Q+A – Meditation & Anxiety in the Modern World

A student asked me, “Why is there such angst and anxiety in the world today, and how do I cope with it?”

“Why do I worry about Russia sending warplanes over the Baltic Sea? Why do I worry when our government begins to break down? Why does my wife take a tone sometimes? Are these the same?”

My first answer is yes, they all basically come from the same place. They come from a place of fear. It is how your old brain was programmed to respond to everything in the world around you; and while you cannot change the way your brain works, you can change the way your brain processes and responds to that information.

Instead of having to respond with your fight or flight auto-response, you can train yourself to pause, to contemplate – even if for a second – and choose to take a different route than the one your primordial brain has laid out for you. In truth, you can choose to live your life your way.

The net/net is that the brain creates pathways that you live by.  We call them habits. Neuroscientists call them auto-responses; but they are so much more. They are the responses that you live your life by, and they can often lead you down a path that you will probably regret later on.

Neurologists have a saying – neurons that fire together, wire together. Eastern Philosophers have another saying, you are what you think. They are the same.

All that nervousness, that anxiousness, that angst? It is the result of the patterns that have been developed over eons of evolution. And this is the problem. Many of them date back tens, and even hundreds of thousands of years. They worked wonderfully in the past, they got us to the top of the food chain, but in the modern world you now live in, most of them have little relevance in your life.

The fear that rises when you read about other countries becoming more aggressive is no different than when a primal ancestor saw a shape moving on the horizon. The fear that rises to anger when you read about our government is no different than the worry that was felt about a field of crops failing. And the perceived tone that your wife is taking? Again, it is your old brain preparing for the worst.

If you doubt this, just think about what your brain scrolls through when any of these events take place. They are always worst case scenarios.

Always remember, there are two parts to your brain. There is the old brain that has just one objective – your survival. Then there is the modern brain, the part that most of us think of when someone asks us about the brain. It is that magnificent organ that sits on the top, the part that is responsible for the executive functions in your life.

The old brain becomes uncomfortable with anything that implies risk – taking a new route to work, watching as a new employee enters your workplace, hearing your loved one take a tone. It jumps at every ping and chirp from your mobile device just as it did when a twig snapped in the forest thousands of years ago. It keeps getting distracted by all the things going on in the world around you, looking for danger; even though most of them are completely irrelevant to your survival.

When you begin to get involved in any higher-level thinking, preparing a report, reviewing a PowerPoint file, or looking toward the future, your modern brain focuses in on the task at hand. But, your old brain is still working in the background. It kicks in when it hears a ping, sees movement out of the corner of your eye, or detects a tone. At that moment it begins releasing adrenaline and cortisol.

It starts slowly, preparing you for a potential threat, but as you respond by getting nervous, it elevates your threat-level and starts to release larger and larger amounts of these hormones [adrenaline being produced by the adrenal gland]. It is what happens when your boss calls you into a meeting out of the blue. It is what effects an architect when a client changes a floor plan.

Your modern brain realizes that taking a calculated risk is often the safest path to a secure future. Your old brain does not, and that is where the problem begins. One still thinks that the old way is best.  The other knows that in today’s world the new path is more often the right one. The result is you feel doubt and insecure as the two battle it out.

The key is to remind yourself of this when you start to feel anxious or when you feel self-doubt. Remind yourself that all that angst is simply your old brain trying to keep you safe, and bless it’s heart, what it thinks is safe is dated by more than 40,000 years.

This is why you should step back the next time you feel off and take a meditative breath to calm yourself. Then acknowledge whatever it is that is before you and label it for what it is. It may sound like “boss calling me into his office,” or “client changing something that we agreed on,” or “the one I love is using a tone with me.”

Breathe into the issue that is before you. Take a moment to contemplate just how serious it is, and then let it go. Let each issue go for now as you return to whatever it is you were doing right before it came up. Smile as you give yourself a moment to calm down before responding. If it’s on text, give yourself an hour; email? a day, because the moment you are in is probably different than the moment your old brain sees you in, even though it is right here, and right now.