13 May Reframing Fear and Turning Anxiety into Loving Kindness
It’s quite plausible that the most difficult part of 2020 has been uncertainty. Uncertainty about how contagious COVID-19 really is and when it’s going to end (and how). We face uncertainty about the travel that we have planned. Uncertainty about the economy. Uncertainty about our jobs. Yet, uncertainty can be compared to a virus itself, one that is only adding fuel to the anxious fires burning in many of us. This is because uncertainty triggers the fear centers in our brains. Knowing how this process works, however, can help us take proper countermeasures and develop better mental hygiene. First, it’s important to understand that fear is a basic human mechanism. It helps us survive. When something scares us, we are triggered, and through fear, we learn to practice behaviors that will help us avoid that danger in the future. When we successfully avoid that danger, we then feel rewarded. We inherited this three-step mental process from our ancient ancestors: see saber-toothed tiger (trigger), run away (behavior), live to tell our kids to avoid that part of the savanna (reward).
While fear helps us survive, when mixed with uncertainty, it can lead to something quite bad for our mental health: anxiety. And when anxiety is spread by social contagion — defined as the spread of effect from one person to another — it can lead to something even more problematic: panic. Just like walking into a party and suddenly feeling like you’re in a “social mood” when you hadn’t been moments before, fear and anxiety are two emotions that spread easily from one person to another. Worse, thanks to social media, you don’t need to be in physical contact with people to catch an “emotional infection.” While many people on social media have good intentions and intend to share useful information about Coronavirus with the masses, as they report supply shortages and speculate on how bad things might get, they may be inadvertently doing the opposite. Constantly scrolling through the latest news on your phone or desktop is like walking by people who are sneezing fear. The more you read, the more you are likely to take on their worry and spread it. The problem is that these emotions keep us from being able to think straight, and when overdone, they no longer protect us from dangers. Rather, they become the danger. There are ways to combat this. Perhaps one that may be really effective, according to my research and that of others, is mindfulness.
Researchers on the subject of mindfulness have made strides examining the relative benefits and detriments of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as a tool for measuring the neural correlates of mindfulness. The goal is to determine whether peering into someone’s brain as they meditate is an effective way to gather accurate information and move the scientific field of mindfulness, which is still very novel. A great way to grasp the concept and get into the correct mindset for a discussion in the matter is to practice a type of meditation called “loving-kindness.” This practice is aimed at awakening and fostering our inherent capacity for kindness and connection. It is a type of mindfulness that decreases activity in the very same brain regions that get fired up when people are anxious.
A Loving-Kindness meditation is a meditation on unconditional love without any expectations of receiving anything in return. A Loving-Kindness meditation is a direction of thoughts of care, concern, and love towards oneself and others.
Meanwhile, it’s been recently found that even simple, app-based mindfulness training, which teaches people how to use a number of in-the-moment exercises, significantly reduces anxiety in healthcare workers. It’s been reported that a 57% reduction in clinically-validated measures of anxiety in stressed physicians. This kind of training also reduces anxiety in people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. If you want to experience some of the loving-kindness bliss, try this: close your eyes, bring to mind a family member, a pet, a loved one, and silently offer them a phrase of well-wishing that feels authentic to you. Use the image and repeat the phrases at your own pace to help you stay anchored in the present moment. If your mind wanders, simply bring back to mind the image and begin repeating the phrase again. After your meditation, you will be visibly more relaxed and with present-centered awareness.