Gentle Spaces

Written by Jill Zimmer
Last updated May 20, 2021

Wow. Is anyone else feeling the heaviness of what we are currently experiencing? A heaviness born of a belief that at times it feels as though we have given so much, and yet it seems not to be enough – that nothing will ever change? Or maybe, like some of us, you are feeling a sense of hopeful anticipation? An anticipation that harmonizes with a life song that sings, “I still have more to give.”

The other day, I heard it said that “relationships move at the speed of trust, but social change moves at the speed of relationships.”[1] And make no mistake; we are not the progenitors of social change. But as history and Netflix shows us, every single generation that came before us was confronted by the choice to either stand unmoving or continue to push forth towards a “long obedience in the same direction.”[2]

One of the guiding principles of the anxiety work we do is the mantra of taking gentle notice of our beliefs and behaviours, then inviting a gentle refocus of those beliefs and behaviours through the courageous act of engaging gentle truth-telling into our lives.

As there is no such thing as “self-help” in living the good life – this practice is often ground zero for life-changing anxiety support – it’s the initial step most of us had to learn to combat the tyranny that anxious thoughts have on our body, heart, and mind.

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So what of this in light of the difficult conversations being had around injustice and our place and space within it?  Is it possible that this anxiety mantra is a natural starting place for all of us to move forward?

  1. Gentle Notice: This is the space BEFORE we begin to ask the tough questions. In this space, we want to notice what is going on in our spirit:
    • Breathe…What am I feeling? How am I experiencing this?
    • What am I feeling? How am I experiencing this?
    • Breathe…Breathe…
  2. Gentle Refocus: This is the space that once our spirit is quieted, we can enter into a remembrance of what is important:
    • Breathe…I am safe…It is well…God is good...
    • Breathe…I am safe – It is well – God is good…
    • Breathe…
  3. Gentle Truth Telling: This is the space where we begin to take note of what is ACTUALLY true: 
    • Breathe…What do I know of who I am?
    • Breathe…How am I loved well?
    • Breathe…How have I loved well?
    • Breathe…What do I know to be true?

Once we enter into these gentle spaces, we begin to notice that the hard questions we are asking take on a reconciling tenor as opposed to one surrounded in fear. Here we might start to enter into the act of “bridge-building”[3] and the questions begin to sound more like:

  • Who is my neighbour?
  • What have I been influenced by?
  • What does my brokenness look like to those around me?
  • How has my woundedness and that of my family shaped the lens I see the world through?

But this brings us back to the whole smoke and mirrors of “self-help,” which cannot be done in isolation. Many of these questions cannot be answered completely without the gentle truth-telling of “others.” Especially those who see the world differently than we do.

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When we seek to move through this world as people who are vulnerably transparent and unconditionally constant[4] (see the Greek word for love – “philia” for more on this), then we experience what was always intended for relationship – the flourishing of humanity.

And isn’t this what social change intends? For all to have the freedom to flourish and live in the gentle spaces that prompt us to move forth?

The words of ancient prophets come back to me often during these days where it has been spoken that we already know what to do: To live justly. To love mercy. To walk humbly.

We can do this because as Martin Luther King and those who inspired him previous could say with hope that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,”[5] and it is within this hope we can look into the not so gentle spaces of our hearts and minds and know that “all will be well – and all manner of things shall be well.”[6]

But if I could posit one last thing that might be of great importance in the days ahead - don’t stop there – get “othered.” Practice gentle spaces and then sit long with “others” (mercy), listen well (humbly), and then act justly.

Oh, one last note… keep well in mind that “gentle” doesn’t always mean comfortable.

It’s been long known that anxiety and stress cause an increase in activity in the fear center of the brain (the amygdala and other parts of the brain) and a decrease in activity in the executive function parts of the brain (the prefrontal cortex and others).

However, this is the first time brain scans have been used to examine how emotion-regulation circuits are changed by anxiety and chronic stress in children.

The takeaway, however, is not that the brain is malfunctioning or damaged in some way due to anxiety, but that the brain is responding the way it’s supposed to when we think we are in danger. This change in brain function is an integral part of the body’s survival mechanism.

We explain this change in brain function in more detail in our “Stress Response” article.

We can remedy this change by behaving calmly instead of anxiously. As we use calming behavior, the executive function parts of the brain increase in activity, and the fear center decreases. Thus, restoring our ability to regulate our emotions.

So, it’s not that we can’t regulate our emotions when we’re anxious, but a matter of learning how so that we can gain more control over our emotions when we are anxious.

Recovery Support members can read the articles “Hyperstimulation And Its Effects,” “The Rational Brain And The Emotional Brain,” and the “Natural Ways To Shift The Body Out Of ‘Emergency Mode’” in chapter 14 for more information about how anxiety changes brain function and how to regain emotional control.

You can read the press release about this research below:

Stanford study finds stronger one-way fear signals in brains of anxious kids

Signals from the brain’s fear center make it more difficult for anxious and stressed children to regulate their emotions, a first-of-its-kind brain scanning study from Stanford shows.

In chronically stressed or anxious children, the brain’s fear center sends signals to the decision-making part of the brain that make it harder to regulate negative emotions, according to new research from the Stanford University School of Medicine.

