The fear and grief centers of our brain have been recruited as part of the default network. This makes negative thinking very difficult to stop consciously. Escape this trap by 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. Stressed thinking causes important brain areas to physically degenerate, whereas the absence of stress causes them to flourish. Recognize that you do not need anxiety to be alert, cogent and socially functional. Prolonged paced diaphragmatic breathing strips negative thoughts and memories of their ability to abduct your train of thought.
Chapter 7: Thinking Peacefully
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, White Fang (p. 52)
“If a man’s mind becomes pure, his surroundings will also become pure.”
-Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C
In my twenties I would phone each of my parents on a weekly basis and they would ask how I was doing. I would tell them that everything was going well, but that my stress was insufferable. I would tell them that I was in a state of endless panic and I could feel it devastating 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 I gained insight into my conditions, but no relief from them. It wasn’t until I discovered Eastern and Stoic contemplative perspectives on stress that I found a way to counteract the damage that my stressed-out mind was wreaking on my body. This involved taming, and domesticating the unnerving thoughts emanating from my brain’s subconscious fear centers.
The Brain Circuits Responsible for Fear and Grief
Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp identified 7 ancient regions of mammalian brains containing the following emotional or affective systems: care (nurturance), fear (anxiety), grief (sadness), lust (sexual excitement), play (social joy), rage (anger), and seeking (expectation) (Panksepp, 2012). These subcortical (below the conscious cerebral cortex) brain circuits operate automatically, are highly conserved in all mammals and even extend to certain species of birds and reptiles. In his book, The Archaeology of Mind, Jaak explains how these genetically hardwired emotional systems reflect ancestral memories with adaptive functions. They are a set of information processing tools that are built-in, rather than having to be learned by each generation. The fear and grief networks, intrinsic to survival, are one of the main sources of psychological pain in mammals. At this point you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that they potentiate muscle tension, and nondiaphragmatic breathing.
In newborn mammals the fear system is only activated by a few unconditioned stimuli, things that are instinctually fear provoking. Then with experience with such stimuli, fear is generalized to the things that the animal has found surround these stimuli. For instance, newborn rats are not afraid of their natural predators such as cats, ferrets and foxes. However, because of their strong instinctual fear of these predator’s odors they learn to become afraid after they are exposed to them. Like humans, rats also inherently fear pain, sudden movements and loud noises. In fear learning experiments rats can be easily 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.
We too overgeneralize our fears. Horror movies are a good example. They are horrible for our minds because they activate, and strengthen fear circuits. They cause us to associate instinctual fears to all kinds of neutral concepts; not just hockey players, dolls, clowns, and old houses. Many of us are absorbed by scary movies because during fearful episodes the brain secretes opioid chemicals that temporarily alleviate the sensation of pain. This “fear induced analgesia” is one reason why many of us are, paradoxically, addicted to fear.
When scientists place electrodes into the 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 (Panksepp, 2012).” 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. Repeated stimulation of the fear center will cause rats to become constitutionally inhibited, depressed and timid. The rats engage less in play, feeding, sex and grooming. Repetitive activation of the fear circuit is a surefire pathway to social defeat.
The grief system is separate from the fear system. Just as the predation and aggression systems are dissociable (as discussed in Chapter 1), fear and grief involve distinct neural pathways, which use different chemicals, and respond differently to drugs. Electrical stimulation of brain regions that contain grief circuitry shift people into a state of 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 they are separated from their mothers. These are reflexive cries generated by the activation of their grief system. 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 pressure of life stress on your voice box? Chapter 12 will show you how to overcome grief’s stranglehold on your voice. Baby animals stop crying out as soon as their mother finds them and their grief system shuts down. Our grief system can remain operative for years at a time. Unchecked fear and grief maintain a negative state of mind that mutilates our personal reality.
