable predisposition for wild animals but an irrational one for modern humans. Today, we tolerate constant false alarms of the fear and grief systems even though we are rarely confronted by physical threats. This vestigial hair-trigger mechanism is the reason we are predisposed to negative thinking.
“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.” — Buddha (c. 563 BCE-483 BCE)
Humans are a special type of biological survival machine. Unlike viruses, bacteria, protists, fungi, plants, and most animals, we think. We are capable of simulating environmental situations so that we can predict the probable outcomes of our actions. We use these simulations to learn about and make sense of the events around us. In a perfect world, these models would always be cheerful and productive. Unfortunately, our brain’s threat centers influence us to model negative things so that we can respond appropriately when negative scenarios arise. This tendency to focus on the bad is often referred to as the negativity bias.9
The negativity bias makes us more likely to focus on a negative piece of information such as a criticism than a positive one such as a compliment.10 It results in superstitious, nonreflective fretting that rarely leads to insight or progress. Also, negative thoughts can be triggered rapidly but tend to linger for long periods. This is probably related to the poor rebound effect for diaphragmatic breathing, in which a minor threat can force a mammal to breathe shallowly within a single second, after which it takes several minutes for the breathing to return to normal.
Lamentably, rosy glasses don’t contribute to reproductive success in most ecological scenarios. Further, animals that don’t worry have poor survival outcomes. Studies that look at fish, mice, or primates that are bred or experimentally altered to become fearless show that these animals are great at acquiring resources but are the first to be eaten.11 On the other hand, the most anxious animals avoid predators and stay safe. However, they are not very productive (or reproductive) because they are constantly hiding and cowering. So, it was good for our ancestors to be somewhere between fearful and fearless. But what about today? What about you? Would you benefit from being fearless?
For thousands of millennia, our forebears were hunted, mauled, and devoured by monsters. These included saber-toothed cats, cave lions, cave hyenas, dire wolves, short-faced bears, five-meter-long snakes, giant lizards, and towering, flightless “terror birds.” However, anatomically modern humans employing expertly fashioned spears, clubs, axes, and knives were able to turn the tables. For the last 200 thousand years, we systematically drove these giant beasts of prey to extinction.12 We killed off many of these “Cenozoic megafauna” for food. In so doing, we made nearly the entire surface of Earth free from predators. In the last 10 thousand years, humans have replaced brutal disputes with courtroom judgments and “every man for himself” with legal rights. Compared to our ancestors, we should feel invulnerable. Our world is far safer now. Our genes and brains just don’t know it yet.
Humans today have virtually no natural predators. We fight among each other less than ever before, and cannibalism is finally out of fashion, but our brains’ fear and grief systems are still fully operational. The human brain is the pinnacle of evolution on Earth and the most complex object in the known galaxy, yet it is routinely preoccupied with unsubstantiated fear, vindictive anger, regret, victimization, resentment, and status anxiety. When you experience these emotions, thank your brain for trying to protect you but know that they are vestiges from a treacherous, anarchic past. Anxiety involves a tradeoff. The table below lists several similar tradeoffs discussed in this book.
Table 7.1 Behavior that was adaptive in our ancestral past is now maladaptive.
Our proclivity for chaotic and destructive thinking is largely involuntary. This is because, in most people, the brain’s fear and grief centers have been recruited to be an integral part of the “default mode network.” When we think about unfavorable social scenarios while under sympathetic upregulation day after day, we deeply etch the threat centers into our wiring. This makes it so that antagonistic conflict runs on autopilot. The default mode network is active during self-referential thought but is turned off whenever our attention turns to a task or distraction.13 For many of us, the only time we have a reprieve from negative thoughts is when a diversion, such as the television or social media, drowns out our inner voice.
Many individuals with severe PTSD extrovert only when they talk about their trauma. They may be reticent and withdrawn most of the time but come alive when relating stories about being accosted, bombed in a rice paddy, or abused as a child. I, too used to only become lively when I spoke about the bad things that happened to me. I would pick the most negative topic possible and use it to whip myself into a frenzy. This made most of my conversations with friends (interactions that are supposed to be uplifting) incredibly draining. My tendency to talk about unsettling events was reinforcing my social anxiety. Next time you are with a friend, try not talking about anything irksome or disagreeable and watch how cool it helps you become.