The findings, which was published April 21 in Biological Psychiatry, come from the first study to use brain scans to examine how emotion-regulation circuits are changed by anxiety and chronic stress in children. The children studied were 10 or 11 years old, a developmental stage when vulnerability to mood-regulation disorders, such as anxiety and depression, becomes entrenched.

The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the nature of the signals between two parts of the brain: the amygdalae, almond-shaped nerve clusters on the right and left sides of the brain that function as its fear centers; and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a brain region involved in executive functions such as decision making and emotion regulation.



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“The more anxious or stress-reactive an individual is, the stronger the bottom-up signal we observed from the amygdala to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex,” said the study’s senior author, Vinod Menon, PhD, the Rachael L. and Walter F. Nichols, MD, Professor and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “This indicates that the circuit is being hijacked in more anxious children, and it suggests a common marker underlying these two clinical measures, anxiety and stress reactivity.”

Victor Carrion, MD, a co-author of the study and professor of child and adolescent psychiatry, said, “This study shows that the communication between our emotional centers and our thinking centers becomes less fluid when there is significant stress. You want that connection to be strongly signaling back and forth. But stress and anxiety of a certain level seem to interrupt that process.”

Carrion is the director of the Stanford Early Life Stress and Pediatric Anxiety Program, and is the John A. Turner, MD, Endowed Professor for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Lead authorship of the paper is shared by researcher Stacie Warren, PhD, and postdoctoral scholar Yuan Zhang, PhD.

Kids react to images

The study included 45 students in a California community with predominantly low-income residents who often face high levels of adversity. All 45 children had their anxiety levels and stress responses measured using standard behavioral questionnaires. Although their exposure to stress was potentially high, none were diagnosed with mood disorders.

To test how the children’s brains responded as they were trying to regulate negative emotions, the scientists conducted functional MRI scans while the study participants looked at two types of images, neutral and aversive. Neutral images showed pleasant scenes, such as someone taking a walk, whereas aversive images showed potentially distressing scenes, such as a car crash.

The children received instructions about responding to each image. For all the neutral images and half the aversive images, they were asked to look at them and respond to them naturally, rating their emotional state on a numerical scale after seeing each one. They were asked to look at the other half of the aversive images and try to reduce any negative reactions they had by telling themselves a story to make the pictures seem less upsetting — a story such as, “This car crash looks bad, but the people in the vehicles weren’t hurt.” After the kids tried to modify their emotional reaction, they again rated their emotional state on the numerical scale.

As the researchers expected, the children reported less negative emotions after being asked to reappraise their reactions to aversive images.

Using the brain-scan data, the researchers tested the strength and direction of interactions between the amygdala, the fear center, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the reasoning center, while the children viewed the images. Although the children with different levels of anxiety and stress reactivity reported similar reductions in their negative emotions when asked to reappraise the aversive images, their brains were doing different things.

More stress leads to less control of emotional reaction

The more anxious or stressed the child, the stronger the directional signals from the right amygdala to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. No such effects were seen in the reverse direction — that is, there was no increase in signaling from the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to the amygdala. Higher levels of anxiety were associated with less positive initial reactions to aversive images, less ability to regulate emotional reaction in response to aversive images, and more impulsive reactions during reappraisal of aversive images. Higher stress reactivity was linked with less controlled, more impulsive reactions when reappraising aversive images, suggesting that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is less able to carry out its job.

Not only do the findings reveal how the brain can be changed by anxiety, they also act as a baseline for future studies to test interventions that may help children manage their anxiety and stress responses, the scientists said.

“We need to be more mindful about intervening,” Menon said. “These results show that the brain is not self-correcting in anxious children.”

“Thinking positively is not something that happens automatically,” Carrion said. “In fact, automatically we think negatively. That, evolutionarily, is what produced results. Negative thoughts are automatic thoughts, and positive thoughts need to be practiced and learned.”

The paper’s other Stanford co-authors are former research assistants Katherine Duberg and Sarah-Nicole Bostan; postdoctoral scholar Percy Mistry, PhD; Weidong Cai, PhD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences; former postdoctoral scholar Shaozheng Qin, PhD; and former staff researcher Aarthi Padmanabhan, PhD.

This work was completed in partnership with the Ravenswood City, Alum Rock and Orchard school districts and Pure Edge Inc., which provides mindfulness curricula for children, and supported by the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, the National Institutes of Health (grants EB022907, NS086085 and MH121069), the Stanford Maternal Child Health Research Institute and the Stanford Institute for Computational & Mathematical Engineering.

Media Contacts

ERIN DIGITALE
Tel 650-724-9175
digitale@stanford.edu

MARGARITA GALLARDO
Tel 650-723-7897
mjgallardo@stanford.edu

The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed – which we call the underlying factors of anxiety – a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.

Additional Resources

Return to our anxiety articles page.

anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and therapy for anxiety disorder and its symptoms, including Gentle Spaces.

References

  1. For more on this listen to the OnBeing podcast, “An Invitation to Brave Spaces.” with Jennifer Bailey and Lennon Flowers.

  1. See book of same name by Eugene Peterson. Also reference Nietzsche and the Hebrew King Solomon.

  1. Although not originating in the podcast above – referenced well and worth a considered thought.

  1. See Timothy Keller’s work on “Befriending Grace.”

  1. Although expressed by many - made most famous in King’s article in The Gospel Messenger entitled, “Out of the Long Night.”

  1. Julian of Norwich.