It’s pretty clear to all of us that these are anxious times–we watch the news, look online, see the latest statistics, drive by the foreclosure signs. By the time we get to work (if we have a job) we’re freaking out.
And for those of us who are more susceptible to our environments: what we see externally we easily absorb.
This downward emotional spiral about things we can’t control can quickly devolve into a dark pit, interfering with our work and our relationships.Then, we’re not our best even in our immediate environments, where we do have choices.
When we’re anxious, we know we can’t think straight. I had a friend describe it as peanut butter in the brain–gumming up the works.
So what is deal with the brain that it can so quickly loses its mojo?
We know that the brain’s limbic (emotional) system is the part that is easily upset–if it sees, hears, feels something disturbing, it immediately goes into high alert mode, sometimes in milliseconds.
It is the scaredy-cat.
And the limbic system is where all those old triggers–patterns of experience that we have, over our lifetimes, tagged as dangerous–are stored. So our old issues can be stirred up if someone just looks at us like our 5th grade teacher.
And that’s the problem, because “When the limbic system gets overly aroused, it reduces the resources available for prefrontal cortex functions” (the part of the brain that thinks, that understands, that decides, etc).
I wrote about this several weeks ago in Label It: Zapping Emotional Overload Fast, but I keep coming back to this as I work with my clients and as I deal with myself. Thanks to David Rock’s great book, The Brain At Work, I’m getting clearer about what to do at the very beginning of an upset—-when there is no time for deep meditation, spa music, or a call to my BFF.
Just time for some deep breaths and a thought.
The really good news is that the instant arousal can be quickly reversed if we know what to do. If we can get the limbic system to fold quickly, then the thinking brain can take over.
Okay, so what’s the toggle switch?
Simple words or phrases that inform the nervous limbic system that it’s okay to stand down. As David Rock says, “Describe an emotion in just a word or two, and it helps reduce the emotion.”
Saying, “Oh, I’m nervous,” can free the brain to actually think about what to do next.
Somehow this acknowledgment provides a bit of reassurance, something the limbic deeply needs. It is not the certainty of the external world, but the interior calming of that part.
When a client called, completely upset about her teenage son’s relapse in behavior, she got much calmer when I helped her find the words–”Just one day.” No need to blow this situation into fears of a lifetime of behavior; repeating the mantra “Just one day” enabled her to get off the phone and on to work.
A woman working on project for a close friend found herself being abrupt and short with her. When she just said, “I’m anxious,” the conversation immediately shifted to real problem-solving.
If you can find simple, even simplistic words or phrases to describe what you are feeling, you will have more brain to work with. You will be on to some really intelligent thinking.
It will not change anxious times, just the anxiety within.