Friday, May 13, 2011

Why You Stress, And How To Stop It

There is a very simple answer to why you may find yourself so stressed out all the time.  Especially over so many small things that really shouldn't affect your life or your happiness.  

It's about the size of an almond and it all started about 40,000 years ago, give or take a few.  That was when we more or less became human, as we know ourselves today.  Somewhere along the evolutionary path, we were endowed with a wonderfully small organ, called the amygdala [ah-mig-dah-la].  It was given to us by our reptilian ancestors long before we can even imagine, and it was hard wired into the base of our brains.  So much so, that as we evolved it didn't.  And in many ways, it's a good think it stayed around.  It has, and still has, one very important job.  It's purpose is to keep us safe.  

You see, when something happens that makes us uncomfortable, the signals from the outside world are fed to the almond-sized amygdala, deep in the brain.  It then sends out chemicals to the body that create the sense of fear, anxiety, or shear terror you might know.  

You will recognize its work in the feeling of unease you get as you walk into a dark and creepy basement, or in that spinal shiver you feel when you see a spider.  Yes, it still works wonderfully to keep us safe.  But it has one problem.  It doesn't realize that the 21st Century world we now live in simply does not have all of the threats of the prehistoric world.  So it doesn't realize that when you are asked to give a speak in front of a room you're really not in physical danger.  It doesn't know that it's not helping the situation by pumping you full of fear and anxiety.  It also doesn't know that the excitement elicited from an "SALE NOW" sign is not a life or death situation.  All it knows to do is send you into a fight or flight response. 

But that doesn't mean you can't do something about it.  In fact, quite the opposite is true.  You have a few very powerful tools to help you gain control over your amygdala.  They are called meditation and mindfulness.  

Both can give you the foundation you need to prevent yourself from spinning out of control the next time your amygdala tries to spin you into panic mode.  Both can give you the ability to pause, to breathe, and to say to yourself "nope, there's no lion charging at me.  There's not a pack of cave-people running my way.  There's just a sign for a sale.  And I have the choice to either go in and look around, or go on my way with a smile on my face."  

But in order to use meditation to your benefit, you can't wait for your amygdala to kick in for it to do you some good.  You have to start a consistent practice so that you build up your ability to remain calm and to say, "thank you my amygdala, but not today."

Yes, it really is that easy.  So, the next time you panic, think about what causes you to panic.  No. it's not whatever stimuli your eyes, ears and nose are picking up.  It's just that little almond in your head, called the amygdala.  

So feel free to turn it down so that you can get on with your life.

simple truth

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