(photo by Thowra_uk)
Case in point: on one cool July morning on a ride in Wyoming years ago, I trotted over what I thought from a distance was a stick across the trail. When I was on top of it, I realized (WHEN IT MOVED) that it was a rattlesnake. Did Max spook at that? NOOOOOOOOO. Didn’t give it a second look. My friend Carolyn, who was riding behind me, likes to add to the story that she never saw the stick that turned out to be a rattlesnake, but she clearly saw the subsequent 500 rattlesnakes that turned out to be sticks as her amygdala ran away with her the rest of the day. On another ride that season, after spooking at every single mailbox we passed (25 miles on a country road is a lot of mailboxes) Max flatly and fearfully refused to cross the chalk finish line. In his defense, he was only 4 at the time. Horses don’t get smart until 7. Ish. Still. The ride manager was waiting for me with a frosty beverage (did I mention the multitude of reasons I LOVE this sport?), and my silly youngster who had, 2 months earlier, trotted over a rattlesnake was now flipping out over a white line. One of us was motivated to cross it.
So here’s the take-home message: Stop looking for the bear. We are extremely unlikely, in the course of day to day events, to come across any sort of life threatening danger. Your amygdala is a light switch, not a dimmer. It’s on or off. We MISINTERPRET stressful circumstances in our lives as immediate, life-threatening dangers. Our bodies respond AS IF there were a bear. Remember my hero Dan Goleman? The sudden, intense emotional response is out of proportion to the situation. We don’t NEED adrenaline to survive getting a speeding ticket. Once we begin to recognize that those physical reactions in our bodies are unnecessary in MOST situations – did you hear that? That physiological anxiety response is NOT A FOREGONE CONCLUSION - we can start to anticipate that we could handle stressful situations without the adrenaline response. Imagine approaching a stressful situation with confidence. Imagine going in and asking for a raise, or speaking in public, or facing a jam-packed, non-stop busy day or cranky kids WITHOUT that feeling in your stomach. WITHOUT that tightness in your chest. WITHOUT tension in your shoulders. We are so conditioned to the expectation that the stress response is just part of the package, we don’t even consider that there might be something we could do about it. The first step is to recognize, in that moment, that even though we might have been hijacked, we aren’t a hostage.
Practice this today: any time you feel that anxiety, just have an awareness that you don’t NEED that level of physiological response. Think about the fact that you’re having all this physical stuff going on in your body, and there is no bear. Talk amongst yourselves.