“You are the master of your own fate. You are the captain of your ship.” – E.Henley
As Viktor Frankl so correctly stated, “between stimulus and response there is a space, and in that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Throughout the day, the situations we encounter and the people we meet can either enhance, disturb, or pass by smoothly without notice.
Pleasant or unpleasant feelings can arise when we come across a particular scenario or get caught listening to the internal dialogue in our heads. The way our inner world interacts with the external world is through our five senses: touch, smell, hearing, vision, and taste. Each of these five senses will generate a message when it comes into contact with a stimulus. This message gets sent to our brain, and then depending on the state of perceived threat, we either respond automatically without thought, or process, assess, and then respond.
We are regularly exposed to multiple stimuli that don’t affect us, so our brain typically allows much to pass unnoticed. For example, how often do we realize that our t-shirt is grazing our skin with every step and move? Or how often have we been in a room without noticing any smell, but when we left and came back just a few minutes after, we notice a scent that had gone unnoticed? We become desensitized to the familiar and sensitive to the unfamiliar.
Much like we have developed fire escape plans, and have predetermined schemes for emergency situations, we also have formed automated responses towards the unfamiliar, or triggers linked to past traumas. This familiar reaction pattern, helps save energy and brings a sense of ease in the face of the unknown and uncomfortable. These learned auto responses are an evolutionary reaction to protect us from being eaten alive and is our alarm signal to fight, flee, or freeze from incoming harm. Our “cave-man” brain is always on the lookout for potential danger, and in the present day, it serves as a call-to-action.
The problem is, this part of our brain never got the memo that we no longer live in a cave. We no longer have to fight tigers and bears to survive. Instead, we now perceive threats in social situations, and create personal struggles to support our cognitive biases.
A cognitive bias is our tendency to be subjective in our perception of reality. It is our tendency to create shortcuts using heuristics to filter through information, and to seek validation from our environment to support our thoughts and beliefs.
Humans tend to take the path of least resistance, which is why our reptilian “caveman” brain is used most of the time. The fast acting old habit patterns of response are easy to execute, but are also prone to error due to lack of its analytical thinking.
Our lower reptilian brain is associated with the limbic system. Deeply rooted, this area of our brain is what drives our emotions, subconscious instincts, and irrational drives; hence the term, primal instincts. From the moment we are born, we begin to create mental maps to learn and to create stories that help us perceive the world around us. These experiences are stored as memories within our body to provide a blueprint for future interactions with our environment.
Our higher top frontal brain, on the other hand, is logical, rational, conscious, and is the critical low risk decision maker. It requires time to process, and handles the more executive functions. So when we do not integrate and relay messages properly from the bottom-up, and top-down, we can either react over emotionally, or get stuck in over thinking things. Our sophisticated higher order thinking brain is like the slow processor that is energy consuming, and much of the time it gets sent offline when we encounter alarming scenarios.
A thought or stimulus brings about hormonal and physiological changes in the body. Alterations in heart rate, changes in our breathing rhythm, and redistribution of blood and fluids occur within. Our stomachs can become queasy and uneasy, our minds can become foggy, and other psychosomatic symptoms can be felt. It can even change our neurochemical balance. Simultaneously, messaging signals are sent to the brain to either increase or decrease these physiological responses. These responses can either be in the form of action from a state of stress or taking time to assess, process, and respond.
Most often, we don’t realize that these subconscious programs are running the show because we have become so attached to maladaptive patterns of behavior and we don’t know how to navigate the storms in any other way. We become a participant rather than an observer of our overwhelming emotions. We find ourselves with strong aversions or attachments to certain people, places, or things. With each new coping mechanisms we learn, we create new connections much like carving out lines on a ski hill. The more we use the behavior, the stronger and deeper the grooves in the snow becomes. So our consistent habits navigate and build the structure in our brain, which gets wired overtime.
“Never in the history of calming down, has anyone calmed down by being told to calm down!”
So how can we start being in the driver’s seat and begin to become aware of when autopilot takes over and controls our behavior?
