A Simple Tool for Confident Living in the Age of Anxiety

The Scream

Edvard Munch, who lived from 1863 –1944, was a Norwegian Symbolist painter, printmaker and an important forerunner of expressionistic art.  His best-known composition (painted in 1893) is “The Scream” which has become one of the most recognizable paintings in all art.

It has been widely interpreted as representing the universal anxiety of modern man.  With this painting, Munch met his stated goal of “the study of the soul, that is to say the study of my own self.”  Munch wrote of how the painting came to be:

“I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood.  I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired.  Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord.  My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear.  Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.”

In the Norwegian language, the word he used for scream literally is “shriek.”  Imagine the existential angst he was feeling to use that word.  He later described the personal anguish behind the painting:  “For several years I was almost mad…You know my picture, ‘The Scream?’ I was stretched to the limit—nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again.”

Considering his childhood, that despair makes sense.  He grew up with a cold, angry and foreboding father who was a fundamentalist Christian who used God as a punishing and revengeful authority.  Little Munch was always being threatened by violent punishment for his forays into creativity, imagination, and play.  So even as an adult, Munch felt alone, isolated, and incapable of being loved.  He lived with the constant fear of rejection.

The Age of Anxiety

This painting is more contemporary to today than ever before.  Psychologists and sociologists are calling this new millennium the age of Anxiety.  Fear, they’re saying, is the defining emotion of our time. Think back on this initial decade.  First, there was the Y2K hysteria, which portended widespread computer failures and a massive breakdown in public services.  Next, uncertainty gripped the nation as we awaited the results of the disputed presidential election.  This was followed by the start of the stock market’s protracted crash as well as a surge in unemployment.  Then came the California energy shortage in which the world’s fifth largest economy and the most populous state in the country experienced the kind of rolling blackouts typically associated with developing countries.

Finally, there was the tragedy of September 11th, the anthrax scare, and a steady stream of government warnings that we are no longer safe. In the midst of this turmoil, major U.S. corporations such as Enron and WorldCom collapsed because of corporate malfeasance by executives and accounting firms, and tens of thousands of people lost their retirement savings. Now there is the threat of bioterrorism, the possibility of successive wars, and growing multinational, multigenerational hatred of the United States and of Americans.  And we’re in what is unarguably the worst recession since the Great Depression – everything is uncertain, including who to trust as a friend.  Fundamentalism in religion increasingly creates enemies and terrorism of all kinds.

In the midst of this environment, in my work as a coach and pastor, I hear stories often of people wanting to move in one direction for their lives but instead finding themselves moving in another; people who claim to be trying, but repeatedly finding themselves failing; people who are bored and stuck yet unable to make the changes they know they want to make and to make those changes sustainable.

Which raises significant questions.  If we know what we want (for the most part), why are we unable to act on it?  Why are we unable to follow the directions given by our conscious minds and reach our goals unimpeded?  And when we do try to do the right things, why are we often unsuccessful?

For so many people, this is a source of much heartache.  Whether it’s a tortured relationship or a difficult job situation, we often feel regretful after we realize we’ve made the wrong choice.  Why do we continue to make these choices, and what steers us toward them in the first place?

The Science of Fear

Experts call this the “rip current of human nature.”  A rip current is the very powerful surface flow of water that is returning to the sea from close to the shore.  It can turn an eerily calm-looking body of water into something extremely dangerous that has the power to drag swimmers out to sea.  Many people who get caught in rip currents eventually drown from sheer exhaustion of trying to swim against the current.

Say the experts, the unconscious is the rip current of the human mind.  From a distance, it’s calm, barely noticeable, and difficult to anticipate.  And at its core lies the threatening force of fear.  Much like a rip current is helpful to surfers who rely on its force to pull them away from the shore, fear may be helpful if it urges you forward toward your goal.  But like the unpredictable rip current, fear can also drag you away from your goals and destinations.

Significantly, our brains are wired to default to fear.  It’s the survival mechanism in play – the need to instinctively and instantly respond to a threat or danger to our system to protect our species.  The brain picks up on a threat (via our senses through the thalamus) and sends an immediate signal to the amygdala, the part of the brain called the “guard dog.”  When that amygdala switch is flipped, it instantly sends a signal to the hypothalamus which engages the whole body’s fight or flight systems (the heart starts pumping faster, cortisol increases, the eyes dilate, the muscles contract, breathing rates increase) – everything is mobilized instantaneously for engagement to protect itself.

Research is now showing that most of this process is actually taking place beyond our consciousness.  Our brain picks up external inputs (like even a fearful expression on someone’s face, even as seemingly insignificant as eyes that show more white than normal – the posture of fear) and interprets it as a potential threat – and the fear response kicks in.  The brain needs as little as 10 – 30 milliseconds of exposure to flip the fear switch (far beyond our level of consciousness).

