Need a Cure for Feeling Tense?
It has been suggested that the human brain is perhaps the most complex structure in the universe. Neuroscience has progressed dramatically in recent decades, especially with emerging technologies that have allowed us to “peek inside” and observe the hidden workings of our brain in real time. As scientists have started to observe and track a tiny portion of the billions of neurons and hundreds of trillions of interactions among them that take place in our brain minute by minute, day in and day out, we are coming to a fuller realization of just how accurate that claim is. The complexity is staggering.
But despite being at the very primitive beginning of a new science, our understanding of the brain’s inner workings is progressing steadily and is gaining both breadth and depth. One insight that neuroscience has provided us is how difficult (perhaps even impossible) it is for our brain to be both curious and highly anxious at the same time. Our brain performs an incalculable number of tasks simultaneously, but it seems that the circuitry involved in being curious and the circuitry involved in being anxious work to defeat one another’s ability to dominate our mood/consciousness at any given moment.
- Key Take Away: Simply put, the more curious we are, the less psychic room there is for us to be anxious, and vice versa. Consciously choosing to be curious counteracts anxiety the moment it arises and helps us to see possibilities, not just threats.
Another insight that neuroscience has given us is what is called “neuroplasticity”, which one dictionary defines as “the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience”. It appears that from birth to death, our brain is constantly laying down new neural pathways, making new connections based on previous learning and ongoing experience. Research has proven that focused attention and persistent practice are two keys to this capacity of the brain to “rewire” itself to build new knowledge, skills and behaviors.
- Key Take Away: The more we deliberately work at strengthening our brain’s curiosity muscle, it appears, the better we get at calming our anxious selves.
The opportunities to put this insight into practice are numerous. For example, the next time you are leading or participating in a meeting where emotions and tensions are running high, and you realize that you are starting to pick up and feel the stress of the group escalating within you, press your inner pause button.
- Key Take Away: Bring a curious mindset to the anxious moment of life and ask yourself a set of thoughtful questions as suggested below.
Come prepared. In your notebook or on your electronic device, have a set of curious, thoughtful questions already formulated that you can turn to and ask yourself. You will want to formulate your own, but here are some suggestions of the kind of questions that are calculated to help you adopt a curious perspective in the midst of a rising tide of anxiety:
- What was it that first shifted this discussion from a more thoughtful to a more anxious one?
- What first triggered my own anxiety?
- How might I best describe the roadblock the group is experiencing at the moment?
- Is there a goal, a value, an assumption that everyone here can agree on right now?
- What new direction might we take in this conversation to move us forward together?