Here at TSM we talk a lot about anxiety management, and with good reason. We are in the business of preparing psychology students to take the psychology licensure exam, known as the EPPP. This is one of the hardest exams a person can ever take, with 225 multiple-choice questions spanning topics everything from legal issues to psychopharmacology. It’s not unusual that those studying for this test experience high levels of stress and anxiety.
But even if you aren’t preparing to take the EPPP, we all need help managing anxiety. Ironically, it is often the people who need help with anxiety the most who are least aware of it, since anxiety has become such a way of life that it can start to feel normal.
What if I told you there was an activity you could do every day, which only takes between 5 and 20 minutes, that not only decreases anxiety and stress, but will also increase the size of your brain, improve social skills, and make it easier to achieve mental clarity and focus? What if I told you that this same activity also increases emotional intelligence, self-regulation and resilience?
If I told you all that, you’d probably think it was too good to be true. That’s what I first thought when I saw the research I’m going to share in this and a follow-up article . If you apply the techniques I’m about to share, it could literally change your life.
Let’s begin by exploring why human beings experience anxiety in the first place and how this effects the brain.
Anxiety and the Survival Instinct
Anxiety is deeply rooted in our primal sense of survival. Living in our comfortable homes in relatively safe cities, we tend to take survival for granted. But the reason you came into the world is because your ancestors, thousands of years ago, learned to hone their survival instincts. Human survival instincts have become so basic to our physiology and psychology that we are often motivated by such instincts even when we know we are safe.
Survival instincts drive the brain to be hyper-vigilant in detecting actual and potential threats. Our hunter-gatherer predecessors knew how to quickly shift their focus from one thing to another, and thus to maintain constant alertness in order always to be ready for a fight or flight response.
An offshoot of survival-based hyper vigilance is constant distractibility, what Nicholas Carr called “past-paced, reflexive shifts in focus”. Without this attention-shifting proclivity, our hunter-gatherer ancestors might have missed crucial food-sources and other opportunities. Moreover, the impulse to constantly shift our focus from one thing to another reduces the odds of being surprised by a predator or an enemy. Thus, the survival of men and women depended on remaining in a state of continual vigilance, always read to shift attention to actual and potential threats.
This type of hyper vigilance and constant distractibility is not merely limited to our interaction with the external environment. It is also deeply ingrained in our thought-life. Historically, humans have needed to think a lot about food in order to survive. Humans have needed to think a lot about sex in order to perpetuate their tribe or family group, and in order to be assured of their patrimony. Humans have needed to try to second-guess the future in order not to be caught off guard by enemies or inclement weather. Humans have needed to remain alert to social connections since survival outside community has never been possible.
Unfortunately, these primal survival instincts remain the default even if our lives are safe. Indeed, even for those of us not living in primitive conditions, the brain’s tendency to constantly shift attention is deeply rooted in our primal survival mechanisms. Many of us find that a relentless (and usually unconscious) fear for our own survival drives our brain to remain constantly vigilant against perceived threats to our social, physiological, psychological, emotional and reproductive needs. As a result, we find it hard to focus on any one thing for very long without our brain throwing up threats to our survival for us to respond to. These threats could include things like:
- obsessing over threats to our social needs, including wondering what other people might be thinking about us;
- imagining how we will respond to various future scenarios;
- mentally rehearsing all the things we need to do;
- worrying whether our emotional needs are being met;
- focusing on what we will do next instead of paying attention to what we are doing right now;
- thinking about sex, food or resources;
Without even consciously choosing to listen to these types of thoughts, they typically flow through our brains automatically, disrupting inner-stillness and scattering our focus. Because these types of thoughts are rooted in primal fears for our survival, they have enormous power.
If you don’t believe me, try a little experiment. Go into an empty room and determine to sit in stillness for 5 minutes. Watch how quickly your attention defaults to survival-based fears and anxieties.
