Friday, June 29, 2012

Hey Bob? Do you remember what Marlin Perkins said about this?

A little more about the fight or flight response physiologically.  If you're running from a lion, your body wants to take every little smidgen of energy and use it to get the heck out of dodge.  

In that moment, NON-ESSENTIAL SYSTEMS IN YOUR BODY SHUT DOWN.  So at the moment your cardiovascular and respiratory system kick into high gear, your body stops using energy for things like digestion, immune response, visual acuity, storing short-term memory . . . and logical thought.  Ever wonder why in the moment you can never come up with just the right thing to say, or you can't remember to use the coping skills you've spent so much time storing in your prefrontal cortex?  If you're running from a lion, you do not need to remember the details about the episode of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom you saw as a kid where the lions brought down a wilderbeast.  You don't need logic, or details, or self-soothing, or a snappy comeback.  You just need to run. 

 Except in our world, fight or flight doesn't really make sense because we don't really face very many situations in which either choice is really warranted (thank goodness!).  If your boss corners you in the office and reads you the riot act about something or other, you're stuck.  A physical fight response will get you fired (though many people go there anyway) and it would look kind of silly to scream and run away as fast as you can.  So we freeze.  Tongue tied and tense, we're riveted to the spot.  Afterward, when blood flow returns to normal, we think of all the great things we could have said in that moment, or all the ways we could have handled it differently.  Cause those things live in our prefrontal cortex. 

Marlin Perkins
So how do we get there in the moment????  How do we convince our amygdalas to calm the heck down and let our thinking brain handle things?  It's the same way you get to Carnegie Hall.  Practice, practice, practice.  When we have a stressful experience, we tend to run the instant replay OVER and OVER and OVER in our heads, right?  Except we replay it EXACTLY as it happened.  Boss cornered us, we froze.  We rehearse being all amygdala-y in the moment, which actually increases the chances it will go just like that the next time.  If we rehearse the way we WANTED to handle things, we increase the chances it will go just like that the next time.  So catch yourself rehearsing what you DON'T want to have happen, and rewrite it in your head to handle it the way your thinking brain knows works best. 

Over time, your brain will develop the attitude that it CAN handle any situation rather than it CAN'T, and sensory input doesn't trigger an amygdala response nearly as often.  Ta DAH!!!!  What???  Handle STRESS without ANXIETY????   No way.       

Yes, Way. 

Friday, June 8, 2012


Photo by Hagerman
I’m always talking about rehearsing anxiety management strategies in your head because there is no way to artificially create the unexpected in real life on purpose.  Well, I found one.  My daughter is 9 years old.  On a recent trip to Sea World, we stopped in at the “check your height” booth to see which rides she was eligible for.  Much to my utter and complete dismay, she towered over the height limit for (insert Beethoven’s 5th here) “THE STEEL EEL.” 

Aside:  I despise roller coasters.  Not since Space Mountain in high school have I had a positive experience.  Space Mountain was positive, I believe, because it was dark and I couldn’t see what was coming.  At the tender age of 16, snuggled in beside my equally adolescent boyfriend, I thought it was a blast.  I rode it about 20 times.  Since then, I have spent a great deal of time trying NOT to have that sick sinking feeling in my stomach.  In fact some might say I’ve made a career out of it. 

And yet, on this day at Sea World, I was faced with an impossible choice.  Ride (B’s 5th) “THE STEEL EEL” or deny my youngster this rite of passage.  I felt sick.  I was frozen to the spot, imagining that horrible feeling as the bottom drops out of the world and you are hurled into . . . oh hold on a minute.  That’s what I’m supposed to NOT do.  Anxiety is the negative anticipation of future events.  I know better.  Don’t I?  Sigh. Yeah, I do.  And so, I picked up my toolbox and kicked all my preaching into practice.  So, for your enjoyment, here are the strategies I used.

Use of powerful, rather than powerLESS language:  I don’t HAVE to ride “THE STEEL EEL.”  No one is forcing me.  It’s a choice.  I can do it, or I can choose not to.  I am choosing to do it, because no 9 year old should have to suffer because their mom is afraid of roller coasters.  Who knows how much therapy it might take to undo that.  So, I set limits.  I told her that I loved her.  Enough to go on THE STEEL EEL.  I made clear, however, that no amount of love could drag me onto the (insert psychotic scream here) GREAT WHITE.  It goes upside down.  That’s just not going to happen ever again.  (Even the adolescent boyfriend couldn’t get me on that one twice at 6 Flags.) 

Anticipate the entire experience, including (and usually especially) the end (when it is OVER):  What I know about roller coasters is that you wait in line for 45 minutes for a ride that lasts a couple minutes.  I could handle a couple minutes, right?  No matter how horrible it was, it would be over in a couple minutes.  I could do that.  And I would have the memory of that first roller coaster ride with my daughter for way more than a couple of minutes.   

Know your weak spots and Make a plan:  I anticipated that first drop.  (In writing this post, I estimated this sucker to be about 10 stories high.  Wanting to be accurate, I looked it up on the internet and discovered the actual height to be 15 STORIES.  Gulp.)  No way around it, that was going to suck.  I knew with every fiber of my being that my amygdale would not miss the opportunity to interpret danger in the sensation of a free-fall from 15 stories.  After that, just a sense of being thrashed around and up and down, one more big drop and then we were done.  (See: “it’s a couple minutes.  I can do that.”)  I planned to use distraction, perhaps counting the seconds, and taking a lot of deep breaths. 

