Think about the last time you felt anxious or afraid. It might have been minutes before giving an important presentation, having a difficult conversation with a co-worker, or making a life-changing decision.
You probably remember all the physiological symptoms of anxiety: shortness of breath, racing pulse, muscle tension, and that queasy feeling of unease.
What you might not remember is the role your memory itself played in making you feel this way. Research in psychology shows that the hippocampus (the brain’s memory center) plays a central role in the experience of fear and anxiety.
The science behind this is complicated. But the experience makes sense. Say you’re about to speak in front of 1,000 people. As you stand alone backstage, you feel a burst of stress hormones. Then memory kicks in. If you’re afraid of public speaking, it floods the mind with images and stories of past flops and failures. If you’re confident, it fills the mind with moments and memories of when you crushed it. In both cases, memory shapes your experience of fear.
In a study released last week, led by Harvard Neuroscientist Sarah Lazar, researchers revealed a promising way to alter our experience of fear by altering the memories that trigger it. It’s a tool that you’ve surely heard of and may already practice: mindfulness.
How does mindfulness change the way the brain stores fear-inducing memories? Through a process called “extinction learning.” The whole goal of mindfulness is to redirect your attention to the present moment — to sights, sounds, and sensations that are happening now.
When you practice mindfulness, it’s like you’re changing the channel on the TV screen of the mind, from the traumatic memories that hold your fear in place to what’s happening right now: the sounds of birds outside your window, the sensations in your belly, or the texture of each inhale and exhale.
And that’s how, in the words of Lazar, “Mindfulness can enhance our ability to remember this new, less-fearful reaction, and break the anxiety habit.” It’s a tool that interrupts those old, fear-inducing memories, and creates new, less threatening, associations in the mind.
So how can you dissolve fear by rewiring your memories? The key is to develop the skill of meeting anxiety with mindfulness by paying careful attention to the present moment. Here’s how to do it.
Notice when you feel subtle forms of anxiety.
Everything starts with noticing. Once you notice the experience of subtle forms of fear or anxiety, you open the space to shift out of your ordinary mental habits.
The key word here is “subtle.” If you’re new to mindfulness practice, it’s best not to try this with major traumas or powerful fears and phobias. Instead, try it with the more ordinary, everyday, forms of anxiety that happen as you go throughout the day.
Shift your attention to the present moment.
To shift, all you have to do is place your attention on the present moment. Sounds easy, right? But it’s often quite difficult, especially when experiencing negative emotions like fear or anxiety.
So here’s a more precise instruction. Place your attention on the sensations of your breath. Your breath, after all, is always current, never lost in the past or future. When you watch its sensations — the texture of the inhale, the temperature of the exhale, the soft vibration in your nose — you’re guaranteed to be in the present moment. And that means that you’re no longer letting the default memories in your mind run the show.
Watch what happens with curiosity and interest.
Anxiety and fear generally provoke a powerful mental response of avoidance and aversion. If these emotions were people who showed up at your front door, your ordinary response would be like slamming the door in their face and perhaps even shouting a few profanities at them.
One of the central tenants of mindfulness practice, however, is to do the exact opposite – to welcome instead of resisting, to see what you have to learn from these interesting new people who showed up at your door instead of shouting them down.
So when you feel the internal fireworks of fear and anxiety, try staying interested and curious. Imagine you’re watching an inner show. What does it feel like? How does it change from moment-to-moment?
This may sound like some sort of masochistic mind experiment. And it’s true, the whole idea of just sitting around and allowing yourself to feel fear cuts against our most deeply wired impulses.
And yet, as this new research suggests, this counter-intuitive practice may just be the key to unwinding the memories that hold fear in place and to approaching your work and the world from the powerfully productive place of fearlessness.
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