How Meditation Cleanses The Mind Of Fears & Phobias
141 Benefits of Meditation
#63 – How Meditation Cleanses The Mind Of Fears & Phobias
“Phobia” is one of the many words that our society misuses and abuses. Whenever someone is afraid of something, we say he has a phobia, but this is not always the case. Phobias are serious psychological disorders that have a negative effect on the person’s life, whereas fear and anxiety can be healthy and rational responses to imminent danger. An understanding of this difference is one key to understanding how meditation benefits those who suffer from true phobias.
Fear and anxiety can become irrational and debilitating in response to a stimulus that the mind associates with danger and negativity. If a person was locked in the basement as a child, for example, she may have a fear of enclosed spaces, or claustrophobia. Although her fear was healthy and rational at the time of the abuse, as her body was pushing her to flee or fight the dangerous situation, it is unhealthy and irrational when she panics at the sight of harmless enclosed spaces as an adult.
This type of panic often feels uncontrollable to the person who experiences it. Her heart begins to race, her breathing rate increases, and she may feel as if she’s hyperventilating while thoughts and memories related to the initial stimulus flood her mind. This fearful reaction stems from the amygdala, which is a warning system in the brain that initiates the “fight or flight” response. The thoughts that she has about her current state of being, such as “I am afraid,” stem from the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which uses words to label and interpret emotion.
The relationship between the amygdala and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex is where meditation’s power resides for those who suffer from phobias. As a person processes her situation into words and labels, activity in her amygdala decreases. This decrease in amygdalae activity reduces or prevents the symptoms of panic that she would typically have in response to the stimulus, and it is with meditation that she learns how to consciously process a situation in this manner.
Meditation allows you to recognize thoughts and feelings without having an emotional reaction to them. You focus on a positive word or on a calming scene in your mind, and then sit as a detached observer to your own mind and body. When any other thought or sensation passes through you, you label it rather than responding to it.
Routine practice of meditation also trains your mind to live in the present. Phobias stem from past events, and anxiety is often a response to fear of the immediate or distant future. When you focus on the present—or live in the now—your amygdala encounters fewer reasons to activate.
If the person with claustrophobia were to practice this regularly, she could learn to immediately observe her emotional and physical reactions with words, e.g. “sweaty palms” and “feelings of fear,” and then allow them to continue along without preoccupying her mind. And as she strengthens her ability and tendency to focus on the present only, she improves her ability to stand before panic-inducing stimuli without associating it with a negative past event.
The continuous practice of meditation helps you process irrational fears and everyday life through the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which, in turn, can reduce or even prevent the onset of distressing emotional responses. As the phobic person enhances her ability to meditate and gradually exposes herself to the object of fear, she teaches her amygdala to respond only as needed.