My toolbox and I got in line.  My 9 year old was so excited, and I have a deeply held parenting philosophy that goes something like this . . . “DO NOT BE A WET BLANKET ON YOUR KID’S SENSE OF EXCITEMENT AND ADVENTURE ANY MORE THAN ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY.  LIFE IS TOUGH ENOUGH ON THEM.”  So I was trying to be excited.  The wait was not 45 minutes, but 5.  A good thing, I told myself.  Less time to anticipate and second-guess myself.  Bite the bullet and just DO it (Strategy Alert:  don’t spend more time anticipating how unpleasant something is going to be than it would take to DO that unpleasant thing.  Otherwise you just magnify your misery.)

The gates opened and we got in.  I reminded myself that the owners of Sea World do not want to be sued, so they have gone to great lengths to be sure that people will not fall out of their roller coaster.  I am highly unlikely to die in this experience.  (Strategy:  what’s the realistic probablility of the worst case scenario??)  I buckled my seatbelt.  Tightly.  I stopped myself from  noticing that the bar did not come down on my lap nearly as firmly as I wanted it to.  I visualized myself gritting my teeth and hanging on to that bar on that first drop.  I pictured terror.  Then I caught myself and DECIDED to ON PURPOSE picture myself getting OUT of the car after a couple minutes, to the sound of the cheering parent support group in my head, having delayed once more the moment when my daughter realizes her mom is a total nerd. 

We begin our ascent.  I take a moment to be conscious of the realization that it doesn’t seem as high as I thought it would, looked around a little, and took some deep breaths.  Then I guess some yahoo had his cell phone out and was trying to take a picture, and the whole train STOPPED on the 60 degree slope, and did I mention this was 15 STORIES ABOVE THE GROUND??  The person in the car behind me said “We’re going to slide back down!!” and I felt myself coming a little unglued.  Had a momentary flash of demanding to be let off, though I wasn’t sure how that would happen, and I decided that would take more therapy to undo than if I hadn’t gone in the first place.  So I decided to engage in some positive self-talk.  “I can do this,” I said to myself (though I believe I said it out loud).  “I’ve ridden 100 miles on horseback.  I’ve given birth twice.  Once without any drugs and that was the EASIER one.  I can totally do this.”  Went over the “this is safe – sea world doesn’t want to be sued” speech again in my head.  And the coaster began to move again.  Much to my chagrin, the phrase “this was a bad idea” slipped out between my teeth just as we went over the top.  But, as anticipated, that drop was over in a flash!  Looking back, I am amazed how much time it seemed like I had to go through the safety/liability talk with myself again, and to notice that my butt was held in the car only by a seatbelt and that there was noticeable air between MY seat and THE seat.  I consciously focused on holding on for dear life (a grounding exercise).  The ensuing twists and turns were fast and furious, but nothing over my threshold.  (I do enjoy the kiddie roller coaster . .. ).  At some point I opened my eyes and considered enjoying the experience, but noticed my daughter had slid down in the seat.  My amygdala was instantly positive she would go flying out at any moment, so I grabbed her wrist in a death grip and went through the safety speech again.  I tried to count, but discovered I had forgotten how.  I closed my eyes again, and reminded myself it was going to be over soon…. and then, a break.  The coaster slowed.  DEEEEP breath.  The second ascent to 15 STORIES was somewhat less idyllic than the first, but without the stupidity stop at the top, we were hurtling toward earth again in no time.  I decided this time to use the strategy of distraction, and searched for some memory piece to draw my brain function into my cerebral cortex and out of my limbic system.  “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want . . . . “ and couldn’t remember another word.  Damn adrenaline.  Ok, something more familiar.  Went for the Lord’s Prayer this time.  Not that I am prone to reciting either one of these as a general rule, but it’s what my brain gave me, so I went with it.  Next time (HAHAHAHA!!) decide in advance what to recite in your head, Karen.  I practiced mindfulness, and took a moment to notice that I was reciting the Lords Prayer REALLY FAST.  I have no idea if I said it out loud or not, but then before I knew it, my daughter was prying my fingers off her wrist and saying “MOM!  It’s OVER!  I’m FINE!!!”  (Bonus points!  She thought I was holding on to comfort HER!!!)  So we sat there, as the coaster pulled back into the dock, and reveled in the emotional intimacy of our shared experience.  I smiled at her, scrunched down in her seat.  She looked at me, smiled back, and said “I don’t think I’ll do that again.”  I replied warmly, my heart swelling, “sweetheart, I’ve never loved you more.”   
Photo by Hagerman
And so there you have it.  There IS a way to practice all these strategies on purpose, and in an accelerated time frame.  If I were going to set my sights on enjoying roller coasters, I am confident that with enough practice, I could, and that the strategies I used in that pursuit would translate into the rest of my life dealing with cranky clients, bank tellers, traffic, angry kids, relationships … the list goes on.  Not that I’m getting on the STEEL EEL again anytime soon.  I’ll stick with the real world for now.