I learned something fascinating this week. A fact that was both fascinating and empowering and also left me with a sense of relief. Negativity is not our fault. Our brains are wired to see the worst in any situation and prepare us to fight or flee. That’s right. We are programmed for pessimism for the most part as part of our survival mechanism. What a relief. There is nothing wrong with me. Phew.
So, imagine we are back in prehistoric times hunting on the savanna. We hear a rustling in the bushes. Is it a sabre-toothed tiger setting himself to pounce on us? Or, is it a mouse digging through the leaves looking for food? Back in the day, it was in our best interests for our survival to believe it was a tiger and not just a mouse. Our brains, on hearing the rustling, jump into alert mode and scream ‘Danger’ to our whole body. Adrenaline is pumped through our system and we are poised to either stand and fight or run for our very lives. This reaction ensured our survival as a species.
Now today there are no sabre-toothed tigers lurking in the supermarket where we do our modern-day hunting. But our brains still react in the same way to stress. Be that difficulty in our relationship, our boss being unhappy or that fool who cut us off on our way to work. Our brains still react in the same way. It perceives a threat and readies us for a life or death struggle. Add to this the fact that our brains are inherently lazy. Our brain prefers to run set patterns instead of working out how it should react in any new situation. So, our lazy brains are easily triggered by just about any and all stresses to react in the same life or death manner regardless.
Being triggered in this way is the cause of anxiety. Our brain gets in the habit of allowing every single stress to trigger our fight or flight response and we end up feeling like we are on the brink of disaster all the time.
Now, knowing this is key to turning it around.
We can now be aware when we are being triggered and choose to react in a different way.
All our physical reactions to stress, the thumping heart, sweaty hands and sick feeling in the gut are all caused by our thoughts. Our thoughts about the situation drive the reaction causing us to feel panicked or stressed. But most of this happens without much conscious thought at all. Our subconscious just kicks in and runs the sabre-tooth tiger subroutine and boom, thoughts create feelings and we are having a full-on physical response.
When this happens we can interrupt the subroutine by consciously having different thoughts. We can ask ourselves ‘Am I safe right now?’ Most of the time the answer is a definite yes.
‘Is this situation really as serious as I am believing?’
‘What is really the worst thing that can happen in this situation?’
‘What can I do to prevent the worst from happening?’
Just taking the time to reason with yourself can halt the fear response in its tracks. Many people also find success by just stopping and breathing deeply and using their imaginations to put themselves in their happy place or picturing the ideal resolution to the issue. Once the panicked thoughts have been stopped it then takes about 90 seconds for the fight or flight chemicals that have flooded our bodies to disperse and for the physical sensations to pass. We just need to breathe through it knowing it will soon go away.
Knowledge is power.
Knowing what is going on when we get anxious can help us so we don’t feel as panicked by the physical sensations as we would have before. We can choose to break the subroutine and remind our brains that there is no tiger, maybe just a jerk in a hurry or someone just having a bad day. We can stop and take a breath and reframe what is going on in a more positive light and take control.
With practise, we can train our brain not to trigger the fight or flight response and cause us anxiety unless it’s really called for. This is just another example of how happiness is a decision. It takes a conscious decision to change our thinking and be more positive. And, practice makes perfect. The more we practice positively the more we can create new healthy mental subroutines. For more about this see the post called The Science of Positive Affirmations.