Many of us define ourselves in terms of how tough or unique our problems are. This is due to our inherited tendency to become addicted to trauma. During fearful episodes, the brain secretes opioid chemicals that temporarily alleviate the sensation of pain. This “fear-induced analgesia” is the reason why some of us are, paradoxically, addicted to fear. We find it thrilling. This is why we can become addicted to scary movies or to focusing on negative events. It is like an animal in a cage that engages in self-injurious behavior just to stay stimulated. Almost all monkeys caged alone develop self-biting, self-slapping, and head-banging tendencies. Analyze the perverse gratification you get from thinking and talking about negative things. Isn’t this something you could live without?
Confiding in others in a relaxed, supportive environment can be highly therapeutic. However, inundating others with negativity just winds us up further. Mulling over upsetting scenarios rather than desensitizing you, usually just sensitizes you to them further. Let us differentiate between what sensitizes us and desensitizes us.
“Accept whatever comes to you woven in the pattern of your destiny, for what could more aptly fit your needs?” — Marcus Aurelius (121-180)
It is possible to prune the fear and grief centers from your brain’s default network. By intentionally reframing our experiences, we can remodel the existing biological connections and reprogram our thinking. Even the simplest popular notions about managing negative thinking can be applicable. Use these: “it’s not that bad,” “mistakes make me better,” “don’t fight reality,” “everything is temporary,” “this too will pass,” “let’s find the silver lining,” “everything happens for a reason,” “I learn from my mistakes,” “time heals all wounds,” or “I never mind.” Reframing bad experiences solders resilience into our brain’s circuitry and cuts out the elements that do not serve us.
The following are three especially powerful perspectives that come straight from Eastern philosophy that have helped me reframe my circumstances and rewire my worldview: nonjudgment, nonresistance, and nonattachment.
These three perspectives are very powerful because they force us to reanalyze our predicaments from a viewpoint inconsistent with ego, status, or defeat. This is why they are also incompatible with distressed breathing and persistent muscle tension. Due to our “experience-dependent neuroplasticity,” mental states become mental traits. Thus, using these concepts to reconceptualize your world will weaken the influence of fear and grief and hardwire your brain for peace.
“Would you have a great empire? Rule over yourself.” — Publilius Syrus (85 BCE-43 BCE)
The next few sections discuss meditation and meditative techniques you can use to ease your mind and body. Meditation is an internal effort to self-regulate the mind. During meditation sessions, participants sustain attention toward breathing, bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts. When they find their attention has wandered into phobias and compulsions, they are supposed to acknowledge this and then let go of them to refocus on the breath or empty the mind.14 Calm inaction and desireless patience result in the domestication of the brain’s barbarian emotional systems. Repeated failures in the first several sessions are lessons in humility and patience. Adopting a consistent meditative practice will lead you to develop self-mastery of thought—the most real and lasting power.
Illustration 7.2: A. Meditator; B. Rabid dog; C. Blood sucking leech; D. Smoke detector.
Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha, spent six years meditating on his suffering in an attempt to understand peace. He finally concluded that suffering is not caused by either misfortune or divine punishment but rather by thought patterns.15 This led him to teach others that suffering derives from craving and dissatisfaction and that the only way to stop suffering is to stop wanting more and to stop wanting to impress others. Complete control of the mind is known in Buddhism and Hinduism as nirvana. The literal translation of nirvana is “extinguishing the fire”—the fire of worry, yearning, and longing. Nirvana is also defined as serenity, salvation, heaven, or an indestructible sense of well-being in which ego, hatred, and greed have been overcome. Many spiritual masters think of nirvana, and true enlightenment, to be the end of emotional suffering. I believe it is attainable for everyone.
