By Monty McKeever for Tricycle, May 18, 2011. Read the full interview.
Tricycle: How does understanding the brain help us manage stress?
Daniel Goleman: There are several ways that understanding some brain mechanics and having basic neural tools at hand can help us manage stress. First of all, we have to realize that there’s no escaping stress completely; this is the nature of life. Some of what’s called samsara is what other people call “stress”. When we’re stressed the part of the brain that takes over, the part that reacts the most, is the circuitry that was originally designed to manage threats—especially circuits that center on the amygdala, which is in the emotional centers of the brain.
The amygdala is the trigger point for the fight, flight, or freeze response. When these circuits perceive a threat, they flood the body with stress hormones that do several things to prepare us for an emergency. Blood shunts away from the organs to the limbs; that’s the fight or flee. But the response is also cognitive—and, in modern life this is what matters most, it makes some shifts in how the mind functions. Attention tends to fixate on the thing that is bothering us, that’s stressing us, that we’re worried about, that’s upsetting, frustrating, or angering us. That means that we don’t have as much attentional capacity left for whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing or want to be doing. In addition, our memory reshuffles its hierarchy so that what’s most relevant to the perceived threat is what comes to mind most easily—and what’s deemed irrelevant is harder to bring to mind. That, again, makes it more difficult to get things done than we might want. Plus, we tend to fall back on over-learned responses, which are responses learned early in life—which can lead us to do or say things that we regret later. It is important to understand that the impulses that come to us when we’re under stress—particularly if we get hijacked by it—are likely to lead us astray.
It’s extremely important to widen the gap between impulse and action; and that’s exactly what mindfulness does. This is one of the big advantages of mindfulness practice: it gives us a moment or two, hopefully, where we can change our relationship to our experience, not be caught in it and swept away by impulse, but rather to see that there’s an opportunity here to make a different, better choice. I think that understanding the basic neural mechanisms involved is an aid to mindfulness because it tells us we don’t have to get swept away.