How To Not Have Anxiety, Depression, or Killing Rage As Attractor States

By Dr. Keith Witt
February 7, 2013
magnet_heart-150x150 In the last blog, Attractor States and Default Modes, we discussed attractor states and default modes of the brain–habits of thought and emotion. This week we’re going to dig deeper, beginning with dogs.

Dogs are so lucky.

Humans consciously exist simultaneously in the past, present, and future and can imagine things. This is so cool, but also tends to make us worry and get defensive because we can anticipate and imagine. Animals rarely have anticipatory anxiety. Your dog is not worried about prostate cancer or flesh eating bacteria, and is not fuming about the neighbor who yelled at him yesterday for barking. Your cat could care less about bankruptcy tomorrow. You can worry or take offense at anything real or imagined. Since brains instinctively try to solve problems, real or imagined threats cause your brain to go into worry/got-to-solve-the-problem mode—in other words, anxiety.

Each time we create a brain state, it’s more likely to come back. If we create it enough, we automatically go there in certain situations–it becomes an attractor state.

Three guys attack my house.

As a martial artist, I’ve anticipated endless violent encounters (martial artists do this all the time). A favorite during my thirties was reacting to three guys attacking my house. I would use this scene to make practice more authentic.
  • First, I’d imagine the breaking glass and footsteps.
  • Now, arm myself with knives or wooden swords.
  • Next, dial 911.
  • Finally, attack! Crush the most dangerous guy first! Destroy him utterly! Now, quickly! Right now! Focus killing rage and screams on the remaining two attackers!
I enjoyed such exercises–it’s relaxing for a martial artist to practice violent attack–partly because I knew the chances of real violence are statistically miniscule. I was just using the fantasy to make my workout more entertaining. I actually felt more secure training in this fashion. If I actually worried about three attackers, I’d be wasting my time speculating on something that almost certainly will never, ever happen. Anxiously obsessing, my pulse would be racing not from exercise, but stress, blood pressure through the roof, and cortisol/adrenaline driven neurobiological systems screaming, “Do it Keith! RIGHT NOW! DO IT, DO IT, DO IT!” Such catastrophic thinking is really not good. Your body is poisoned by stress hormones generated from an activated hypothalamus/pituitary/adrenal (HPA) axis. Cats and dogs don’t waste time on such paranoid visions. Human speculation can turbocharge our ancient mammalian defenses. We have problems when our super-powerful brains anticipate ludicrously low-probability events, generating surges of anxiety and fight/flight arousal–not fun, bad for your health.

It’s good to be prepared.

It’s good to be prepared, but not to have anxiety, depression, or killing rage as attractor states. Let’s look at the light side of attractor states–the possibilities of using them to be stoked and satisfied. Famous psychologist Donald Hebb said in 1950, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” The more we activate certain states, the more likely they are to become attractor states and default setting for our brains. So, it’s got to pay off big time if we can practice caring, joyful ones.

How do we do this?

  • Contemplative practice–meditation, centering prayer, yoga, journaling, self-reflection, etc.
  • We can always reach for compassion–remembering most people want to be good, but some are better at it than others. Let’s do our best to forgive and grow from our own and other’s imperfections.
  • We can interrupt anxious, depressed, and angry states and practice gratitude for who we are and what we’ve been blessed with.
If we consistently evoke these thoughts and emotions, we can eventually naturally–automatically— go there. Twentieth century psychologist and visionary, William James, thought a new habit could be programmed if practiced daily for twenty-one consecutive days. I don’t know where he got that number, but it has been adopted by Harvard happiness researcher and author of The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor. This correlates nicely with neuroscience findings that practicing a positive new habit for thirty days stimulates stem cells in our brains to divide and form integrative neurons with extensions to our amygdala, the brain area that regulates emotions. These integrative neurons a have a lot of GABA receptors in them–a neurotransmitter associated with soothing.

Joy and gratitude are beautiful attractor states.

We can live in progressively more joy and gratitude if we practice them daily. Examples?
  • Each time you go outside, let yourself feel one with nature.
  • Smile ten times a day in situations you wouldn’t normally.
  • Compliment two people a day.
  • Look your partner in the eyes every morning and night, smile, and tell him or her, “I love you,” while cultivating the sensation of love in your heart and face.
There really are “Up” buttons, but we have to sometimes push them thousands of times to create new attractor states, new default modes. Just trying to be more positive and caring makes us better people, and it feels good to believe you’re becoming a better person. If you cultivate joy, love, and gratitude you’re likely to be more generous, insightful, empathic, and healthy–you’re building beautiful attractor states. These states support love, optimism, faith, and unity with everything. What’s not to like?

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