Everyone experiences worry to some extent. For some, worry can seem vast and all-encompassing. It seems to envelop the entire mind, tying it up in tightly binding knots. In the body, worry can turn up as sweating, shaking, headaches, dry mouth, irritable bowels, restlessness, tiredness and insomnia. The list seems endless. Now science has provided a look into exactly what is going on inside the brain during these events, and it is a lot less daunting than we usually think.
Studies using MRI scans show worry is really only taking place in two small areas of the brain. These areas, (the medial pre-frontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex), are known to be involved in mentalisation and introspection.
A lot of thinking about thinking goes on in these regions. Under stress, these areas light up, not only because there may be something to worry about, but also because we think about and dwell on the worry, using those two areas of the brain to process what it means to us now, what it could mean in the future, or to make comparisons with what something like it has meant in the past.
It is important to notice that the studies show that those who worry a little, and those who worry a lot, have essentially the same kind of activity going on inside the brain. Worry lights up the same areas in everyone. The difference is that, for some, the lights stay on long after the stimulus for the worry has passed.
This extra activity – worrying about worry - is exactly like turning a light switch on and off a thousand times when once would do. For those who worry, the real world scenarios are all too familiar, such as patting your pocket to make sure if you still have your keys or phone, or checking and rechecking phone messages for that call that never seems to come. Even more worrisome is repeated mental revising and rehearsal of scenarios long gone, or that will never come.
In the terms of the researchers, over-persistent activity in these two small areas of the brain involved with worry is called “dysregulation,” meaning there is a kind of free-for-all of repetitive and speculative activity going on in these areas, overloading the circuitry and leading to other effects elsewhere in the mind and body.
This is how a perfectly routine action, such as being concerned about something, can turn into a set of feelings and sensations that seem so vast and enveloping they become a smothering blanket of tension and stress, often turning up as physical symptoms.
What is happening is that all that extra mental activity makes us restless, we become exhausted, and often experience an acute sense of doubt and disillusion. Every slight twinge or pain then becomes a proof of why we were worried in the first place, so a kind of feed-back loop takes over and the physical burden becomes an extra reason to continue worrying.
As overwhelming as these effects may be, the new research shows that the worry we may have experienced is actually rather small and limited in its origin. Knowledge of where its painful effects originate, means we can potentially target those areas, rather than trying to deal with “the mind” as a whole.
None of this is new to those who practice with dhamma. It says something about the penetrative aspects of meditation and the efficacy of the techniques taught by the Buddha that all of the states of mind revealed by the latest medical technologies are exactly as described in the texts on the mind that are at least two thousand years old.
This doesn't mean that the debilitating effects are exaggerated or should be dismissed as unimportant. Quite the opposite. However, it is possible to accept that small victories can win a larger battle. A good suggestion may be to introduce some skilful means and helpful controls to these mind areas that would help lessen the debilitating effect of worry.
What is essential is to understand the transient nature of events:
“Nothing caused can be permanent, for there are no permanent causes. Any happiness [or unhappiness] based on impermanent causes will have to be impermanent as well. When a cause passes away, its effect will—either immediately or over time—pass away, too.
Suffering is not caused primarily by unpleasant sensory contact; it is caused by the attitudes and views that are brought to any sensory contact, pleasant or not. This further means that the crucial causes for stress and suffering are internal, and thus not dependent on outside circumstances. They are subject to one’s knowledge and will. In this way, the quest for the end of suffering is primarily an internal matter of training the mind.”- Thanissaro
I hope most can agree that when worry strikes it often takes the form of little flutters of regret and feeling sorry for ourselves. Self-pity is such a common human illness. It must be abandoned!
Here is the prescription for curing the worry of self-pity.
First, repeat these statements aloud until feeling better:
- The past I feel sorry about was not actually like that.
- The past cannot be dug up and resurrected. (We cannot wake the dead moments, only disturb their graves.)
- The person I feel sorry for is not what I think he/she is.
- The future will be what I make it NOW!
Second, let go and trust!
- Breathe out slowly. Think "softening." Hold for a count of five to let the energy gather.
- Breathe in calmly. Think "brightening." See how far the energy travels inside. A little way? A little bright? Hold for a count of five to let the energy spread throughout the body.
- Fill the body with the breath. Picture the breath as one of those big sausage balloons. Breathing in, think: “beginning of the breath, middle of the breath, end of the breath.” Breathing out, think:“beginning of the breath, middle of the breath, end of the breath.”
- Breathe and smile. Enjoy the calm and peaceful rhythm of the breath. Repeat steps 1 to 4 for at least ten minutes. This can be done anywhere. When worry arises, try it, even if only for a few breaths. It will help.
Giving careful attention to the breath in this way is classed as a feeling among other feelings. The mind can only maintain one feeling at a time! Feeling the breath trumps feelings of worry or self-pity.
Of course you may find yourself struggling in the mind with newly arisen feelings of worrying and feeling sorry for yourself. Maybe you start feeling that you don't have time to do this, or worrying that you are not doing it correctly.
First, this is kind of absurd, as we breath around 26,500 times per day, so you have had plenty of practice already. Second, noticing that you are worrying and doubting is mindfulness in action.
Noticing that these feelings are caused – that they are arising and passing away – gives us a clue about the transient nature of events. This begins to be the basis for a new attitude and view of the way things are in the mind. We are not stuck with old habits. They can change in just one breath. With this small exercise we win a major victory in training the mind.
Finally, if you who worry are good at doing things repetitively, you may quickly become very good at taking up and continuing this new habit of paying attention to the breath.
You can never overdo attentive mindfulness!
Breathe and smile. Repeat until your last breath. (Hopefully not soon.)