Our Brains React to Worry
According to research by The American Psychological Association in 2015, some of the core sources of severe stress reaction for Americans are: financial problems, job-related problems, family problems, and health problems. Our lives are complete only with joy/happiness, suffering and boredom – sometimes referred to as pleasant, unpleasant and neutral experiences. Our brains have evolved to react – to worry! Humans tend to worry about the worse-case scenarios. Over time, and mainly due to brain plasticity, we become highly sensitive to stimuli that may trigger limbic reactions – obsessive worrying in the executive brain area being one. Although worry itself is quite cognitive (prefrontal and frontal), the causes for this effect gains power in limbic regions of the brain – our reactive emotional survival center. The real problem, however, is that there are real problems and worry about problems or worsening problems. The ONLY time worry can be helpful is when it leads to some solution regarding the causes of the problem, the causes of worry. Usually worrying is a form of secondary suffering; a real problems exists that you cannot resolve (primary suffering), and you have fears and concerns, so you move into the secondary suffering of chronic worry. As the Buddha noted, thoughts lead to words, which may be moved by feelings into action. The only action worthy of our effort is action that helps to minimize or solve the problem. The most common unhelpful results of worry tend to be increased efforts to deny, suppress, avoid, flee or get hooked (Pema Chodron) on the worry. To assist you with the problem of worry as a form of hooked “stuckness,” I will note a series of behaviors that may be helpful. These suggestion come from thinkers as old as Shantideva and as current as Pema Chodron. Here is the list. Practice every day to enhance your resilience.
1) Use what the Buddha implied are your the “best friends.” When worrying, change your body posture and status often: sitting, lying, standing, and moving (exercise and walking). Today we believe that different body postures may change neurophysiology, thus mood.
2) Other “friends” include skills in breathing practices (meditative and yogic traditions), as well as smiling more (Thich Nhat Hanh). Sometimes simply breathing in a calm, deep, slow fashion may improve your emotional status. You may need to breathe in this manner for 15 to 20 minutes.
3) You may even want to practice smiling at your fear (Chogyam Trungpa). Today we know that facial emotions impact emotional awareness in the brain, so try this.
4) Of course daily meditation and/or yoga will always be helpful.
5) Stop and distract yourself from the storyline about your worries; then apply radical acceptance for a problem you may have very little control over.
6) Apply self-compassion! You care about the nature of or person in the problem; this is why you are worrying. However, when you have little power to alter the problem, you must remain gentle with yourself and your inner speech.
7) Talk with other people you trust. Use people who care about you to help support you in the problem and in your practices to reduce being hooked in it.
8) Use your ancestors (First Nation practice). Imagine that ancestors (many you have never known) are lining up behind you to help you with this problem and the worry it produces. Imagine the ancestors you do know lined up behind you with each person placing their helping hands on the back shoulders of the ancestor in front of them. See the caring face of special ancestors you have known. Be in meditation with this image and its emotional supports. Feel them!
9) Remember the wisdom of the Dharma. Thoughts, lead to words, which are emoted into actions (like worrying). Try to intervene in any of the four domains of ultimate action. Distraction may help with thoughts. Consciously make the words less sever, less scary may help. Work on calming your feelings and their emotional suffering. Do opposite action (Marsha Lineman); when an action urge comes into awareness (i.e., to worry), do something different or opposite if possible.
10) Take Indian scholar Shantideva’s advice in his writing: “be like a log” (as translation). Work at being steady, strong, kind-hearted as you respond to a problem that causes you to worry. Do your best to be in a calm and steady state without reacting into the worrying mode of being. Hold strong compassion for the person in the problem.
11) Practice honest forgiveness for the person and actions that cause you to worry.
12) Practice LETTING GO of the thoughts and urges related to your worrying. Be aware of your habitual tendencies , and put your mind in another place, on another topic.
13) Join a group that may be supportive. Consider Emotions Anonymous, AA (if applicable) or Al-Anon. Go to meetings with open-mindedness.
14) Last, but perhaps most important, teach yourself the Dharma (Shantideva, Pema Chodron and many others). When you begin to get hooked on worry, stop and READ the Dharma. Teach yourself the meaning of the Dharma.
May you be at peace! May your self-compassion be your warrior!
More more information refer to Chodron, P. (2006). Bodhisattva Mind. Boulder, CO: Sounds True. [CDs]. See also Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life by Shantideva, (2002 translation) by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso and the New Kadampa Tradition. Tharpa Publications.
By Anthony R. Quintiliani, PhD., LADC
Author of Mindful Happiness
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