It's NOT your fault!
Your brain is a very beautiful thing, it’s an unbelievably incredibly sophisticated computer right on top of your shoulders! And while some aspects of it are the very thing that distinguishes us from other mammals – for example we have will-power, memory, intuition, imagination, reason, perception – there are also some parts of our brain that are really, well, so similar to that of an animal, that it can act against us in our man made environment!
Here we cover the limitation, yet fabulous power, of our brain. Certainly it’s a privilege to have a sixth sense, but it comes at a price. That’s why I have difficulty deciding whether these traits of our brain are limitations or privileges!
First we need to remind ourselves, when we are stressed our brain is doing it’s job to keep us safe. It's being alert to threat whether that be a physical threat to our survival, a looming deadline, or a difficult conversation we know we need to have. It would be so much easier if our brain's job was to make us happy. But our brain's job hasn't changed, it's still performing the same job it did 2 million years ago! Ironic really isn't it? Our brain hasn’t kept up with the evolution it affords us to create - such as technology and fences to keep out sabre tooth tigers! Basically we're still very much hard-wired for survival.
Here's the thing: because the state of being stressed, or in fight and flight, is simply designed for physical threats, being in this state doesn't help you see the bigger picture, make good decisions, share creative ideas or express kind words. When we're stressed we're operating from a different part of the brain. And its not the conscious reasoning part.
The impact of this 'survival instinct' reaction is twofold: I share these below. But before you start giving up, trust this:
Your stress response is awesome in an emergency. That is precisely what it is designed for.
First : we react (quickly!) rather than respond. That's WHY when you are triggered its so much harder to create some space between what has happened and your response. Instead we have a knee jerk reaction, perhaps doing or saying something we later regret. Our conscious reasoning part of the brain is shut down and our reactive part of the brain is fired up. We are simply wired to 'react to a threat', whatever that may be, rather than ponder, consider and respond calmly. I don't think a sabre tooth tiger would wait patiently while we strategise the best way to escape would it!?
Second : everything we need to access when in a spot of bother goes offline! Crazy huh? I mentioned this in my last post. At the precise moment we need to be calm, resourceful, creative and rational - our access to these skills is cut off. We're operating from a different part of the brain remember. Our amygdala, or smoke alarm, overrides the prefrontal cortex, and only when we operating from the prefrontal cortex, the conscious reasoning part of the brain, can we learn, grow, develop, and access information and employ strategies to help us. That's WHY we get frustrated that we can't remember everything when we're stressed: it's certainly hard to remember all those 'calming techniques' when we aren't calm to start with isn't it!?
#1. Take one breath:
Even just the act of taking ONE deep breath into your belly, will be enough to help your state shift and move you from fight and flight to rest and digest. And as you now know, when you're in a calm state you can start gaining access to the creative and skillful side of yourself. Just what you need when you're about to front up to the challenging meeting, or answer your teenager's 17th text.
Take 5 seconds to breath, take 5 breaths or better still, take 5 minutes.
#2. Shine the floodlight not the spotlight:
After you've taken the deep breath, deliberately shine a virtual floodlight on the issue. When we open up our eyes, use our peripheral vision, we can gain access to information and ideas we won't have discovered if we hold tight to the spotlight that fight and flight gives us.
What else can you see, use, think about?
Can you see things from someone's else perspective?
#3. Go easy on yourself
You're not always going to get it right. No matter how calm and compassionate we are sometimes, we won't nail it all the time. Something may still set of us off and our reactive brain will take over. When you do react unkindly, or without thought of the bigger picture, it doesn't mean you're useless, or a bad person. Your survival instinct has overruled your rational brain, this time. Next time is just another chance to practice using your breath and shining the floodlight.