A. Guinea pig brain cross section. B. Human brain cross section. Both brains have the fear system (amygdala (AM), hypothalamus (H), and periaqueductal gray (PAG)), and grief system (anterior cingulate (AC), dorsomedial thalamus (DMT), and periaqueductal gray (PAG)) marked.
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 thus acts to elevate heart rate, respiration rate, blood pressure and adrenaline. This is the brain center that triggers nondiaphragmatic breathing. The amygdala ensures that threatened animals respond quickly to their environment with speed and vigor. 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 higher cognitive centers in the brain in what is commonly referred to as an “amygdala highjack.” Like the fear and grief systems, the amygdala is always active, though usually at a low rate. This rate rises when we feel threatened. It is more active at rest in people with anxiety or depressive disorders and less active in people that report being happy and well-adjusted. We can never be sure what will set it off and we often are not aware when it has been activated (more on this in Chapter 19).
Each of these negative systems work on the smoke detector principle. Just like smoke detectors, they are calibrated to be very sensitive 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 clearly better to overreact to a nonthreat than to underreact to a true threat (Nesse & Young, 2000). This is a good predisposition for wild animals, but a bad one for modern humans.
The Negativity Bias and Default Mode
“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
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 probable outcomes of our actions. We use these simulations to model, learn about, and make sense of the events around us. Unfortunately for us, the threat centers of our brain predispose us to model negative things so that we can respond appropriately if the scenario actually arises. This tendency to focus on the bad is often referred to as the negativity bias (Baumeister et al., 2001). This bias makes us more likely to remember and focus on a negative piece of information such as a criticism than a positive one such as a compliment (Vaish, Grossman, and Woodward, 2008). It leads to nonreflective fretting that never leads to insight or progress. Studies also show that negative emotions reduce our level of well-being more than positive emotions increase it. The negativity bias is probably related to the poor rebound effect for diaphragmatic breathing where a minor threat can force a mammal to breathe shallowly within one second’s time, but then it takes several minutes for the shallow breathing to subside.
Sadly rosy glasses don’t contribute to reproductive success in most ecological scenarios. In fact, many animals that don’t worry have low 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. On the other hand, the most stressed animals avoid predators and stay safe. However, they are not very productive (or reproductive) because they are constantly hiding and cowering.
The conquest of the Earth by our prehistoric ancestors is perhaps the most momentous feat ever achieved by humankind. Most of our history, man was never safe from hungry predators. For tens of thousands of years we hunted giant beasts of prey (Cenozoic megafauna), and made nearly the entire surface of the Earth safe to walk on. All attempts to increase human safety since have been very minor in comparison. In the last few thousand years humans have replaced brutal disputes with courtroom judgements, and violence with legal rights. Compared to our ancestors, we should feel invulnerable. Humans no longer have any natural predators, and cannibalism is finally out of fashion, but our brain’s fear and grief systems are still highly operational.
Many individuals with severe PTSD only extrovert 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, being bombed in a rice paddy, or being abused as a child. I used to only become lively when I spoke about the bad things that happened to me. Many of us define ourselves in terms of how tough or unique our problems are. We have an inherited tendency to become addicted to trauma and find pleasure in pain. Analyze the perverse pleasure you get from negative thinking. It is not unlike 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.
Our brains are the pinnacle of evolution on the Earth, and yet they are routinely concerned with things like: vindictive anger, regret, victimization, resentment and status anxiety. This chaotic and destructive thinking is largely involuntary. This is because, in most people, the fear and grief centers of the brain have been recruited to be an integral part of the default mode network. When we model unfavorable social scenarios under sympathetic upregulation day after day, we deeply etch, or burn the threat centers into the wiring. This makes it so that conflict and pride run on autopilot. The default mode network is active during introspection and self-referential thought, but is turned off whenever our attention turns to a task. Because of this, for many of us, the only time we have a reprieve from negative thoughts is when diversion, such as the television, drowns out our inner voice.
