As humans, we are hardwired with the survival gear of our ancestors. In the midst of a perceived threat we fight, flight, or freeze. When a predator would approach our ancestors, their nervous systems would react. They would fight, run away, or freeze in order to survive.
Millenia later and we still act as a function of our nervous system, even though most of us are not being chased by lion, tigers, or bears (oh my!). Our survival instincts take over anytime we perceive a threat. For many of us, excluding trauma survivors, these threats are relatively innocuous and are not life-threatening, yet we continue to act from a place of survival.
We have a deadline to meet at work and we yell at our kids or our partner who we perceive as distractions. We experience grief at the loss of a loved one and we isolate and shut down. We feel overwhelmed by our day-to-day life and run away from our responsibilities, escaping into a pint of ice-cream or marathon on Netflix.
Our responses to stress are primal, and often govern us.
I had an experience at work that brought this home for me. Everyday I practice mindfulness and prayer. I tell you this not to toot my own horn, but to underscore how damn hard it can be to regulate, even when we spend most of our day utilizing practices for regulation. I I try to be as self-aware as possible and notice my own tendencies, especially in response to emotion. As a therapist, it is literally my job to be emotionally regulated.
Towards the end of the day yesterday, I had an unsettling situation arise with a patient. Having made the right clinical decisions, I went back to my office and sat down to document, the situation still heavily on my mind. I picked up my phone to take a 30 second break to look at pictures of my nephews as a momentary reset (those little nuggets bring me such joy).
Instead of cute pictures, what I found was a text message from my mom relaying tragic news about a family friend who lost their son to a drug overdose. The news hit me like a ton of bricks for a couple reasons. First, I thought of his family, and specifically his mother and wife, and the immeasurable pain they must be feeling. I thought of the times we would play together as kids. I thought of sadness and pain he must have endured in fighting addiction, and I thought of the fragility people I work with and care about, who struggle with addiction. One slip is literally life and death.
I shut my door and felt tears spill from my eyes. I knew I had an hour or so of work left, and I needed to be present and available. I opened my door back up, and my first impulse was to walk to the kitchen and grab a snack.
Now, there is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WRONG with snacking. BUT, I wasn't hungry, and I ONLY wanted the snack as a momentary comfort and escape. I brought the granola bar back to my office and peeled the wrapper off, taking my first bite while I continued my previous documentation.
In the middle of my first bite, I paused. I knew exactly what was happening. Knowing that I wasn't hungry, I put the snack away for another time. I acknowledged just how powerful that inclination to bolt really is.
This is not to shame emotional eating, because we are human and are ABSOLUTELY allowed to emotionally eat. I still emotionally eat on occasion. For me, however, I could feel the desperation to escape my emotions, and the fervor with which I tore off the wrapper. I could feel the blood in my temples and my attention shift, giving this external thing power to stop my emotions. I was keenly aware of the feeling, because my response pattern to escape was old, hard-wired, and automatic.
In practicing mindful eating and being in recovery from an eating disorder for the past 5 years, it was empowering to stop it in its tracks.
An old therapist once told me that when we think we "have it all together" we fall off the cliff, because we weren't even aware that the cliff was there. The inclination to numb with food took me by surprise because that impulse hasn't happened in a very long time. There was a part of me that was disappointed that the impulse is still there, but a wiser part of me acknowledged my humanity. We are all humans and are hard wired to fight, flight, or freeze when triggered. This was my flight being triggered. The beauty in recovery and practicing awareness is that I am no longer a slave to my drives and impulses. 6 years ago, I was not able to regulate. I would have inhaled that granola bar and found ways to sneak others.
This is how any of our addictions work, whether its to food, TV, or substances. Unfortunately with substances, the brain structure and chemistry is actually altered due to the impact of the substance on the brain region responsible for our survival. The substance creates a neurological response so that our brain prioritizes it for survival over food, water, and sex.
On my way home, I knew I needed to confront the emotions because they felt like a pile of bricks on my chest. I tried to distract with music and a podcast, but I could feel the weight lingering in the background. I turned everything off. I took a few deep breaths, and I let myself observe the emotion. I noticed where I felt it in my body (my chest and throat). I tried to imagine myself from a 360 degree view, watching myself be still. I let myself get curious and go inside the feeling in my body. I let myself sit with the core of the pain, and I found peace as it dissipated.
Each and every one of us is strong enough to sit with pain. The more we run from it, the worse and more overwhelming it seems. We distract and create more problems in our life to avoid the core of our pain.
The more we practice building awareness and practice noticing, getting curious, and sitting with our emotions, the easier it becomes when big things happen.
How do we do this?
Make a cue for yourself. Maybe it's every time you go to the bathroom, wash your hands, or sit in your car. Whatever the cue, every time you are cued, take a moment to check in with yourself.
Ask. What am I feeling? Am I tense? Have I been holding my breath? Do you feel light or heavy?
Notice. Notice the feeling, notice the thoughts. Don't judge them, just notice. Every time you become aware that your thoughts have drifted or that you are in your feelings/ thoughts, you simply begin again. The noticing and reseting is the practice of building awareness.
Get Compassionate. If you don't have time to get curious about the feeling, offer yourself compassion. An easy phrase I like to use is, "I'm getting triggered, and that's okay. I'm human and I'm compassionate which is why I feel this. I'm okay."
Practice. Try it when you're driving, in the shower, etc. See if you can step outside of yourself and observe for 30 seconds.