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” — Shakespeare (1564-1616)
“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” — Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
We feel like we control our stream of thought, but we don’t. Most of our thinking is directed by reflex-like impulses beyond our supervision. Trying to control the parade of associations is much like trying to control a dream. Our desires and discouragements are endless because they don’t stem from our objective reality but the state of our default network. We ruminate about negative circumstances in a pitiful and inefficacious attempt to change individual thoughts about them for the better, but instead, we must change our overall thinking pattern. To start this process, observe your thoughts as if you were an outsider.
In life, bad things are inevitable. Just don’t absorb them. Don’t hold them in your face, stomach, or heart. Let the pain pass right through you. Just because it would upset others or would have upset you in the past doesn’t mean you should let it upset you now. Ask yourself: “Do I hold my amygdala’s panic button out for the world to press?” Ask yourself honestly whether you want to be a victim of your life’s events or a prisoner in your mind. If you think that weeping or throwing a tantrum over misfortune is ineffectual, realize that internal suffering is, too.
When someone honks at us, our heart rate rises. After an argument, we have a headache. When we are mistreated, we can’t sleep. When someone challenges us, our jaw contracts and our stomach churns. What do all these things have in common? Mental perseveration. We can’t stop thinking about unpleasant encounters. By continuing to mull over these incidents, you maintain the tension. But, if you bar yourself from searching for justifications to launch a counterattack, you can return to homeostasis in seconds.
Our struggle with peer politics is Kafkaesque in the sense that it is at once mundane, senseless, inescapable, and unresolvable. We keep struggling with the ramifications of the pecking order even though finding some semblance of control of it is impossible. There is no solace or understanding to be reached in perseverating on it. Just because they say it doesn’t mean it’s true. Not responding is not a loss. Getting the last word is meaningless. Thinking about just how wrong what that person did is will not change anything.
When you find yourself engaged in negative thinking, imagine yourself: 1) dropping it like it is a scalding item that you don’t want to be burned by, or 2) placing it on the ground like a heavy box of rotten food. Either way, walk away from it like the unnecessary burden that it is. Pain isn’t optional, but holding on to pain is. When you simulate negative scenarios in your mind, your brain and body operate as if what you are imagining is really occurring. You tense up and carry the fight around with you. But, if you can think of taking such misfortunes “philosophically” without suffering, you can protect your chakra-like modules from unnecessary strain.
“Who sees all beings in his own self, and his own self in all beings loses fear…. When a sage sees this great unity and his self has become all things, what delusion and what sorrow can ever be near him?” — Upanishads
“Breathe. Let go. And remind yourself that this very moment is the only one you know you have for sure. Oprah Winfrey (1954)
Mindfulness is a meditative practice that has grown out of the Buddhist tradition. A person who is meditating mindfully attempts to become aware of their surroundings, thoughts, and actions without being critical.17 Kabat-Zinn has influenced many medical treatment centers around the world to use mindfulness meditation to help their patients counteract psychological stress, pain, and illness. He conceptualizes mindfulness as a state in which one is aware of and focused on the reality of the present moment, accepting and acknowledging it without being frustrated by thoughts about or emotional reactions to it. One of the key elements involved in achieving mindfulness is to reside in “the now,” in choiceless awareness. Nonjudgment, nonresistance, and nonattachment are fundamental to living mindfully.
In therapeutic settings, mindfulness has been shown to alleviate stress and accentuate self-efficacy and confidence.18 Consistent mindfulness has even been shown to increase gray matter in brain areas involved in subduing emotions, including those that inhibit the amygdala.19 Peer-reviewed articles published in a wide variety of established scientific journals have yielded data evincing that mindfulness techniques have demonstrated substantial clinical benefits for individuals suffering from a variety of mental and physical disorders. Meditation training is used to palliate anxiety, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, cardiovascular disease, addiction, bipolar disorder, insomnia, intractable depression, and many others.20 For these reasons, substantial US federal funding has been used to produce mindfulness programs and workshops in schools, prisons, hospitals, military bases, and veterans’ centers.
Living in the moment is what dominant mammals do. They are not bothered by past failures or worries about the future. They are not concerned that things will suddenly go wrong. They believe that they have what it takes to handle any situation or confrontation. They trust that their instincts and first reactions will solve any problem. The winner’s mindset is meditative in this sense. As a winner, approach everything in your life confidently as if you intend to succeed before you even start.
When you relax, you lose a degree of mental speed and intensity. This is because, during stress, brain chemicals such as dopamine, noradrenaline, and cortisol accelerate the brain’s processing speed. On the order of seconds to minutes, they can improve performance on a variety of mental tasks.21 Everyone knows this implicitly, and many people are afraid to relax because they don’t want a lapse in their processing ability. However, on longer periods (from hours to months), these same chemicals wreak havoc on mental function. When stress hormone levels remain high for several days, the brain starts to remodel its architecture, compromising concentration, learning, and memory.22
As we have discussed, the most potent source of stress for primates is social conflict. Mammals that are socially stressed release stress hormones that preside over a host of negative neurobiological alterations.23[iii] The birth of new neurons (neurogenesis) is suppressed, connections between neurons (dendrites) atrophy, neural learning (synaptic plasticity) is impaired, and cell death (apoptosis) increases.24 As illustrated in the figure below, the brain cells of socially defeated mammals show significant deterioration.
Illustration 7.3: A. The neuron on top is a normal neuron from a tree shrew. It has expansive connections to other neurons; B. The neuron on the bottom comes from a tree shrew that has been exposed to 28 days of domination by a member of its species. The reduction in dendritic branching is quite apparent. These changes can be reversed if this shrew’s stress hormone levels are reduced.
Two of the most pivotal brain areas for high-level thought, the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, are damaged the most in humans and other mammals by the stress hormone cortisol.25 Stress is physically destructive to the brain cells in these areas. The damage reduces learning ability, problem solving, creativity, impulse control, and long- and short-term memory.26 Like muscle cells, brain cells perform well under acute stress but falter under chronic stress.
Anxiety and nervousness create a distracting form of mental noise. People with anxiety disorders exhibit slower reaction times in complex cognitive tasks, which is thought to derive from noise in the individual’s information processing stream. Stress causes attentional deficits and instability in basic cognitive operations. When you meditate, try to quiet this mental noise with proper breathing, zero reactivity, and nonjudgmental awareness of the pressure on your mind to keep switching between neurotic thoughts and impulses.
Contrasting with the cell damage done to higher-order processing areas, brain cells in the amygdala and the brain’s fear centers are strengthened by cortisol and chronic stress.27 This heightens fear learning and intensifies fearful memories. I have written articles about how these detrimental brain changes may be adaptive for wild mammals, allowing them to switch from a controlled/attentive processing strategy to an automatic/preattentive one.28 Becoming disinhibited, impulsive, and opportunistic in an adverse prehistoric setting may have been adaptive. In modern times, however, the cognitive repercussions of excessive stress not only decrease our quality of life but also impair our ability to function professionally.
Mental Relaxation Leads to Mental Clarity in the Long Term
After years of stress, my mind was always racing. I could tell that my thoughts were fragmented. I became all too aware that chronic stress was causing not only problems at work and in my relationships but also mental illness. My working memory declined steeply, and I began to experience perceptual aberrations. It got so bad that I even experienced minor auditory hallucinations. You can read more about these experiences on my blog.
I felt that being on constant high alert was protecting me, but it was maiming me. As you allow yourself to relax, you may feel in your gut that you are not vigilant enough or notice that your response times are delayed. For years, I was afraid of becoming too calm. I was worried that I wouldn’t jump to the right conclusion or be able to talk fast enough to communicate properly. I could tell that using adrenaline spikes helped me find words, speak quickly, and put together complex sentences. I was afraid that being calm would make people think I was dim-witted or discourteous. One of the biggest steps toward becoming stress-free was realizing that I don’t need fevered anxiety to keep me alert or friendly.
