16 January 2018

Treat the Physiology

Treat the Physiology - Frustrated Woman

Twenty-five years ago, when I was a database developer, I was completely blindsided in a meeting. I was accused by people on the client’s team of not knowing what I was doing. It was so unexpected it took me a minute or two to grasp what was happening — it was as if my mind slowed down as my jaw dropped. I have no memory of the rest of the meeting, but I remember walking out of it with my manager and standing at the elevator when she said, “I know what you’re doing right now — you’re blaming yourself. Stop doing that. You did nothing wrong. This is not about you — this is entirely political. They never wanted us doing this job and that’s what this is all about. Don’t blame yourself, and let’s hope this kind of thing is easier for our daughters.” I was deeply grateful to her, but I continued to blame myself until eventually finishing the project and moving on.

What happened for me in that meeting was a stress response. Once I was “attacked,” my physiology changed. My body was flooded with the stress hormone cortisol, and my brain went into freeze mode (my apparent choice from the cortisol-inspired menu of fight, flight, or freeze). Has this ever happened to you? You’re going about the daily business of your life when some event triggers a stress response?  You flip into survival mode, which is utterly different from your usual way of functioning.

Or perhaps a situation triggers your anger.  In response you draft an email dripping in fury and sarcasm, and maybe have the presence of mind not to immediately send it.  Once things have calmed down and you’ve reclaimed your rational and strategic self, you can revisit the letter and edit or delete it.

Or, something is said that sends you into a full tailspin. You imagine a variety of scenarios that could possibly happen and put these scenarios on rerun all weekend.  On Monday, when you bring up what was said, you find out it was not a referendum on your worthiness after all.  Instead, simply a disappointment in the way things transpired, not a reflection of your performance.  Wouldn’t it have been nice to have spared yourself the weekend of suffering?

Knowing how to calm yourself down from an emotional response is a highly important skill to have. Your effectiveness and well-being depend on it.  I’m not suggesting you ignore whatever triggered your response — quite the contrary — those triggering events very often need to be addressed.

But to address them most effectively, you need to come down from the intensity of the reaction, so that you are back in your “right mind” and can use the considerable resources of your whole brain to respond. Typically, we can’t “talk ourselves down” from the upset because it’s not a cognitive recovery.  But if we recognize what’s going on we can treat the physiology and in doing so stage a recovery.  Once returned to our normal physiology, we can be smart about how to respond to the situation.

Are there specific ways to help our physiology return to its usual state or equilibrium?  Yes.  Here are some ideas.

  • Learn to identify when this is happening to you. Often there’s a physical cue you can learn to recognize when your emotional blood pressure is rising or you’re feeling attacked, possibly one of these:
    • you can feel your face get hot or flushed
    • you feel as if you were socked in your solar plexus
    • your mind goes blank
    • time slows down
    • you forget to breathe
  • Once you recognize what’s going on, you can deploy one of many methods for treating the physiology of your own extreme agitation. Learn which methods work for you.  Here are some examples:
    • In the moment you can:
      • Do things that help you feel physically grounded, such as sensing your feet on the floor, your bottom on the chair, your lungs and ribs expanding and contracting as you breathe, the sensation of your inhales and your exhales.
      • Be sure that you are breathing — some people hold their breath when the world seems to be crashing down.
      • Tell yourself that this feels like a disaster (outrage, etc) but it probably actually isn’t as bad as it seems/feels, that you’ll survive this moment and have a chance to revisit it later.
    • Later, when you’re alone, or away from your workplace, you can do things that use your brain or body in a different but engaging way:
      • Run or walk briskly outside, dance, lift weights, or do anything physical that gets you breathing rhythmically, actively, or even strenuously.
      • Practice a breathing technique, such as the ones taught in yoga classes, including ujayi breath, pranayama breath, or left-nostril breathing.
      • Sing: along with your car radio, with friends, alone in your home or in the shower.  When we sing we become a musical instrument, and in using our body and breathing for this purpose, we subvert the obsessing mind.
      • Play a game that engages your mind in some kind of problem-solving, such as: word puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, or Tetris-like games.
      • Do a low-skill physical activity unrelated to the triggering event. I find that chopping vegetables (dinner prep) is often just the thing for me, and sometimes a real option because I work from home

There’s nothing inherently wrong with having the response or feeling the emotion. But being in the emotion isn’t the best place to respond to the situation from.

Allow yourself to have a learning curve with this whole topic. It’s new for a lot of us, and it holds a lot of promise.