Be Nonjudgmental, Nonresistant and Nonattached
“Accept whatever comes to you woven in the pattern of your destiny, for what could more aptly fit your needs?” Marcus Aurelius
We don’t want to excise our brain’s threat centers completely, but we do want to exclude them from the default network. By consciously reframing our experiences we can remodel the existing biological connections to reprogram our thinking. Reframing solders new elements into the circuitry and cuts out the elements that do not serve us. Even the simplest popular notions about managing negative thinking can be very helpful. Use these: “it’s not that bad,” “it could be much worse,” “mistakes make me better,” “don’t fight reality,” “everything is temporary,” “this too will pass,” “I learned something,” “time heals all wounds,” or “I never mind.” The following are three especially powerful perspectives that come straight from Eastern philosophy that have helped me to change my worldview.
These three perspectives are very powerful because they force us to reanalyze our predicaments from a viewpoint that is incompatible with status, defeat or ego. Meditating on these constructs will create advantageous neurological modifications. Because of experience-dependent neuroplasticity, mental states becomes mental traits. The more you use these concepts to conceptualize your world the more you hardwire your brain for peace.
Meditate to Calm the Mind
“Would you have a great empire? Rule over yourself.” Publilius Syrus
Meditation is an internal effort to self-regulate the mind. During meditation sessions participants sustain attention toward breathing, body sensations, emotions, and thoughts. When they find that their attention has wandered to neurotic phobias and compulsive obsessions they are supposed to acknowledge this, and then let go of them, in order to refocus on the breath. Calm inaction and desireless patience result in domestication of the brain’s wild emotional systems. Repeated failures in the first several sessions are lessons in humility and patience. Rather than being the slave to your emotions, wants and impulses be the emperor. Use meditative practices to develop self-mastery, the only real and lasting power.
Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha, spent six years meditating on his suffering in an attempt to understand peace. He finally came to the conclusion that suffering is not caused by either misfortune or divine punishment but rather by ones thought patterns. This led him to teach others that suffering derives from craving and dissatisfaction, and that the only way to stop suffering is to stop yearning. 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 craving. Nirvana is also defined as serenity, salvation, heaven, or an indestructible sense of well-being in which hatred and greed have been overcome. Many spiritual masters think of nirvana, and true enlightenment, to simply be the end of emotional suffering. Try pursuing this mind state in the dark room you created in exercise 12 from Chapter 4.
Watch the Thinker
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Shakespeare
We feel like we control our thought process, but we don’t. Most of our thought is directed by reflex-like impulses beyond our supervision. Trying to control thought is like trying to control a dream, it is onerous. Our desires and discouragements are endless and this is because they don’t stem from our objective reality but from the state of our default network. We ruminate in a pitiful and inefficatious attempt to change our individual thoughts, but instead we must change the thinking pattern. One of the best ways to do this is to observe each of your thoughts as if you were an outsider.
In life, bad things transpire. Don’t absorb them. Don’t hold them in your face or your stomach. Let the pain pass right through you. Just because it would upset others, or would have upset you in the past, doesn’t mean that you should let it upset you now. Ask yourself: “Do I hold the keys to my fear and grief systems out for the world to turn, asking to be made an anxious mess, or a hostile, belligerent fool?” Tell yourself: “I should decide now if I want to be a victim of my circumstances and a prisoner in my own mind.” If you think that weeping, or throwing a tantrum over a misfortune is an immature, ineffectual response, then realize that even hidden suffering is too.
When you simulate negative scenarios in the mind some parts of the brain and body operate as if what you are imagining is really occurring. To counteract this, think of taking your misfortunes “philosophically,” without suffering. 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 in contact with; or 2) placing it on the ground and walking away from it like a tremendous burden that does not need to be carried; or 3) stretching through it like an aching posture that needs to be changed. Pain isn’t optional, but
holding on to pain is.
