When we are worried about something, our minds start to weave stories in our heads. We weave an internal narrative about the problem. We are good at this. We’re creative, like a film director making their latest movie. The story builds inside us, until we are convinced that things are serious. This, in turn, makes our emotions worse in an ascending spiral of worry.
OUR OLD AND NEW BRAINS
Why does this happen? Well, our brains are a mixture of systems. The brainstem has three emotional networks, ascending, descending, and modulatory. The ascending network brings in sensory information. The descending network activates emotional behaviours. The modulatory network acts as an intermediary, modifying emotional response. This modulatory network is informed by the cerebral cortex (the newer part of the brain). The cerebral cortex has a great imagination, and is a prolific story-maker. The stories it invents inform our emotional reaction to events.
In plain English, our older, animal brain works on a stimulus-response basis. Our newer, cerebral brain can get in the way and moderate that response. If our cerebral brain tells awful stories, then our response gets more emotional. If it tells peaceful stories, then our response is calmer.
THE WORRY SPIRAL
A typical worry scenario. We wake up, all of a sudden, at three o’clock in the morning, with a raised heartbeat. Receiving the stimulus of silence, darkness, and raised heartbeat, our old brain is already primed for an emotional response. In evolutionary terms, we need to be ready, perhaps, to fight, or flee from, a predator.
Into this primed system comes the cerebral cortex, which has just awoken from dreaming. It’s a little disorientated. It tries to find a story to fit the emotional context. “Ah,” it thinks, “I see we’re hyperalert and feel under threat. Let’s check the story library for stories that might fit the ‘under threat’ category”.
Into our mind comes a series of possible candidates for ‘threat stories’. We think of chinks in our relationship; we think of faults in our job performance; we think of tasks we have failed to do. Soon, we are catastrophizing, to match our physiological state, and our minds and bodies are in perfect worry-synchronization.
BREAKING THE CHAIN
Calming the mind involves giving ourselves a different story to work from. When we wake from sleep worried, we can observe our physical symptoms, but separate ourselves from those symptoms. ‘There is the old body response,’ we can say. We can observe it, but not seek out worry-stories to match. Eventually, with a bit of training, we can detach ourselves from our worrying habit. Perhaps, when we wake, we can make ourselves a drink, walk around a little, and re-settle.
WE HAVE A CHOICE
Essentially, when our body is in an alert state, our mind can choose its path. One path goes down the road of confirming the worry, seeking potential panic narratives. The other path builds a narrative which is separate from the alert state. It doesn’t ignore the bodily state, but it frames it in a more sustainable support network.
Many religions are built on this kind of wisdom. They build a narrative which welcomes the individual, however worried they may be. Guidance is given, socially and ethically, which offers a road away from the spiral of anxiety, and towards a number of philosophical and relational comforts. The narratives (sometimes involving supernatural events) may sometimes be hard to believe in an objective sense; but their function is to steer our imaginations away from the spiral of worry, and towards a modified, calmer emotional response.
HOW TO CALM THE MIND
Whether we choose a religion, or develop our own support system, the method for calming the mind is much the same. We need to have a narrative which is capable of breaking the chain of worry. We need to give our moderating cerebral cortex helpful jobs to do, instead of joining the panic.
FINDING YOUR NARRATIVE
A narrative is a story that brings together separate elements of our life into something understandable. In counselling, for instance, I will work with clients to develop their own personal story. In effect, I am helping their cerebral cortex to interpret and harness the feelings that their brain stem evokes. If successful, (though it can take a while), the client feels much more in control of their own life and feelings.
If you want to start this process of calming your mind, here are a few suggestions:
- FIND A LISTENER – This might be a counsellor or friend. It could also be a diary, a journal, or an online help group. Begin the process of sharing. This allows your conscious mind to get in touch with how you might be feeling. Invite yourself to share how you feel. Try not to hide behind an ‘I’m OK’ facade.
- BEGIN WITH A SMALL PROBLEM – Identify one thing to work through. Anxiety has a habit of widening all problems to the whole universe, so you’ll have to narrow it down. Find one small part of your life you would wish to improve. Focus on it.
- DO SMALL EXPERIMENTS – In working through your chosen small problem, give yourself little bits of ‘homework’ to do. Try out different stories, languages, courses of action. You are a scientist, experimenting gently on yourself. Use your listeners (counsellor, friend, diary, etc) as sounding-boards for your theories and results.
In this way, we can begin to create a personal narrative of agency, fulfilment and progress. If we are lucky, eventually it will replace our worry narrative of helplessness and stuck-ness. We can start small, with little things. Big changes start with tiny changes, always. A car starts to move at slow speed before it moves faster.
Humans are good at ascending spirals of worry. When our old brain (the brain stem) gets stimulated, our new brain (the cerebral cortex) seeks out stories to match. To calm the worry, we need to develop stories which help us, not hinder us. We need to give this wonderful imagination of ours something constructive to do.
One way is outside-in: to latch onto a pre-designed way of life which directs our thinking brain. Many people use religion, or work, or social convention.
Another way is inside-out: to find a sympathetic listener, and to develop one’s own self in a focused and systematic way. Eventually, a new personal narrative may emerge, instead of the worry-cycle.