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Mindful : April 2019
Anxiety from speaking in front of a crowd starts in either the amygdala (via fight-or-flight physical sensations) or the cortex (via thoughts). It ends up involving both. A person trained in mindfulness can short-circuit anxiety from both directions. STRESS-PRONE BRAIN In a situation like public speaking, the amygdala reacts to the crowd as a threat. It might have learned to fear public speaking from a previous bad experience, or it may be a deep-seated fear of being rejected by our clan. Evolutionary scientists sug- gest we may be hard-wired to interpret eyes watching us as potentially dangerous. Either way, the amygdala creates a fear response, which acti- vates stress hormones. How Mindfulness Rewires the Anxious Brain We used to believe that the thinking part of our brain, known as the cortex, was largely responsible for creating anxiety. But now neuroscientists realize that the amygdala, our fear center, plays a key role. That helps explain why mindfulness shows such promise for easing anxiety. Here’s how a stress-prone brain and a more mindful one react to one of the most anxiety-inducing experiences we face: public speaking. deep breathing and relaxation that are habitual in medita- tors calm down the amygdala to insulate it from stress. The cor tex of the more mindful brain has weaker connections to the amygdala, making it less likely for any hard-wired reactivity to over- whelm the logical part of the brain. Conversely, mindful- ness training strengthens the attention centers of the cor- tex, which creates a distance from the anxiety. That allows us to experience anxiety with less judgment. HOW IT WORKS The cortex looks for an explanation for our stress and tells us we’re afraid of performing badly, even if the real cause is rooted in the amygdala. That can lead to anxious thoughts like, “I’m going to make a fool of myself”—triggering a spiral of worry. The cor tex can’t simply “reason” away the anxiety, say, by reminding us the audience isn’t out to get us. If fear’s coming from the amygdala, it has to be addressed there. MINDFUL BRAIN The amygdala of a person trained in mindfulness is less likely to respond to a neutral situation like public speak- ing as threatening, perhaps because his or her amygdala is actually smaller and less reactive. What’s more, in the moment of speaking, the 58 mindful April 2019