The human stress/fear response evolved millions of years ago in our ancestors to allow them to survive – it is commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. If we saw a tiger, it was necessary to feel fear as this fear motivated us to freeze and then to run away when it was safe to do so. Modern day humans have inherited this mechanism.
One of the areas of the brain that becomes highly active when we experience fear, and gives rise to the fight/flight response, is called the AMYGDALLA. This area of the brain is also stimulated in other animals, such as gazelles, when they perceive danger.
Let’s imagine that a group (I don’t know the collective term for them – herd?) of gazelles is calmly grazing when they become aware that a tiger is preparing to launch a ferocious and potentially lethal attack. What is their response?
Well, what happens on a physiological level is that the sighting of the tiger instantaneously triggers intense activity in their brains’ amygdallas and their ‘fight/flight’ response is triggered. This causes them to experience feelings of panic and terror which in turn leads them to flee the tiger as fast as they are able (which, given they are gazelles. is very fast indeed – they don’t hang around!
Once the danger has passed, however, the activity in their amygdallae quickly returns to normal and, therefore, they are able to return to calmly grazing.
The gazelle, then, is easily able to ‘switch on’ their amygdalla, but, just as easily, ‘switch it off’ again when its activity is no longer required.
Sadly, we poor humans are not nearly as good at doing this. Because we have language, which allows us to carry out internal monologues, we also have imagination and are able to dwell on the past and contemplate the future; because of this, we are able to constantly torment ourselves with worries, regrets, concerns, fears and so on. In this way, especially if we suffer from anxiety, we can find ourselves constantly feeling we are trapped in the ‘fight or flight’ response – our amygdallas become permanently over-stimulated, even though we do not wish them to be and it is not in our survival interests that they are; indeed, being is such a state of permanent anxiety and fear imperils our survival (eg we might smoke and drink more, or, in extreme circumstances, attempt suicide).
It is now well established by scientific research that mindfulness and meditation are extremely effective at treating anxiety (and many other conditions) and can significantly and permanently reduce the general level of activity in the amygdalla, which, in turn, allows us to live our daily lives, gazelle-like, in a far calmer state of mind. I will look at the exciting research being conducted in relation to mindfulness and meditation in my next post.
In the meantime, a hypnotherapy MP3 download to help manage anxiety (entitled : ‘Quiet Mind’) is available by clicking here, although this is not free of charge.
Best wishes, David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).