When cortisol levels lower for weeks or months, the cerebral cortex exhibits a remarkable capacity for healing. Many of the cellular changes of stress that compromise intelligence reverse completely. Mammals in low-stress conditions produce large amounts of beneficial neurochemicals and brain growth factors.29 The absence of stressors stimulates neural stem cell proliferation in the learning areas of the brain.30 As you know from Chapter 2, the relaxation response, which can be induced by meditation and breathing practices, is characterized by a distinct gene transcription profile.31 This means that relaxation results in the expression of an entirely different set of genes designed to build the mind and body up, as opposed to tearing it down.
When you start operating without stress, you will feel dull for a few days. However, after a few weeks and months of living at this calmer level, you will find yourself regaining mental aptitude. I feel my memory and attention are better than they have been in over a decade. I attribute this to meditation, mindfulness, and, once again, to diaphragmatic retraining.
“If a man’s mind becomes pure, his surroundings will also become pure.” — Buddha (c. 563 BCE – 483 BCE)
Judging, resisting, attaching, and craving make us tense and cause us to breathe shallowly. Shallow breathing and muscle tension are preparatory. Because they keep us on guard for negative occurrences, we can’t help but think negative thoughts. When you start breathing diaphragmatically, you are sending your body a signal that nothing bad can happen. Diaphragmatic breathing allows us to coexist with our thoughts peacefully, and it is the most reliable way to find rest in the present moment. Many clinical researchers agree that breathing diaphragmatically fills the mind with unprovocative content.32 It disconnects you from the fear, grief, and startle systems of the brain that seek out desperate, last-ditch tactics.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a core component of most meditative practices, especially mindfulness. Mindfulness practitioners notice the sensations arising from the stomach and chest and listen to the sound of the air as it passes through the nostrils. Focus is placed on taking longer, steadier breaths and on the abdomen’s movement to ensure that the diaphragm is engaged. To this end, practitioners often think about the word “rising” when breathing in and the word “falling” when breathing out. Some visualize inhaling positivity and exhaling negativity. To promote belly breathing, they also imagine that the air they breathe enters the navel, fills the stomach, and then exits the navel. If one becomes distracted from the breath, they acknowledge this nonjudgmentally and return to focused breathing. Mindfulness is also commonly combined with progressive relaxation and episodes of scanning the body for the tension we experienced in Chapter 5.
“Being aware of your breath forces you into the present moment—the key to all inner transformation. Whenever you are conscious of the breath, you are absolutely present. You may also notice that you cannot think and be aware of your breathing. Conscious breathing stops your mind. But far from being in a trance or half asleep, you are fully awake and highly alert. You are not falling below thinking, but rising above it.” — Eckhart Tolle (b. 1948)
The quote above reaffirms the thinking of many spiritual leaders. They know that breath awareness helps us refrain from gasping and shallow breathing. However, mere breath awareness is not enough to shift you into a parasympathetic state. Paced breathing is much more effective in this regard. Paced breathing allows you to permanently lengthen, deepen, and smoothen your breath, which does much more to rectify your thought patterns. Moreover, once the functioning of your diaphragm is improved, you don’t have to worry about staying aware of your breathing or constantly living in the now. Diaphragmatic retraining makes it so that you don’t have to hide from the past or future or retreat to the present moment just to stop negative thinking.
Before I started paced breathing, my internal monologue was full of argumentation. I often could not stop myself from playing out the most dismaying and socially awkward events in my head. I constantly fought people in my mind, saying spiteful things that I would never say in real life. I would practice ridiculing people that had wronged me in an attempt to provoke an altercation. I was trying to fine-tune my angry personality to be convincing, quick-witted, and sharp-tongued. I was practicing hate.
This had been going on for years, but it ended very abruptly. Only one month after I started paced breathing with a breath metronome, my inner speech lost its violent negativity. I no longer had any “hot buttons” for people to press, and I felt nothing that anyone could say could make me lose my cool. Years of meditation, breath awareness, and living in the present moment led to modest gains. My entire ethos was transformed by only a single month of paced breathing 20 minutes a day.
