Do you feel anxious and fearful most of the time? It’s unpleasant to be that way. What makes it worse is that we usually end up adding insult to injury by judging ourselves for it, as if it were our own unique character flaw.
Why am I so fearful and uptight?
Although our personal history influences how we see the world, our inclination to be overly vigilant comes from millions of years of conditioning. It is not a personality flaw.
Life as cave people required constant threat assessment. There probably wasn’t much time to smell the flowers. We were concerned about predators, including other humans. Survival required such a rigorous monitoring of one’s circumstances that the brain evolved to accommodate it.
A part of our brain called the amygdala greatly influences our stress reactivity. And two thirds of its function focuses on negative thoughts regarding worst case scenarios.
The amygdala even has a sophisticated recall system so that there is an accelerated response time to a previously experienced threat. This is why we can be triggered by anything that even remotely suggests a past trauma.
Now that life is more civil–sort of–we are caught in a peculiar situation where a long harsh evolutionary past causes us to see tigers everywhere. Sometimes, these tend to be more like paper tigers: perceived threats that actually do not exist or are exaggerated.
You may be thinking, “Well, great, then it’s not all my fault and involves something that predates me. But that doesn’t help cause I still feel anxious.”
What you can do about it.
Indeed, just understanding this on an intellectual level serves no purpose; however, part of the calming effect of meditation comes from differentiating between an experience and the running commentary we inflict upon ourselves as a result.
In Buddhist thought, physical pain, like the legacy of having a prehistoric brain, is a part of life. It’s the first arrow of suffering that’s just part of being human. The second arrow is the self judgment we inflict upon ourselves because we think this is a unique result of our flawed self. Suffering from that arrow is our choice.
Meditation lowers anxiety by fostering an awareness that can filter real threats from imagined ones. It can also help reduce self judgment on impersonal aspects of our human genetics which actually have no bearing on our personality.
Parts of our brain are designed to be stress reactive in order to stay on top of the gene pool. It’s not personal. Hopefully, knowing how your brain works and what you can do about anxiety will give you a moment of pause when you want to berate yourself for being anxious.