Recently, I blogged about my tendency to run away as a child when things got tough. A friend texted me as soon as I posted it:
“Did that go away with age?” she wrote. “That need to just GET THE HELL AWAY?”
“No,” I wrote. “It never does.”
Coping is a Lifelong Process
I like to think of myself as evolved. I like to think of myself as grounded. I take great pride in the techniques I’ve cultivated over the years to calm my anxiety, from meditation to poring over spiritual texts that promote awareness and self-compassion. That doesn’t mean I’m sensible at all times, or no longer have the wish to flee when I’m overwhelmed.
“Is it foolish of me to think that things would be better if I were just somewhere else?” she wrote back a few minutes later.
“Nope,” I texted back. “And often that ‘somewhere else’ is as elusive as a cat.”
“It isn’t a case of the grass is always greener on the other side,” she continued. “It’s a case of that lawn has water and oxygen and a chance at survival.”
Whenever I’m distressed, I immediately look into booking a flight or a room at a nearby hotel or, if my schedule permits it, hop in my car and drive until my pulse returns to normal. If I can’t flee, I resort to compulsive behavior: If I just have one more cappuccino or a handful of almonds, the world will make sense again. The only problem is that those compulsions take on a life of their own: One cappuccino turns into four, and a handful turns into the whole package. Meanwhile, I haven’t made any progress in addressing what’s worrying me—in fact, my concerns seem to have amplified—and now my hands shake and I have no appetite for a proper dinner. Overcome anew and angry with myself, I’m either back in my front seat with my hands on the wheel or frantically searching Expedia for the speediest way out of town.
Our Unsympathetic Nervous Systems
This isn’t mere whimsy: It’s the flight or fight response, a very real physiological response to anxiety in which we experience dramatic chemical changes in our brains and bodies. “When the hypothalamus tells the sympathetic nervous system to kick into gear, the overall effect is that the body speeds up, tenses up and becomes generally very alert,” Julia Layton explains in How Fear Works. “If there’s a burglar at the door, you’re going to have to take action—and fast. The sympathetic nervous system sends out impulses to glands and smooth muscles and tells the adrenal medulla to release epinephrine (adrenalin)…into the bloodstream.” In short: We’re flooded with stress hormones. Our pulse quickens. Our pupils dilate. Our blood pressure rises. And the thought of being anywhere else but in the path of danger becomes not irresistible but absolutely necessary.
The only problem is that a burglar is rarely at the door, but in moments of acute stress, our brains have trouble drawing a distinction between a pressing deadline and a four-alarm fire. The other problem is that I prefer fleeing over fighting. Both require effort, but the latter calls for a degree of patience I seem to lack.
“I know I’m on a short fuse when even the sound of birds offends my sensibilities and I have to leave,” my friend wrote. “But what do I do when I’m not in a position to take off? And don’t say deal with it.”
But what if we did? What if we…dealt with it?
Dr. Rick Hanson—one of the most brilliant and composed men I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, and whose newest book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence came out last year—broaches this idea in Notice That You Are Alright Right Now. “The muttering of fear tells you implicitly, ‘Watch out, bad things are happening you’re not seeing, don’t ever think you’re completely OK, never let down your guard,’” he writes. “But take a close look at this moment, right now. You are probably alright: No one is attacking you, you are not drowning, no bombs are falling, there is no crisis. It’s not perfect, but you’re OK.”
“By ‘right now,’” he continues, “I really mean this instant. When we go into the future, we worry and plan. Threads of fear are woven into the mental tapestries of past and future. Look again at the thin slice of time that is the present. In this moment, are you basically OK? Is breathing OK? Is the heart beating? Is the mind working? The answers are almost certainly yes.”
A Tsunami is Not Coming Your Way
The next time I had the urge to drive as far and as fast away from my home and life as I could—this following a number of demanding emails, news that I would have to get surgery, and a phone call from our vet, who confirmed that our dog’s health was declining rapidly—I decided to give Dr. Hanson’s advice a shot. Yes, my heart was still beating, even if it did feel abnormally fast. Yes, I was still breathing, although it was shallow. Yes, my mind was still working, even though my thoughts were jumbled and incomplete and I swear every noise in my neighborhood occurred just accost to accost me and everything was too bright and why was I so hot on a sixty-degree day? Overall, however, I was OK.
“Noticing that you’re actually alright right now is not some kind of cosmic consciousness (usually), nor laying some positive attitude over your life like a pretty veil,” Dr. Hanson writes. “Instead, you are knowing a simple but profound fact: In this moment I am alright. You are sensing the truth in your body, deeper than fear, that it is breathing and living and OK. You are recognizing that your mind is functioning fine no matter how nutty and not-fine the contents swirling through it are.”
Was I uncomfortable? Sure. On edge? Absolutely. But nothing was immediately life-threatening at that moment. I didn’t have to run away from a tiger. I didn’t have to find an escape from an intruder. I didn’t have to book an emergency flight to the Bahamas; I didn’t need coffee, wine, or a cookie. I could have a glass of water, answer my emails, schedule the surgery, and return the call to the vet to explore our options. I could just breathe and, yes, deal with it.
I wasn’t great, but in that moment? I was OK.
And if nothing else, my running shoes were by the door.