Do you have a deep sense of knowing inside that everything is going to be ok?
Or does your default neural pathway spiral towards doubt, and concern, worry, stress, anxiety or fear?
This isn’t a black and white thing, it’s a sliding scale. But for many of us, it’s more the latter. We live in a constant state of alertness. Always assuming danger and ready to protect ourselves.
For example, for the longest time my typical day started like this: I would wake up and instantly have a sense of dread, what day is it? What do I have to do today? What’s expected of me? And underlying it was a feeling of obligation and like I just have to suck it up and get it done and then I have earned the right to a little rest in the evening, before the next day of obligation begins. Then throughout the day, there would always be a sense of considering each new input and interaction and looking for the danger, feeling additional stress as people told me news or requested things of me. My practised neural pathways all led back to fear very quickly.
It’s a defence mechanism. It intuitively makes sense to be on alert, and it even works, to a point. But it’s rarely the most effective short-term strategy, and long-term it can have disastrous effects.
99% of the time a more effective short-term strategy is to be cool, calm and collected. And not just pretend to be like Axel Foley but actually be chill deep inside. People can tell when you’re pretending. It’s unsettling. You also make poor decisions when your sympathetic nervous system is engaged in this way, even when it’s a mild response. This puts you in fight, flight or freeze mode so it’s easy to get drawn into the role of prosecutor (lash out and fight), rescuer (fly away to focus on someone else’s problems) or victim (freeze up and wallow). These 3 roles are known as they drama triangle’ for a reason, from these roles we can easily heighten the drama of the situation rather than diffuse it. We make things worse!
And long-term? Well over time, living your life in this way, with this regular sense of stress, fear and anxiety eats you up and wears you down. It takes its toll on your nervous system, then your sleep suffers, then your gut and microbiome, then your immune system, which usually culminates in chronic illness of one sort or another.
Many manage these symptoms through self-soothing, self-medication and escapism. Which introduce their own series of challenges and health risks.
For example for most of my life, my default response to stimuli has been fear. And for many years I used over-eating as a soothing mechanism which led to me being 45kg overweight. Ultimately this culminated for me in complete adrenal exhaustion, which took 5 years to recover from.
One of the goals of The Work is to reprogram our neural pathways and nervous system to automatically cascade towards better assumptions: “I’m actually ok. I’m lovable. I’m doing well. And everything is going to be good”.
And not just as a token affirmation that papers over an underlying sense of dread. But a deep knowing and acceptance that no matter what happens, you’re actually going to be ok.
Especially living in a country like Australia, we have very little to actually fear. Our privilege and protection is so high.
Let’s consider some examples:
- Judgemental colleague, friend or family member.
- Additional workload or new deadline.
- Unexpected drama or expense.
- Pressure at work.
- Not enough money coming in.
- Lost your job.
- Friend is upset with you.
- Relationship tensions or breakup.
- Natural disaster destroys your property and impacts your livelihood or way of living.
- Loved one is ill or passes away.
- Depression or illness or being abused or traumatised, injured or disabled.
These are roughly ordered in increasingly level of severity. So obviously the situations at the bottom of the list are not as easy to brush off as those at the top.
And the goal is not to be insensitive here. But, in all of these examples, even though they get fairly intense, we can see how there is a way out, a way back to a good life. Living where we live there is a path we can follow and support we can tap into. Our lives may be forever changed and we may suffer great loss, but we will be ok.
Obviously there are worse things that can happen. True evil does exist in the world. But the likelihood of having to face those extremes are generally very low in the first world. And what we find is that many in the third world are able to maintain this positive outlook despite relative disadvantage.
What we also find is that most of our lives we see the potential for these catastrophes coming, before they have even occurred. And we start to feel fear, stress and anxiety. The sympathetic nervous system kicks in before this is even a reality. And again it impairs our ability to make good decisions. And we resign ourselves to the catastrophe playing out before it evens happens. This defeatism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the catastrophe hasn’t actually hit yet, then the most effective course of action is to stay calm, stay happy, do our best to steer life in a better direction.
I know some of you are screaming at your device at this point “Let’s get real Andrew! It’s 2020, and we do face the very real potential of large-scale catastrophe in the not too distant future”. I hear you. I do. And take action we must. But living in stress and fear is not the answer.
So we don’t want to be Pollyanna about it. The idea is not to “take a teaspoon of cement and toughen up”. We want to hear the warnings and messages that our emotions send us. “Thank you sadness for reminding me what a gift I had”, “Thank you fear for keeping me safe”. And even take action to ensure what it’s warning about doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen again. But then let the emotion go and realise that no matter what does happens, we’re actually going to be ok.
For most of us, this is not an easy shift. These default pathways, emotions, responses and behaviours started at an early age and kept being reinforced dozens of times every day for many years.
Some approach this reprogramming through CBT-type interventions. Manually intervening and redirecting the neural pathway each time it gets triggered.
For me, it required deeper emotional clearing work with coaches and personal development programs to allow me to shift the blocks deep at the unconscious level. And then ongoing awareness and attention to where my thought patterns go. Pulling them up when they start to assume the worst. And helping them to see the world for what it truly is day yo day: it’s fine, it’s good, catastrophe hasn’t struck yet, and can still be avoided.
When the feelings come up, ask yourself:
- Has this perceived disaster happened yet?
- Are you sure it will happen? (Hint: no)
- Is it really inevitable? (Hint: no)
- Are you certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that it will become your reality? (Hint: no)
- So are you still then ok right now? (Hint: yes)
- And of catastrophe did strike, would you be able to handle it and work through it and get the support you need? (Hint: Yes, especially in the first world)
And as always, reach out to a transformational coach, therapist or emotional healer to help you do the deeper clearing work first.
Once you embed that deep knowing that everything will be ok, you can go through life with a sense of calm and confidence that you are ok and you will prevail. You won’t catastrophise situations, and even though there are pressures, you have a choice to not turn that into stress.
Ultimately this makes it a lot easier to be happy day to day.