When a thought shortens your breath, it is given priority. Upsetting thoughts stimulate the release of the brain chemical dopamine. Dopamine then amplifies the thought’s vexing aspects by causing the neurons involved to fire for longer periods. This extended cellular activity is a phenomenon in neuroscience known as sustained firing.33 Thus, dopamine makes sure that the subjects we deem important (either because they are rewarding or punishing) are kept active in mind longer. Whether you are excited about something going well or worried about it going wrong, dopamine causes the emotional elements of the situation to be retained in the stream of thought. Because the relevant brain cells keep firing, you can’t help but think about those elements for a while34
The thoughts that upset us are lasting due to our neurochemistry. However, when you don’t allow upsetting thoughts to decrease the length of your breath (as when paced breathing), the startle doesn’t happen, the dopamine doesn’t surge, and the activity of the neurons that code for the upsetting aspects of the thought is not sustained. The thought enters and then quickly exits the mind without feeling compelling. Any time you recognize a disturbing thought forming, focus on prolonging the breath and eliminating the discontinuities. This will negate the thought and make it (and others like it) less likely to revisit you in the future. Lucky for us, this won’t diminish dopamine’s response to positive thoughts, which works via a different mechanism.
When you practice paced breathing, pay attention to your train of thought and notice how your mind refuses to cling to worry. An alarming idea that would usually capture your attention now seems inconsequential. This will permanently alter how you feel about that topic by physically changing its memory trace in the brain. “Consolidation” is the name for the complex brain processes responsible for turning a fleeting experience into a long-term memory. “Reconsolidation” is the name for the re-evaluative process that occurs whenever a memory is recalled.35 Emotional reconsolidation happens each time something is remembered36 and it can be either positive or negative.
Psychotherapists coax patients into remembering and talking about their past traumas, trying to get the patient to reprocess the memory in a better light, reconsolidating it in a way that is not as troublesome37[iii] When one speaks to a friendly therapist seated in a comfortable chair, that safe environment reframes the traumatic memory. Similarly, every memory you recall during a paced breathing episode will be retrieved in a more relaxed affective context. Memories that are normally retrieved under sympathetic dominance are now being retrieved and reconsolidated under parasympathetic dominance, systematically desensitizing you. This is how paced breathing rewires the default mode network, deflates fear and grief, and reconstructs personhood.
I recommend that you try engaging in paced diaphragmatic breathing for two full hours. It will heighten parasympathetic activity, placing you into a peaceful mental and physiological state. Every thought you have in this state will be reframed and reconsolidated as harmless. After my first hour of uninterrupted paced breathing with a metronome, I could tell everything my mind turned to was cleansed with peace.
You may find some psychological roadblocks. Many people start to panic when their senses tell them that they are “too calm.” However, if you keep breathing to the metronome, you will pass through these blockages. The first time I set out to do this, my mind unconsciously and vividly recalled three of the most traumatic incidents of my life within the first hour. One was a disagreement with a group of friends, one was a time of personal embarrassment, and one was a situation that led to a violent attack. These memories made me desperately want to switch back to distressed breathing.
It was almost as if my brain was saying: “Jared, you are calmer than you have been in years right now. Is it safe to be this calm? Remember these terrifying circumstances that upregulated your cardiovascular stress system? Is there a good reason to relax in the face of these past challenges? How do you you know these threats will not recur?” I tried to reassure my body that it was okay to sink below these arousing scenarios. All I had to do was keep breathing to the metronome. Those three harrowing incidents never bothered me again.
You might want to combine extended diaphragmatic breathing with a venting session. You could do this during psychotherapy, during a talk with a friend, or in writing. The subjective intensity of negative emotions diminishes when feelings are put into words38 and studies show that there is something highly therapeutic about putting these words on paper. Writing about past hardships has demonstrated powerful clinical benefits.39 It is called writing exposure therapy. The emotional sting is thought to be extracted when a person reconsolidates and recontextualizes negative memories in this way.40 You should find that writing or speaking about past adversity while paced breathing brings resolution and finality to lingering woes.
