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Reigning in Stress in Stressful Times

2020 has been challenging. Even more challenging than the year I turned 17 and my high school crush who played guitar didn’t like me back.

My learned behavior for traumatic events is “recede.” (Basically lying on the floor and watching the shadows on the ceilings change.) For others it may be: “pick a fight,” “eat an excessive amount of chips,” or “buy more lysol…”

Our go-to in stressful situations is as unique as our thumbprint. It is formulated in the part of the brain known as the “Me Center” (the medial prefrontal cortex), where we process information relating to ourselves and experiences. The neural pathways between our body sensations and fear sensors are naturally very strongly connected to the Me Center and can result in heightened anxiety or even physical pain when we experience a challenging set of circumstances.

When we meditate, the neural pathways to this area are weakened and the ones connecting our body sensations and fear sensors to our “Assessment Center” (lateral prefrontal cortex) are strengthened. That’s the part of the brain where we do our reasoning. That’s how meditation helps me not curl up like a hedgehog.

An analogy in the Upanishads (an ancient philosophical Indian and yogic text) is of a chariot driven by horses: The horses are your senses, the reins your mind, the charioteer your intellect, and the chariot your body.

When we do not use our intellect to “rein in” the mind, our senses take over, pulling us in all directions. If a particular horse is spooked, it gallops straight into the darkness. We fall into old coping techniques when we feel threatened because even if they are not optimal, we know them.

Meditation helps lessen the sensations caused by scary or upsetting situations and allows us to assess them more rationally; we respond rather than react.

A big part of it is the discipline of making the daily choice to spend time training your mind: after a while, that act alone raises your awareness. We can exit the Me Center more quickly, and that’s damn helpful whatever happens.

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