The Neurological Effects of Anxiety
Anthropologists have found that writing, art, and the finer aspects of civilization tend to only be sustained in cultures where there was a surplus of food production. This isn’t surprising. When a human society is forced to spend all their energy trying to survive, as in cases where the members of a tribe are never sure where your next meal will come from, there isn’t much left-over to devote to writing, literature, philosophy or music.
What is true of human culture is also true of individuals. When a person’s brain is so focused on trying to survive, there aren’t a lot of resources left to allocate to things like focus, mindfulness, gratitude, clarity, emotional intelligence, logical reasoning and memory.
In order to experience mental fitness and wellbeing, it’s crucial to stop acting from a place of survival. When your brain is distracted by conscious or unconscious fears, you have less mental resources available for creativity, focus, empathy, memory and general intelligence. In other words, living from a place of survival can make you stupid.
The more we pay attention to our fears and anxieties, the more power we give them to control us. Over time this takes its toll on the brain in a way that has real physical implications. As Psychologist and author Rick Hanson observed in his article ‘Is Your Mind Wandering?’,
“Moment to moment, the flows of thoughts and feelings, sensations and desires, and conscious and unconscious processes sculpt your nervous system like water gradually carving furrows and eventually gullies on a hillside. Your brain is continually changing its structure. The only question is: Is it for better or worse?… Attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: it illuminates what it rests upon and then sucks it into your brain – and your self.”
A Simple Solution to the Problem of Anxiety
The solution to the problem of anxiety is so simple and easy that it seems too good to be true. It can be summarized in one word: breathe. That’s it.
When you slow down the pace of your breath, and when you tune out all the distracting thoughts that pull your attention away from your breathing, you are proclaiming to your body, “I’m safe, so I can slow down. I’m safe, so I don’t need to be controlled by fears or survival-based thoughts. I am not going to perish if I say No to mental distractions. I do not have to be in bondage to either the past or future: I can enjoy the present moment right now. My life is not going to fall apart if I take time to do nothing at all except focus on my breathing for the next 10 minutes.”
For those just starting to develop the habit of meditative breathing, it often feels unnatural and even frightening. That’s normal. The brain’s survival instincts find stillness threatening.
When we engage in focused meditative breathing we exercise the brain just as much as learning a foreign language or acquiring a new skill. You see, when we meditate, we are going against the grain of how our brain is accustomed to function. Our survival instincts feel safe when we live from a place of “past-paced, reflexive shifts in focus.” When you choose to let your thoughts be at rest and embrace stillness, you’re saying to your brain that you’ve arrived at a place of safety where you no longer need to be controlled by your survival instincts. In short, you’re letting your brain become youthful again, when you enjoyed the freedom of not having any cares.
Try it now. Get a clock that you can hear ticking every second, so your ear can keep track of time without having to stare at a device. Then breathe in for 4 seconds, hold it for another 4 seconds, and breathe out for 4 seconds. If you keep doing this for sixty seconds, then you will have gone an entire minute on only five breaths.
If you find the 4-second thing difficult, just breathe deeply while observing the pattern of your breath. As distracting thoughts come into your brain, just let them go and gently return your focus to the patter of your own breath. View these thoughts as being separate from yourself. By doing this, you will be training your brain to resist distractions; you will be proclaiming to your body that you are safe and so your body doesn’t depend on following every distraction that comes along.
Meditate Your Way to EPPP Success
In our post ‘Secrets to EPPP Success (Part 2): Your Exam Day Routine’ Dr. Taylor recommended a number of things you can do on the day of the EPPP exam in order to be optimally prepared, from getting a good night’s sleep to eating a proper meal. A practice of meditative deep breathing might profitably be added to that last in order to better cope with test-taking anxiety.
But meditative breathing does more than simply combat anxiety: research shows it also makes a person more intelligent and increases a person’s ability to remember information. Thus, a regular practice of meditative breathing may be one of the most important parts of your EPPP preparation.
Stay tuned for next week’s post, as I will be sharing research on how meditative breathing effects the brain.