When I was over at a friend’s house recently, I was fascinated watching their six month old kitten playing with a toy mouse. This kitten had never been outdoors, had never been taught to hunt, and had never been exposed to a mouse. Yet she was a natural hunter: she knew instinctively how to sneak up on this stuffed mouse, how to stalk it, snatch it, and grab it in her mouth. This behavior was hard-wired into her genes.
We are hardwired too.
We have a flight or flight response, part of our evolutionary inheritance, that allows us to escape life-threatening predators and danger. This was particularly useful for survival back in ancient times in the caves and on the savannah.
The problem is, much of the time it has become an overly sensitive false alarm in modern day life. It is like the smoke alarm that goes off every time you burn a piece of toast — and imagine that you do a lot of toast burning!
I was reflecting on this last night as I awoke in the middle of the night, and noticed anxiety sneaking in as my mind began to generate all kinds of worries, threats, and fears — many of which were exaggerated, unfounded, or projections.
How do we quell our anxious minds? What do we do when the smoke alarm is going off over that piece of burnt toast, or traffic jam, or new social situation we are going into, or the presentation we have to give at work, or in the middle of the night when our mind wants to come up with every possible worst-case scenario of things that could go wrong?
- We can learn to notice our brain’s tendency to over-perceive a “threat” in many situations, and our tendency to ruminate, jump to future forecasting of doom and gloom, and often experience distorted and irrational thoughts as absolute truths. Being able to observe this tendency of our minds, and perhaps to do so with a bit of distance and even humor, can help us avoid getting swept away by our thinking. The act of noticing, in and of itself, can help to bring other parts of our brain on-line that can see a bigger and more rational picture.
- Another thing we can do is to learn to accept these uncomfortable emotions as sensations in our bodies and learn to ride the waves of these emotions, rather than desperately trying to get rid of them (which is often like trying to stop the waves at the ocean).
Ironically, the more we can accept what is happening in our bodies without freaking out or reacting in unhelpful ways, the easier it becomes to navigate our anxiety.
For the many patients I have worked with who have experienced panic, for example, when they learn to accept that this is an evolutionary false alarm that will pass, and that it doesn’t mean that they have to avoid situations just because they are experiencing anxiety, they do very well.As much as I love public speaking, I often feel my heart pounding out of my chest for the first few minutes of a presentation. I have come to accept this, and don’t make a big deal of it or need it to be different for me to continue doing what I love to do.
- We can learn to befriend these difficult emotions. They are not our enemy, anymore than the smoke detectors in our homes. We probably wouldn’t yell at the smoke detector for going off if the toast was burning, and we certainly wouldn’t try to get rid of it; we would likely open some windows to let the smoke diffuse and appreciate that the alarm was working, in case we ever truly needed it.
When we bring compassion to this more primitive part of ourselves and even appreciate that it is there for a good reason, we can help to metaphorically put an arm around our anxious parts and provide some soothing and comfort to ourselves.
Life has its challenges, and it is a lot easier to navigate these challenges when we are our own ally. Doing so often allows some of these anxious parts to ease, and helps us to choose how best to respond. Sometimes, our best response might simply be to continue sending compassion to ourselves, or to seek other forms of self-care.
- We can step back and take wise action toward any aspect of our anxiety that might be rooted in some rationality. We can try to separate out what choices we have in THIS moment, and focus our energy on those efforts, rather than focusing on imagined outcomes that may never come to be, that leave us feeling helpless.If I feel an unusual lump in my body, I can make an appointment with the doctor immediately. If I see an injustice happening in the community or world around me, I can take steps within my control to take a stand and become involved. If there have been two burglaries in the neighborhood I can make sure that I have a security system for my home. Then go back and repeat the above steps.