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Mindful : April 2019
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Barbara Paulsen is a freelance writer, editor, and podcast producer. She was formerly the longtime award-winning story development editor at National Geographic. “I WAS ABLE TO PICTURE MY ANXIETY AS THIS LITTLE BUBBLE OF EMOTION FLOATING ALONG BESIDE ME. IT WAS ALMOST COMFORTING.” Adrienne Taren, neuroscientist and emergency-room physician PHOTOGRAPHBYTIMROBBERTS/GETTYIMAGES Feinstein took S.M. to an exotic pet store, she held a snake and closely examined it, rubbing its scales and stroking its flicking tong ue. She wanted to touch a large dangerous snake—asking to do so 15 times—despite being told it might bite her. S.M .’s story offers a les- son in the crucial balancing act between letting our curiosity lead us to new encounters and heeding the fear that makes us avoid them. She’s been the victim of assault many times—had a knife held to her throat, been held at gunpoint— because she is unable to recognize threatening situations. To be sure, living without an amygdala is dangerous. But for those of us with the opposite prob- lem, whose amygdalas see threats all around us? We might benefit from paying more attention to our curi- osity, the antithesis of fear. In the weeks before our rafting trip, my greatest anxiety was of fear itself. I worried what I’d do if my body betrayed me, gasping for breath and panicking. I’d prepared for months, with daily meditation, but even so, my anxiety as we drove to the meet-up point was high. I used every tool in my box: I sang songs on the radio to distract me. I awoke at our campsite by the river the next morning and meditated. Then I took a half tablet of Xanax. That first day on the river, I bonded with the four Hawaiian men in our boat. As we crashed over the rapids, I observed “me” in the boat, too busy to feel anxious as we paddled like crazy. My vantage point had shifted: Instead of feeling buffeted by each rapid, I just saw myself paddling down the river. I didn’t once panic...even on one particu- larly gnarly rapid when we crashed into a boulder and my husband somersaulted out of the boat. He was OK. And—I realized—I was too. For the next two days I meditated in the morning, but I didn’t reach for the Xanax. My amygdala was learning there was noth- ing to fear. My sensations of anxiety had changed to excitement. By the last day, I felt like I could paddle on whitewater every day. I won’t lie: I’ve awoken anxious many days since that trip. But there’s a distance to my angst that wasn’t there before. I’ve noticed that the physical experience of anxiety doesn’t have to spiral out of control, that it can even make me feel more alive. I call this the Anxiety Para- dox: By allowing myself to feel anxious, to not suc- cumb to the desire to “just make it go away,” anxiety somehow lessens its grip on my psyche. And that opens upaspacetoletjoyin.● PHOTOGRAPHBYJANSTROMME/GETTYIMAGES April 2019 mindful 61 neuroscience