How To Manage Stress and Other Challenges of Our Amygdala

 

I confess. I have this unhealthy habit: I compare myself to others. True, we all do it, but somehow it feels more of a challenge when I’m back to my old country without a job and trying to turn the Kensho Life dream into a reality.

Life challenges can make us feel small.

Life challenges can make us feel small.

Hold a situation like this long enough and soon the demons start showing up. They hide behind the little comments that people make like: “Yeah things are really bad in Spain, it’s all a mess… very, very difficult times” or “don’t you know the crystal meditation?” (wide eyes, raised eyebrows) or “if you read Paul McKenna’s The Hypnotic Gastric Band you’ll understand what I mean”... It makes my confidence crumble.

I guess all those hours sitting still, observing and not scratching the itches, bringing my thoughts back to the breath and feeling the tip of my nose seem to have a meaning now.

With some perspective it’s easy not to be affected by comments like this, but in the heat of the moment the amygdala rules and a doubt pops up in the back of my head: “I don’t have a clue about these things and I am supposed to be the specialist... I’m not knowledgeable enough. I feel like a total fraud!” And with a mask of rationality, I react: “Well, let’s do some research”. And there I go, diving head on into the websites of world-renowned gurus gorging on their PHDs, their bestselling books, their fancy quotes and their millions of devoted followers… Of course, I reach to a very rational conclusion: “I don’t stand a freaking chance. I’m going to die of starvation.” Reaction: Panic. Symptoms: Heart rate up to post-marathon levels, thoughts rushing in all directions, palms sweating, breath short and shallow…and all I wish to do is make myself round and small like a meatball. To make matters worse, another thought lands on top: “How on earth will I ever teach anyone to deal with stress when I’m freaking out like this!” And right there I can see my chances of an early heart attack rocketing up and up into glorious new heights. If I had an MRI done you’d see my amygdala lighting up like a verbena… but there’s no celebration here. This is hell. Don’t get me wrong, the amygdala is a fantastic piece of our brain that has kept our species off our predators’ menu for hundreds of thousands of years, and it is very handy to jump away from coming trams but most of the time, without lions lurking behind the bushes anymore, it’s like having a hysterical troglodyte on steroids deciding the magnitude of your emotional responses.

Observing yourself going mental can be enlightening.

Observing yourself going mental can be enlightening.

I guess all those hours sitting still, observing and not scratching the itches, bringing my thoughts back to the breath and feeling the tip of my nose seem to have a meaning now: amidst all the madness, a tiny spark of clarity brings up a different thought: “Just observe”. “OK” I say to myself “before you throw the computer out of the window, just observe yourself. Observe yourself going mental”. And then I breathe. “This whole thing feels bad and I don’t like it, but let’s observe”. Once you go down this route, things begin to calm down, here’s how it usually goes for me:

I let it happen. This is easier said than done as my first, instinctive reaction is to reject it and eat a cookie. With mindfulness practice I’ve learnt to observe events and emotions unfold, and tell myself that ignoring it won’t help, so to the extent of my abilities, I let the emotions and thoughts happen. I try to allow myself to feel it in my body. I can tell you now that I can physically feel my body shrinking, and with my size, you can barely see me.

This too. This is Tara Brach’s mantra, it means that this shitty thing that is happening also belongs to the experience of being alive. And with that I remember that it is only through stress that we can truly grow, instead of rejecting or avoiding it. I decide I believe this.

This is just a thought. From my experience of meditation, one thing I’m beginning to understand is the random, abstract and ephemeral nature of thoughts, this is not just during meditation, it happens all the time, one moment you’re sitting watching a movie and suddenly a ridiculous thought pops up out of the nothingness. And then it goes. I remind myself that I’m not my thoughts and thoughts are just thoughts, they come and they go, like a sneeze.

Any excuse to eat a cookie.

Any excuse to eat a cookie.

I remember Anicca - Impermanence. This will also pass. Sooner or later, one way or another, this will not last forever. I have to thank Mr. Goenka for this one, all those excruciating Vipassana hours were not for nothing!

Congratulations. I acknowledge the huge effort I’ve put into this whole process. I eat a cookie in celebration.

Any lessons? I try to see if there is anything practical I can do the next time I feel myself shrivelling like a raisin and I vow to apply the lesson next time, knowing that I’ll probably fall into the madness again but trusting that in time, this process will help me bounce back a little bit faster.

Finally, as to my ability to pass any wisdom or experience onto others, I guess the first thing is to remind myself is that we’re all human and that we will all experience pain and joy, happiness and sorrow, loss and gain… no matter how much knowledge of the amygdala we have and how mindfully we live our lives. All we can aspire to is to learn to accept this reality, be gentle with ourselves in the process, trust the practice and remember that if we didn’t feel those emotions... well, we’d all be psychos.

 
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