“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
Mindfulness is a meditative practice that has grown out of the Buddhist tradition. A person that is meditating mindfully attempts to become aware of their surroundings, their thoughts and their actions all without being judgmental or critical. For beginners to achieve a state of mindfulness, they must concentrate on ruling out all distractions and focus on being calm. Someone who is familiar with this practice can remain in a state of mindfulness throughout most daily activities. I think of all of the activities and exercises in this book as meditative practices that are best done mindfully.
Medical researcher and author Jon Kabat-Zinn initiated the popular mindfulness movement (1991). Kabat-Zin has influenced many medical treatment centers around the world to use mindfulness meditation to counteract psychological stress, pain and illness in patients. 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 with thoughts about, or emotional reactions to it. One of the key elements involved in achieving mindfulness is to reside in the present moment, in choiceless awareness. Nonattachment, nonjudgmentality and nonresistance are key to the mindful mindset.
Living in the moment is what dominant mammals do. They are not concerned or worried that things will suddenly go wrong. They believe that they have what it takes to handle any situation or confrontation. They don’t have to obsess in fearful anticipation because they trust that their instincts and first reactions will solve any problem. To be a winner approach new tasks confidently as if you have already won before you even start.
In psychotherapy, mindfulness has been shown to alleviate stress, and accentuate self-efficacy and confidence (Gu et. al., 2015). It even increases gray matter in a number of brain areas (Hotzel et al., 2011). Peer reviewed articles published in a wide variety of established scientific journals have yielded data suggesting that mindfulness techniques have demonstrated substantial clinical benefits for individuals suffering from a variety of disorders. Meditation training is used to palliate anxiety, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, cardiovascular disease, addiction, bipolar disorder, insomnia, intractable depression and many others (Sharma & Rush, 2014; Gotink et al., 2015). US Government funding has been used to produce mindfulness programs and workshops in schools, prisons, hospitals, military settings, veteran’s centers and many others.
Relaxation Increases Mental Focus in the Long Run
When you relax you lose a degree of mental speed and intensity. During stress brain chemicals such as noradrenaline and dopamine accelerate attention and working memory. On the order of seconds to minutes they improve performance on a variety of mental tasks (Foy et al., 2005). Everyone knows this implicitly and many people are afraid to relax because they don’t want a lapse in processing. However, on longer time spans (hours to months) these chemicals, and other stress hormones such as cortisol, wreak havoc on mental function. When stress hormone levels increase over the course of several days the brain starts to remodel its architecture, badly compromising learning and memory (Liston et al., 2009; Sapolsky, 2003).
Mammals that are socially stressed by dominant group members undergo a host of negative neurobiological alterations. The birth of new neurons (neurogenesis) is suppressed, connections between neurons (dendrites) atrophy, neuron learning (synaptic plasticity) is impaired, and cell death (apoptosis) is increased (Sapolsky, 2005).
Two of the most pivotal brain areas for high-level thought (the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus) are damaged in humans and other mammals by the stress hormone cortisol (Roozendaal et al., 2009). Stress causes brain cells and the connections between them to be erased in the cortex, whereas cells and their connections in the amygdala are built up (LeDoux, 1996). Damage by stress to the cortex reduces learning ability, problem solving, creativity, impulse control, as well as long-term, and short-term memory (Cohen et al., 2007). Like muscles cells, brain cells perform better during acute stress, but falter under chronic stress. I have written about how these brain changes may have been adaptive for mammals changing a time-intensive (controlled/attentional) processing strategy to a rapid (automatic/preattentive) one (Reser, 2007; 2016). Becoming disinhibited, impulsive, and opportunistic in adverse prehistoric settings may have been adaptive. In modern times; however, the cognitive repercussions of excessive stress impair our ability to function professionally and decrease quality of life.
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 causing mental illness. My working memory declined steeply, and I began to experience perceptual abberations. It got so bad that I even experienced auditory hallucinations.
I felt that being on 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 you may 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. Using adrenaline spikes helps us find words in our vocabulary and helps us put together complex sentences when we are talking fast. For this reason, many people use it as a crutch, but it is actually a trap that is easy to fall into. 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 anxiety to keep me alert or friendly.
