One of my favourite stories from Mark Twain’s autobiography is his being kept away from all his friends when a particular illness was doing the rounds. He’d been so ill that it was feared that catching it would kill him. Poor Mark (or Samuel, as he’d have been then) was both lonely and afraid.
His 10 year old logic finally figured (I’m paraphrasing), “Fine, if I’m going to die, bring it on!” and he snuck out to his best friend’s home in an attempt to catch the virus and end his misery. Fortunately, it didn’t kill him.
But it’s an impulse I can identify with. How many times have you felt so anxious or worried about a particular outcome that you forced things?
Acting from a place of anxiety or fear will rarely lead to a positive result. In many cases, you may well bring on the very outcome you fear (in Mark Twain’s case, he was fully prepared for that).
There’s a saying in neuroscience that it’s better to mistake a stick for a snake than a snake for a stick. Sure, realising, “Ha! I just leaped a million miles because I was scared of a stick!” can dent the ego but remaining placid and oblivious in the presence of a deadly snake would have longer lasting consequences.
Remembering that we’re actually hard wired to leap to “Death! Danger! Despair!” imaginings as our body’s chemistry becomes all about surviving may help you feel better next time you leap to melodramatic conclusions about something that turns out to be innocuous.
Think about your own life. Is there a situation at work or in a relationship where your alarm bells are ringing? Winding yourself up rather than calming yourself down will impact on your capacity to make good decisions to improve the issue.
Pause. Look at ways you can support yourself in feeling calmer and more centred:
Tuning into your breath can instantly calm you and it’s something you can practice anytime anywhere. First, notice your breath as it is. As you tune in more, begin to bring it down as if breathing into your belly (in reality, your lower lungs).
You’re probably already feeling much calmer but you can now kick start the body’s “rest and relax” response (getting out of “fight/flight/freeze” mode) even more by making your out breath longer than your in breath. If counting helps, breathe in for two and out for four.
Notice the feel of your feet on the ground. If you’re sitting, feel the chair supporting your body. Feel the earth supporting you. Think of a time you felt happy, relaxed and safe. Perhaps you were somewhere in nature or maybe it’s anytime you’re with a particular person or even a pet. Tune into such peaceful memories (or even invent uber-serene places for your mind to visit) anytime you feel stressed and anxious.
Practicing these exercises will help you calm yourself much faster next time your brain’s alarm bells ring. And learning to relax yourself won’t make you vulnerable to snakes. Instead, you’ll respond to actual danger with your wits about you instead of potentially angering your snake by leaping around screaming, “Snake! Snake! Snake!”
Best of all, once you’re feeling grounded and calm, you’ll be better able to think of actions you can take to not just end the misery of suspense in your particular situation (is this relationship going nowhere? Is my job at risk?) and help yourself achieve the outcome you want.
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