The mind is the master controller of an intricate multidirectional communication system linking the brain, immune system, heart, lungs, and all the body’s organs. The physical health of these parts is largely determined by your mental outlook and your outlook is determined by your breathing pattern. Most people operate on the unconscious assumption that we need shallow breathing, muscular tension, and the accompanying panicked thoughts to stay safe, come across as intelligent, be socially appropriate, avoid rejection, and remain occupationally productive. This is rarely true, even in the short run.
- The fear and grief centers of our brains have been recruited as part of the default network. This makes negative thinking exceedingly difficult to stop.
- Disengage from fear and grief by repeatedly envisioning yourself as nonjudgmental, nonresistant, and nonattached.
- Learn to reframe stressors, live in the present moment, and recognize thoughts for what they are: just thoughts.
- The worst-case scenarios that we worry about so much rarely come to pass.
- Recognize that many of your concerns are just defensive pessimism disguised as practicality.
- Negative thinking is a trance. Snap yourself out of it.
- Acute stress may give you a slight, temporary, advantage in some immediate situations, but chronic stress is a disadvantage in all situations.
- Keep in mind that the calmer you are, the better prepared you are to respond to adversity.
- Recognize that you do not need anxiety to be alert, cogent, and socially functional.
- Negative thoughts broadcast unhealthy biological signals to the entire body. The more airtime you give to negative thinking, the unhealthier you will become.
- Stressed thinking causes important brain areas, like the hippocampus and PFC, to physically degenerate, whereas the absence of stress causes them to flourish.
- Don’t let the downsides of stress as described here cause you to fear stress or anxiety. You might even find that your anxiety calms if you allow yourself to feel free to be as anxious as you want.
- Prolonged paced diaphragmatic breathing strips negative thoughts and memories of their ability to abduct your train of thought.
- There is no good reason to be reprocessing insecurities from months or years ago. If you have already made an effort to compensate for them, let them go.
- Try being “dead calm,” first by yourself and then with others.
- Minimize replaying or imagining negative social scenarios, especially confrontational or violent ones.
- Be very calm when you model social interactions in your head.
- Be very calm in social situations. Retain complete composure. Make being calm a priority in your life, eclipsing the fear of appearing rude or unsophisticated.
- Expect that the most relaxed version of you has what it takes to resolve any scenario.
- The dominant monkey is not stressed because it believes in its ability to deal with whatever new hardship comes along. It trusts that it doesn’t have to overthink things to react adeptly to any circumstance.
Classic Stoic Quotes
“Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been.” — Marcus Aurelius
“What ought one to say then as each hardship comes? I was practicing for this, I was training for this.” — Epictetus
“The trials you encounter will introduce you to your strengths. Remain steadfast… and one day you will build something that endures: something worthy of your potential.” ― Epictetus
“On the occasion of every accident that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use.” ― Epictetus
“Here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to feel bitter: not, ‘This is misfortune,’ but ‘To bear this worthily is good fortune.’” ― Marcus Aurelius
“You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you.” ― Marcus Aurelius
“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality. You want to live but do you know how to live? You are scared of dying but tell me, is the kind of life you lead really any different to being dead?” ― Seneca
“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.” ― Seneca
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.” – Epictetus
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” ― Marcus Aurelius
“Constant misfortune brings this one blessing: to whom it always assails, it eventually fortifies.” ― Seneca
“If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it.” ― Marcus Aurelius
“Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours. ― Marcus Aurelius
Classic Quotes from the Buddha
“We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”
“If you light a lamp for somebody, it will also brighten your path.”
“The whole secret of existence is to have no fear.”
“Pain is certain, suffering is optional.”
“Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”
“It is a man’s own mind, not his enemy or foe, that lures him to evil ways.”
“There is nothing so disobedient as an undisciplined mind, and there is nothing so obedient as a disciplined mind.”
“Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts.
The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.“
“To keep the body in good health is a duty…otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.“
“If the problem can be solved why worry? If the problem cannot be solved worrying will do you no good.“
“A man is not called wise because he talks and talks again; but is he peaceful, loving and fearless then he is in truth called wise.“
“Even as a solid rock is unshaken by the wind, so are the wise unshaken by praise or blame.“
“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.“
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