Which means, as experts are now realizing, that many of us are living in an almost constant physiological and emotional state of anxiety (much of it not even in the scope of our awareness).  Falling asleep with the TV on, for example, impacts our brains response, and the amygdala still sends its fear signals picked up from the drama taking place on the screen that impact bodily response, even though we’re “sound” asleep.

Imagine all the fearful input we’re receiving every day – the news, people’s reactions, TV, movies, music, dangerous sounds all around us.  But then add on top of all that our own thoughts – the perceived “threats” we insist are coming our way from others, even those close to us – our almost automatic assessment that other people are not liking us or are displeased with us or think we’re stupid, dumb, or you-name-it.  Even though we might be making faulty assumptions, our brains still interpret these signals as “danger,” kicking into gear the fear response via our highly trained and instinctually-wired amygdala.

So for one thing, we should do more monitoring of how much fearful and anxiety-producing input we’re allowing into our brains.  Do we tend to listen to people who use fear motivation (e.g. so much of politics and religion these days)?

But in addition, the problem is that not all input is in reality something to be feared.  We make faulty assumptions all the time.  And unless we intentionally refuse to flip the amygdala switch, our systems go straight to fear mode.  And we end up living in high stress, unnecessarily.  No wonder so many of us feel drained and exhausted.  No wonder we so often find ourselves sabotaging our success or desires to move forward effectively with our dreams and goals.  We’re flipping the wrong switches in our brains.  We’re not living intentionally enough and instead are letting our default instincts control us.

A Simple Tool to Moving Ourselves Forward

Dr. Pillay, Harvard neuroscientist and psychiatrist, encourages a rather simple strategy to help us overcome this fear tendency.  It’s not by any means the only strategy but it is effective.  Here’s the way he puts it:

“Sometimes it helps to take a lighthearted look at what we’re feeling.  Life is short.  Experiences do come and go.  And our brains, because their fast, unconscious responses are like barking dogs, are not always barking or frenzied for an actual reason.  If we take every physiological sensation and narrative seriously, then we are assuming a certain conscious responsibility that is entirely outside of awareness.  So if you are afraid, you might be able to calm yourself by asking yourself, ‘Now what is my brain up to?’  It helps to give yourself this feedback because it can stop the vicious cycle of ‘Oh my God …’ that then leads to a greater sense of catastrophe.”  Dr. Srinivasan Pillay, Life Unlocked, p. 44.

This simple stopping and phrase-speaking is enough to delay the amygdala’s instinctive fear response.  The interruption is just long enough and strategic enough to allow the secondary brain signaling system to be fully engaged.  Upon sensory input, the thalamus sends the signal to the cortex (the more advanced outer layer of brain cell connections that are involved in evaluating and processing the signal).  Because the cortex takes longer to process the visual information, its assessment is more accurate than the amygdala’s.  When you see a coiled rope, for example, out of the corner of your eye (or perhaps aren’t even realizing it), the amygdala would automatically assume it’s a coiled snake and kick into gear your fight or flight response.  But when your cortex is allowed evaluation, it assesses that the object is in fact a coiled rope (not snake), and it calms down the amygdala and turns off the body’s fear response.

For this reason, it’s important for us to often take the time to ask ourselves about the fear we’re feeling (unless of course we’re being chased by a mugger, in which case we’re better off letting our bodies react instinctively and instantly into the fear mode).  Is this is a legitimate threat to our system?  What is the nature of this fear?  Is it simply my self-defeating feelings and self-thoughts that I’ve accumulated and chosen to hang on to through the years?  Is it worth allowing to control my entire system?  Is there any truth to this fear?  And even if there is, is it necessary for me to cave in to it?  Am I allowing this fear to flip the amygdala switch too automatically instead of sending it on the cortex where it can be accurately evaluated and I can develop a more proactive response?

“Now what is my brain up to?” instead of “Oh my God ….!”

“Knowing that fear can turn on your amygdala without your conscious knowledge may help you feel more certain about the need to develop new neuronal connections” by using tools like this simple one.  “If you are feeling limited in your life in any way, examine your life through the lens of ‘Am I afraid?’ even if you don’t feel afraid” (Dr. Pillay, p. 45).  Our instincts are wonderful – we’re wired to protect ourselves from real danger and threat.  But our instincts can also lead us astray if they’re not based on reality or if they’re not helping us go where we truly want to go.  We can take control of them.  It’s nice to have the choice!

[If you liked this post, feel free to share it with others – click on the share button to the right.  If you would like to receive each new blog post as an automatic email, please subscribe at the right.]