We Are Wired to Worry
Have you ever noticed that it’s really hard to stop worrying about work? While we may be paid for 40+ hours per week, mentally we spend much more time than that thinking about a project, worrying about what our boss thinks of us, and replaying that confusing interaction with a co-worker. Work worries can even creep into our dreams, making it feel like we can’t ever get a real break, even on vacation.
A large part of this is due to our biological wiring as a species. And as a result, we have to be even more attentive to bring mindfulness into our lives. Recent studies in brain science, psychology and biology have shed light on what’s really going on.
First, like all living things, we are driven by the need to survive. We are biologically designed to continually scan our surroundings for signs of danger, and take action to reduce the perceived threat.
Your body has a complex alarm system that is always on alert for the potential attack. All your senses are connected directly to the amygdala, a small structure in the brain that is responsible for the fight or flight response. Within seconds, your body can be flooded with adrenalin and cortisol, ready to fight the danger or outrun it.
Second, for most of us living in developed countries, our poor alarm systems don’t have too much to work with. We are generally safe from predators and food can be easily found, if not delivered to our homes hot and ready to eat.
But here’s the funny part–our bodies find new things to see as threats and our work can provide ample material. An email can start your heart racing, or a deadline can have you losing sleep for days. These are truly not life threatening situations but our bodies see them as such.
This is a big issue for us as a species. Our bodies were built to help us survive living off the land in small tribes, surrounded by real dangers. And while all of our modern conveniences have brought some ease to our lives, they have not changed our inherent wiring.
As a result, our biological urge to scan for danger has us finding it where it doesn’t really exist. We read meaning into interactions, take things personally, and we get anxious about potential outcomes. We can now spend hours worrying about something at work which means the staff meeting is the modern substitution for the saber tooth tiger.
The most dangerous part is that that the more we worry, the more sensitive our amygdala becomes, making us even more likely to get triggered at the smallest thing.
But before you stay up all night worrying about what all this worrying is doing to you (how’s that for irony?), let me tell you that there is a simple fix to all this madness.
It’s called meditation.
As much as our brains and bodies are wired to worry, they are equally (if not more so) wired for meditation. Scientific studies have shown that even trying meditation for a few minutes one time can bring about real changes in the brain that are measurable on MRI scans.
And it’s not just a temporary change either. It’s like the brain was built for meditation, which is probably why every wisdom tradition has some sort of mindfulness practice at its core.
And regular meditation brings even more lasting and powerful benefits. Studies on consistent meditators show that they are less triggered by stressful stimuli, meaning their amygdala doesn’t go into the fight or flight response as easily. They are also less likely to ruminate on negative thoughts and can bounce back more quickly even when something stressful does happens to them.
For myself, I find that I feel more grounded and open-hearted and I am more likely to see things from a positive perspective. I now meditate for 15 minutes every morning and it sets the tone for my entire day, often lasting into the evening. And I am the least-likely meditator you have ever met.
I started meditating last year and the results have been profound. But don’t just take my word for it. Give it a try and see what happens. But don’t expect drop in to some deeply calm and zen-like state. I certainly didn’t. In fact, I got to see just how much my brain bounces around to different thoughts and worries.
And that’s actually the point. As I watched it bounce around, I became separate from my thoughts. I could observe them without controlling them or reacting to them. It creates just enough space that the amygdala can stand down, which helped me chill out.
If your brain would like more information, check out the work of Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin who is doing scientific research on the benefits of meditation and other mindfulness practices. His Center for Investigating Healthy Minds has the latest findings as well as practical tips that anyone can use.
Remember, the goal of meditation is not to become some “guru on the mountain” but rather to help your brain realize that the perceived mountain is really just a molehill. Nothing to worry about at all.