When cortisol levels lower for days, weeks and months, the cerebral cortex exhibits a striking capacity for healing. Many of the cellular changes that compromise intelligence reverse completely. Mammals in low stress conditions, produce large amounts of beneficial neurochemicals and brain growth factors (Day & Carelli, 2007; Martinowich & Lu, 2008). The absence of stressors stimulates neural stem cell proliferation in the learning areas of the brain, whereas stress hormones suppress this (Haglund et al., 2007; Kandel et al., 2000). In fact, the relaxation response, which can be induced by meditation and breathing practices, is characterized by a distinct gene transcription profile (Dusek et al., 2008). This means that relaxation results in expressing an entirely different set of genes that are designed to build the body up (parasympathetic anabolism), as opposed to tear it down (sympathetic catabolism).
When you start operating without stress you feel dull for a few days. However, after a few weeks and months of living at this calmer level, you will notice that you actually regain your mental aptitude. I feel that my memory and attention are better than ever now. I attribute this to mindfulness, and once again, to diaphragmatic retraining.
Diaphragmatic Breathing and Unbracing the Mind
I believe that the meditative techniques offered in this chapter provide profound psychological benefit by counteracting bracing and distressed breathing. Judging, resisting, and attaching make us tense and cause us to breathe shallowly. Shallow breathing is preparatory. Because it keeps us on guard for negative occurrences, we can’t help but think bad thoughts. When you start breathing diaphragmatically you are sending your body a signal that nothing bad can happen. Diaphragmatic breathing allows us to peacefully coexist with our thoughts and to rest in the present moment. A number of clinical researchers agree that breathing diaphragmatically fills the mind with unprovocative content (Philippot et al., 2002). It disconnects you from the fear, grief and startle systems of the brain that are used to eke out desperate, last-ditch solutions.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a core component of most meditative practices and especially of mindfulness. Attention is placed on the movement of the abdomen to ensure that the diaphragm is doing the work. 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. To this end practitioners often think about the word “rising” when breathing in and the word “falling” when breathing out. They 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, one acknowledges this nonjudgementally and returns to focused breathing. Mindfulness is also commonly combined with progressive relaxation and episodes of scanning the body for tension which 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 (2005)
This quote reaffirms the thinking of many spiritual leaders. They know that the more one is aware of the breath, the more its healthy qualities will become reestablished. I agree wholeheartedly. However, just trying to be aware of the breath helps you notice when you are breathing very shallowly, but it is not enough to shift you into parasympathetic dominance. Paced breathing is much more effective than simple breath awareness. Paced breathing allows you to lengthen, deepen and smoothen your breath which does much more to rectify your thought patterns. Moreover, once the diaphragm is strengthened and trained you don’t have to spend as many mental resources staying aware of your breathing.
People confuse living in the now with the boost to diaphragmatic breathing that it sometimes provides. What they are really interested in is diaphragmatic breathing. Instead of worrying about hiding in the present moment, diaphragmatic retraining allows you to learn from your past and planning for the future without all the negative thinking.
The most momentous benefit that I derived from paced, diaphragmatic breathing was mental peace. Before I started paced breathing, my internal monolog was full of argumentation. I often could not stop myself from playing out the most socially awkward and socially upsetting events in my head. I was constantly fighting 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 them into a physical altercation. I was trying to fine-tune my angry personality so that I could 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 that there was nothing that anyone could say that would make me lose my cool. Years of meditation and breath awareness only led to modest gains. But my entire ethos was transformed by only a single month of paced breathing 30 minutes a day.