“The best way to win over your enemy is to know him better than you know yourself. You need to know your enemy like the inner workings of a clock. What makes him tick, what makes him tock. So when the time comes, you can make that clock stop.” – A. Merkt
It is not easy to erase our memories and associated patterns of response. To tackle this dilemma, we must go deeper than the rational brain and become conscious of how our internal world drives them. Before a thought or situation turns into an emotional response, we can tune in and feel shifts at a cellular level. Feelings that arise within our senses set the internal energy in motion; hence the term “e-motions”. When we become aware of what our inner world feels like physically, and we become present to that inner narrative and chatter in our mind, we can redirect and modify our habitual responses. Think of navigating a ship in stormy waters. If we delegate all the crew to work as a team, and follow the helpful instructions of the coast guard, who may have a better view of the bigger picture, we can safely sail back to shore. Through the process of staying calm, executing helpful actions, and cooperating with all parts of the mind and body, we can help ourselves overcome any storm.
If we want to modify and reduce our fast autopilot reactions, becoming more conscious and aware of the changes in bodily sensations, and the shifts in our patterns of thought, are essential. If we learn to detect such changes before they get out of control, we are able to maintain our top thinking brain online, and help integrate our emotions with our logical rational. It is like starting to roll a car down a hill, if we are able to stop it at the top, we prevent the car from gaining momentum and speeding down the hill with nothing to stop it in its tracks.
Where focus goes, energy flows. When we redirect our focus on using mindful tools to reduce the chaos within, we bring order back to our internal world, and thus masters of our fate. We call this self-regulation. We integrate our subconscious fast-acting brain with our conscious slow thinking brain. With practice and awareness, our brains begin to rewire. The structure and function begin to change and new behavioural patterns and habits are formed.
Here are 4 steps to help you become the driver of your inner world, and reduce the external from disturbing your internal.
1. BREATHE. No matter what the situation, find your breath. As soon as you feel physiological changes, take six, deep, rhythmical, smooth breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. Count your breath to endure even steady, rythmical breaths. Then return to nasal breathing. Awareness of your breath shifts your focus away from the external, and tells your nervous system to calm down. Your breath then becomes an anchor to reduce the wavering of the mind.
(If breath increases anxiety, focus and tune into the sensations on the inside of your palms. Clapping or rubbing the hands to awaken awareness can help)
2. LET IT PASS. Observe and allow the disturbance to step into the background. Remind yourself that what you are experiencing will pass, and that there is no sense spending your energy focusing on something that will not last forever.
Use the unwanted situation as an opportunity to be mindful and aware. Approach what you observe with an open and curious mind, then modify your reaction to stay calm by using mindfulness-based tools. When you know you can’t stop or change something external, you cease to fight it and rather learn to accept it and allow it to pass.
3. CREATE YOUR NEW STORY. Create the story that you want to see unfold. When we become disturbed and are in a situation of discomfort, we have the choice to shift the way we look at it. If we start our story with…”I can’t believe this is happening! I wish this would stop! How much longer will this be going on? I know I can’t sleep well with this annoyance!”, we can imagine how this story will continue to play out. Instead, if we take a step back, change our perception of the scenario, and begin to look at what we can learn or gain from the situation, the things we look at change. Creating a conclusion to look forward to and focusing on the reward of redirecting our thoughts will help us write a winning story. Ask yourself the questions, “What can I do to make myself feel good? Which pair of glasses should I wear to see the world in my favor?” “What can I learn from this and what can I do differently to get a new outcome?” If you know that what you are feeling is as a result of an external stimulus that fits into your “un-likeable” category in your mental map, you can begin to rewire the course of a habitual reaction pattern. By challenging your interpretation of the scenario, and reframing the meaning of the situation, you can rewrite and visualize a new conclusion the story. This is a form of cognitive reappraisal.
4. RELAX and BODY SCAN. Try a relaxation body scan. Start from your toes, left and right, all the way up to the top of your head. With each body part, take a breath in, and affirm that the body part is relaxed. On the exhale, feel it let go and relax. You can find guided relaxation body scans on the internet, such as “yoga nidra”, that can facilitate the process.
These tools can also be highly effective to help improve your sleep. There is so much stimulation around us that by learning how to narrow and focus on what is important, we conserve energy and reduce stress. Meaningless things sidetrack us easily, and we can become so overwhelmed with the options that we become stuck and paralyzed. So clear the clutter and have a fresh slate to build new patterns and habits of reaction.
Employing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques and mindfulness-based tools, Astrid Merkt can help you achieve long lasting changes of old habits and patterns. With support and guidance, learn to reinforce adaptive and health-promoting behaviours and manage your stress responses to be more productive and improve communication with your relationships at home and work. The younger a child begins to learn these tools and understand his/her brain and body, the better adaptive he/she becomes for future success!