Sunday, November 3, 2013

Anxiety, the brain, and modern life: How an ancient biological imperative to survive came to dominate our lives.

As it turns out, all the negativity that humans experience--fear, anxiety, stress response--all are a a natural development in the brain. It's all a survival mechanism that developed over millennia to "protect" us. But today, we don't need to escape lions (for the most part) or tribes (for the most part), but the brain doesn't know that--or much care. If there's a threat, real or imagined, the brain swings into action to "save the day." And for the most unlucky people, it can wind up actually killing them, performing an out of control "mindless" task of keeping the body/mind in a constant state of fight/flight readiness.

he amygdala, the tiny "almond-shapped" part of the brain has evolved over millennia to help
protect us from harm. But today, in our modern world, it can do more harm than good.
[source: here]
The noted therapist and neuropsychologist Richard Hanson, PhD, summarizes in just a few bullets what everyone needs to understand about their brains. To me, this is the most important discovery of modern science in the last 50 years or so. Here they are, and they are ideas that can ultimately save peoples' lives from pain, torment, and, potentially even death.

At the end of the first chapter of his book, "Hardwiring Happiness," Dr. Hanson summarizes the key points:

TAKING IT IN

  • Throughout history, people have wondered about the causes of suffering and happiness as they appeared in the mind. Now we are beginning to understand how our experiences are produced by the underlying structures and processes of the brain.
  • The nervous system has been evolving for 600 million years, and solutions to survival problems faced by ancient reptiles, mammals, primates, and humans are active in your brain today.
  • To survive and pass on their genes, our ancestors needed to be especially aware of dangers, losses, and conflicts. Consequently, the brain evolved a negativity bias that looks for bad news, reacts intensely to it, and quickly stores the experience in neural structure. We can still be happy, but this bias creates an ongoing vulnerability to stress, anxiety, disappoint, and hurt.
  • A key aspect of the negativity bias is the special power of fear. We routinely overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities and resources. At the same time, negative experiences sensitize the brain to the negative, making it easier to have even more negative experiences in a vicious circle. 
  • Inner strengths such as happiness and resilience come mainly from positive experiences. But unless we pay mindful, sustained attention to them, most positive experiences flow through our brains like water through a sieve. They're momentarily pleasant but leave little lasting value in terms of changing neural structure. The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.
  • While the negativity bias is good for survival in harsh conditions, it's lousy for quality of life, fulfilling relationships, personal growth, and long-term health. It makes us over-learn from bad experiences and under-lean from good ones.
  • The best way to compensate for the negativity bias is to regularly take in the good.
Currently, most practitioners do not  explain this to their patients, up to 80% of whom* see doctors due to anxiety and stress-related ailments. This is a serious problem, because as the chaos of society increases, our stress levels increase, and the brain--the agnostic, no-agenda but basic biological survival ancient brain--sees nothing but threats that must be addressed. The brain cares not whether they're real (man with a gun) or imagined/potential (what if I lose my job and can't pay my bills and get sick and don't have health insurance?), it just goes into "survival mode," which, as this blog will attempt to explain, can be a scary place, indeed.

The Good News. There really is good news: our brains have been found to be malleable (what's referred to as neuroplasticity), and they can be "rewired" for happiness using tools and techniques that have been been around for thousands of years. In fact, it's been shown that our brains can and are changed at the genetic level. Yes, our DNA is actually being altered on a daily basis, and it's up to us to have those changes reflect positive, rather than negative experiences and "wiring."

Unfortunately, modern medicine, as great as it can be, has all be ignored them. This trend will eventually change, I think (as corporations figure out ways to make money off of mindfulness, meditation techniques, and teaching people how to "program their brains for happiness/positive experiences), but until they do, people need to take matters into their own hands, and find out what the latest expertise and research indicates.

Ultimately, it's great news for millions of sufferers of depression and anxiety and trauma because there are resources and tools available to help. That's the good news. The bad news is that most people like war veterans and those with chronic anxiety will never know about them. That's the main goal of this blog.

If you have suggestions about sources or other information on the impact of the ancient brain on modern humans, please don't hesitate to leave comments.

Yours in mental health,

Groobiecat


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