Sustained Firing and Reconsolidation
The way a thought affects your breath determines the priority given to the thought. The train of thought progresses as some subjects (coactivates) remain in activity and others fade and are replaced. The subjects that we deem important (either because they are good or bad) are kept active in mind longer. This happens when the brain chemical dopamine causes the neurons responsible for coding for these subjects to fire for longer periods. This extended cellular activity is a phenomenon in neuroscience known as sustained firing (Goldman-Rakic, 1995). When you are excited about a plan that you just came up with, dopamine causes the elements of the plan to last longer in mind. Because the relevant brain cells keep firing, you can’t help but to think about those elements for a while. Dopamine is released when we encounter motivating thoughts, but also negative thoughts (Seamans & Robbins, 2010).
When your mind poses a worry dopamine kicks in and causes the worrying aspects to stay active in the brain for a prolonged period. This forces you to perseverate on the negative. The thoughts that upset us are the ones that stick due to our neurochemistry. This is the brain basis of ruminative worrying. When you don’t allow upsetting thoughts to decrease the length of your breath (as in 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 it, and also make it less likely to revisit you in the future.
When you practice paced breathing pay attention to your train of thought and notice how your mind refuses to cling to worry. Vexing aspects of thoughts that would normally capture your attention, now seem inconsequential. This will permanently alter how you feel about the topic by physically changing its memory trace in the brain. “Consolidation” is the name for the complex brain processes that occur when a fleeting experience becomes a long-term memory. “Reconsolidation” is the name for the reevaluative process that occurs whenever a memory is recalled (Ecker et al., 2012). Emotional reconsolidation occurs each time something is remembered (Hardt et al., 2010). 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 troublesome (Centonze et al., 2005). Every memory that 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 reconstructs personhood.
Prolonged Diaphragmatic Breathing
I recommend that you try engaging in paced diaphragmatic breathing for two full hours. It will heighten parasympathetic activity placing you into a completely peaceful mental and physiological state. When I first experienced it, I knew immediately that I wanted to live in this state permanently. You may find some psychological road blocks though. Many people start to panic when their senses tell them that they are “too calm.” As long as you keep breathing to the metronome you will pass through these blocks. The first time I set out to do this, within the first hour my mind unconsciously and vividly recalled 3 of the most traumatic incidents of my life. One was a disagreement with a group of friends, one was a time of personal embarrassment, and one was a situation that almost lead to a violent attack. These memories made me 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 specific terrifying circumstances that upregulated your cardiovascular stress system? Is there a good reason to relax in the face of these past challenges? Has something changed now, that these threats will likely not recur?” I tried to convince my body that it is ok to sink below these arousing scenarios. In doing the activity below you may find that you are confronted by harrowing incidents from your past, or that it begins to feel unsafe to be so calm. You must convince the unconscious emotional centers of your brain that it is safe. Keep in mind that the calmer you are the better prepared you are to respond to adversity: acute stress may give you a slight, temporary advantage in some immediate situations, but chronic stress is a disadvantage in all situations.
You might want to combine extended diaphragmatic breathing with a venting session. You could do this during therapy, during a talk with a friend, or in writing. Subjective intensity of negative emotions diminishes when feelings are put into words (Lieberman, et al., 2011) and studies show that there is something highly therapeutic about putting these words on paper. Writing about past hardship has demonstrated powerful clinical benefits (Baikie & Kay, 2005). The emotional sting is thought to be extracted when a person reconsolidates and recontextualizes negative memories (Pennebaker, 1997). You may find that writing about past adversity while breathing diaphragmatically 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 of the bodily organs. Your physical health is largely determined by your mental outlook and your outlook is determined by your breathing pattern. The majority of 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, and remain occupationally productive. This is rarely true even in the short run.
Chapter 7: Bullet Points
- The fear and grief centers of our brain have been recruited as part of the default network
- This makes negative thinking very difficult to stop consciously
- Escape this trap by 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
- Stressed thinking causes important brain areas to physically degenerate, whereas the absence of stress causes them to flourish
- Recognize that you do not need anxiety to be alert, cogent and socially functional
- Prolonged paced diaphragmatic breathing strips negative thoughts and memories of their ability to abduct your train of thought