Learn how Meditation and Mindfulness control and reduce your Fear and Anxiety
Our earthly existence is fraught with fear. Most people have one or more fears in their lives. Some people fear that they may die. For others it may be fear of falling down, fear of a creature, fear of failure, fear of public speaking or even the fear of rejection. The list can go on and on.
Why does Fear Exist at all?
Nature has created ‘fear’ in animals as a tool for self-preservation. We human beings as a species are no exception. We feel fear, as well as related emotions, in order to protect ourselves from danger and to heighten our awareness. If we didn’t have fear, we would have been careless and that could endanger our lives. Scientists have found that this emotion of fear is predicted, perceived, and controlled by a part of our brain known as the Amygdala.
What is Amygdala?
The amygdala (Latin, corpus amygdaloideum) is an almond-shaped set of neurons located deep in the brain’s temporal lobe. There are two amygdala, with one amygdala on each side of the brain. They are thought to be a part of the limbic system within the brain, which is responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and memory.
The amygdala helps to store memories of events and emotions so that an individual may be able to recognize similar scary events in the future. In fact, the amygdala seems to adjust all of our reactions to events that are very important for our survival. Hence, events that are perceived as imminent danger are very important stimuli for the amygdala.
How is the Amygdala responsible for Fear and Aggression?
The amygdala is responsible for the perception of emotions such as anger, fear, and sadness, as well as the controlling of aggression. Aggression is an expression of a fearful mind.
Much of what neuroscience knows about the amygdala and its role in emotional learning and memory comes from fear conditioning. Amygdala is the seat where fear conditioning resides in our brain. Fear conditioning is what triggers fearful memory and consequent reaction in us through exposure to a seemingly innocent or neutral sight, sound or other stimulus. Amygdala are most active in an immediate frightening situation.
In certain studies, patients who were undergoing brain surgery, were asked to report their impressions, when their amygdala were directly stimulated. The result was a subjective perception of imminent danger and fear reported by those patients. When the amygdala is removed from laboratory animals, they show no fear.
A rat with its amygdala removed “will walk up to a sleeping cat and even nibble on its ear” (Barinaga, 1992). The removal of the amygdala had taken away the rats’ memory of fear, and therefore the rats did not fear anything!
In this context, I remember reading about a lady referred by the scientific community as S.M., who had had exclusive and complete bilateral amygdala destruction since late childhood as a consequence of an extremely rare genetic condition known as Urbach–Wiethe disease. She has been described as the “woman with no fear”! University of Iowa neuropsychologist Justin Feinstein and colleagues tried out all these so called ‘scary’ things for this woman — from scary movies to a haunted house, spiders and snakes, in an attempt to find out how a destroyed amygdala impacts the experience of fear. But they failed to induce fear in her.
As the researchers delved into her past life, they found that even in one incident, when SM was held at knife-point, she was able to just walk away calmly from the scene, much like a Buddha, without showing any symptom of fear or aggression!
Spirituality and Fearlessness
If it is not induced by a disease, the natural faculty of fearlessness is hailed as a blessed state in all religions. It grows an inner voice deep within you and you become happier. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Fear is the source of many evils in this world. Fear creates stress, anxiety, aggression and many negative mental states in us. However, the mental state of fear seems to exist as an unconscious compulsion in humans from eons and no amount of study or preaching can make you free from fear. Those who suffer from anxiety know it well.
So what is the way out?
The good news is there is a simple way to come out of this malady. A simple practice of meditation and mindfulness can tame the over-active amygdale, and thus lessen the feelings of fear and anxiety.
Meditation and Mindfulness can Curb Fear & Anxiety
Research by Paul Ekman, of the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, found that meditation and mindfulness can tame the amygdala, the area of the brain which is the hub of fear memory. Ekman noticed that experienced Buddhists were less likely to be shocked, flustered, surprised or as angry as other people.
Daniel Goleman & Tara Bennett-Goleman suggest that meditation works because of the relationship between the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex. As the amygdala decides if we should get angry or anxious, the pre-frontal cortex of our brain makes us stop and think more rationally. The amygdala makes rapid judgments about a situation, but in making snap judgments, our amygdala more often than not commit errors, such as seeing danger where there is none. This is particularly true in today’s society where social conflicts are far more common than encounter with real dangers. Often a seemingly harmless mental or emotional clash can trigger uncontrollable fear or anger – leading to anxiety, stress and break-down.
The MRI scans of meditators show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the amygdala, appears to shrink. Scientists found that as the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – becomes thicker.
So, things run in a circle. The more you meditate the more your amygdala shrinks and become tamed; and the more your amygdale shrinks the more you can meditate as your pre-frontal cortex becomes thicker.
Mantra meditation like Om Meditation also helps to develop and thicken your pre-frontal cortex (the third-eye area behind your forehead). In many ancient texts, Om is described as the epitome of fearlessness. Mantras like Om work on the basis of important acoustic principles that are yet to be studied sufficiently by the scientific community. The mantras are known to create healing vibrations, which impact different glands and the nervous system in our bodies, thereby generating lasting changes in the body and mind.
So, there is nothing more potent than meditation and mindfulness that help you to tame your fear and anxiety, and live a blessed life. And meditation need not be a difficult practice. It can be a simple practice of mindfulness or Vipassana meditation, or Om meditation, if you like Yoga.
The more your amygdale shrinks, the more fearless you become. However, meditation leads you to a developed prefrontal cortex (Third-Eye area), which has many benefits hitherto unknown to science, including a higher cognition, perception and intuition of higher order, which makes your life a blessing on earth.
Ref: Partial Disruption of Fear Conditioning in Rats With Unilateral Amygdala Damage: Correspondence With Unilateral Temporal Lobectomy in Humans Kevin S. LaBar and Joseph E. LeDoux New York University Behavioral Neuroscience 1996, Vol. 110, No. 5, 991-997