Browsing the archives for the Mind Wide Open tag.
Subscribe via RSS or e-mail      

How to overcome specific fears and anxieties

Handling negative emotions

Edvard Munch's "The Scream"

Edvard Munch's "The Scream"

In his book Mind Wide Open: The Neuroscience of Everyday Life, Steven Johnson provides some highly practical information about where strong fears, anxieties, and phobias come from, and how people get past them. This post passes on some of that information.

The human mind is an orchestra of specialized systems, handling everything from sight to heartbeat to speech to emotion to complex planning. At least two of these systems handle fear, and they handle it differently.

The most obvious way we experience fear goes like this: we see something (like someone writing tickets and approaching our car, where the meter has just expired), we identify it, we dig up information about it from memories, and we make a rational conclusion as to whether or not we should be worried. This process mostly goes on in ways that we can observe with our conscious mind. This route is called the “high road.”

But there’s a completely different route, the “low road,” and in some ways the low road is much more powerful.

This different route is governed by a fairly primitive part of our brain called the Amygdalae. The Amygdalae are concerned with major threats that require us to act before we even recognize them, and they don’t really care if there are some false alarms now and then as long as the job gets done.

Imagine (not too vividly, please) that you’re driving to work. A few small, dark clouds are scudding across the sky. Some clarinet music is playing on the radio, and you’ve just passed a big, orange truck. Suddenly, you hit a piece of sharp metal that has somehow gotten onto the road, your tire blows out, your car spins of out control, you smash into the guard rail, and two other cars plow into you, after which it takes emergency workers almost half an hour to get you out of your totaled car. Let’s say that you’re miraculously all right, just to keep this as low-stress as possible while still making the point.

When this horrible thing happened, your body knew on a profound level just how horrible it was, that it was something to be afraid of. As soon as you knew to be scared, the Amygdalae charged into action and started taking note of all of your sensory impressions–the orange of the truck, the clarinet music, the scudding clouds. Your Amygdalae take in everything they can, but they don’t really understand any of what they’re tagging in your memory; all they know is that something horrible happened that you never want to have happen again, and all of those sensory impressions occurred just before the Bad Thing, which as far as the Amygdalae are concerned, makes them suspect. As a result, the next time you experience one of those sensory impressions, your Amygdalae may notice and scream “danger, danger!”, leaving you frightened and confused simply because your next door neighbor’s kid is practicing her clarinet. This is where phobias come from.

And because of mood congruity, the fear or anxiety your Amygdalae give you can kick off memories of other frightening experiences, making you more fearful and perhaps making it harder to figure out what you were responding to in the first place.

A widely-accepted approach to dealing with these kinds of fears is to get in touch with them, to re-experience them. This is part of one possible solution, but only part: the key is that revisiting those memories–or simply experiencing the same sensory input, like the color orange or the sound of a clarinet–has to occur in a safe environment. If you experience the thing that produces the fear but feel safe because you’re in a different environment, the Amygdalae begins to recognize that they may have been too hasty with that particular stimulus. When the danger-signal-in-safe-environment experience is repeated, the Amygdalae’s warning signs begin to fade and eventually disappear altogether.

This is partly why talking with a trusted friend about something fearful can help the fear go away, and why talk therapy can work well for people in certain situations. It’s not necessarily an easy solution, since it involves facing fears, but it can be immediately comforting and encouraging.

As always, please keep in mind that I’m not a therapist or physician, and that nothing I say on this blog should be considered professional advice.

1 Comment

Why Moods Magnify Themselves

States of mind

A section of Steven Johnson’s book Mind Wide Open throws some light on moods and why they can persist for a while even without anything going on outside us to influence them: it seems that our brains are set up so that when we’re in a particular mood, we tend to access memories of other times we were in that same mood. The technical term for this is “mood congruity.” Johnson says, “your memory system tends to serve up recollections of past events that are themselves congruous with your current mood.”

Photo by Rachel A.K.

So for instance, if I’m feeling anxious about something, my mind will automatically come up with memories of things that have made me anxious in the past–the weird sound my car has been making lately, the comments about cholesterol the doctor made at my last physical, or that creepy eighth grader who used to ride the same bus as me when I was twelve. Of course these things tend to make me more anxious.

This is great if the mood I’m in suits me: if I’m happy about something, I’ll tend to remember other happy times and not worry about things. (Although if I’m in a situation where I need to “come back down to earth” and deal with something pressing, happy may not be the ideal state of mind.)

If I’m in a mood I don’t want to stay in, one way I can break the pattern is to make myself think about things that remind me of whatever mood I want to be in.

“Think happy thoughts” (or more precisely, “Remember things that made you happy before”) may not be the most profound advice either of us has ever heard, but since it is an effective way to feel better, it’s worth trying the next time you’re in a mood that doesn’t suit you.

  • Takeaway: If you want to change your mood, make a special effort to dredge up memories of times you were in a better one.

    %d bloggers like this: