Updated: Aug 26, 2022
Something woke me up in the middle of the night. (I won’t publicly blame my husband for this, of course). I was AWAKE. For more than an hour.
You know where my mind went? (I’m sure I'm not alone in doing this).
My mind traveled quickly to a situation I’m worrying over, despite all of its good.
In this case, it was about sending my 9-year old daughter to sleep away camp for the first time.
And my mind went to a worst-case scenario.
I waded neck-deep into dark and scary territory.
I was TRIGGERED.
And I knew it.
I also know that this is what our brain does when faced with a real or perceived stressor or danger:
It SWITCHES OFF access to calm and mindful thoughts and switches ON only those parts of our brain equipped for maintaining quick-reacting ninja survival skills.
That’s not what I needed that night.
Of course, this triggering can happen anytime of day or night. We’re just more susceptible in the night and tend to notice it more because we’re NOT SLEEPING.
Stress, anxiety, overwhelm, heightened emotion, and fear-inducing triggers could include for ex:
an uncomfortable encounter with someone in-person or online
something on social media revving us up (usually something that dredges up insecurity, passion, or anger)
a disturbing news story
good old-fashioned ruminating about all that’s on our plate and what's coming, where we play the “what if” game (and lose)
Once triggered, we may then enjoy any combination of: heart racing, shortness of breath, stomach clenching, palms sweating, inability to focus, tight muscles, headache, inability to sleep, or other stress-induced symptom cocktail.
You know your own mind and body’s go-to combo under high-octane stress.
Significantly, when we are triggered into our fight or flight, survive against all odds, lizard-brain mode, our thoughts turn NEGATIVE, often exaggeratedly so.
To steal a term from the great book The Anatomy of Peace, we begin to “HORRIBILIZE.” The situation. The other person. Ourselves. The WORLD. Whatever the situation seems to call for.
We exaggerate the negative, and are blind to the positive. We’re in a black and white space where our mental saboteurs think they're doing us favors.
In other words, there’s a LIZARD in the driver’s seat of our brain. Off-roading.
While I typically don’t eat a lot of meat, I say it’s time to eat this lizard for lunch.
Sure, it’s great to have our inner reptile there for those moments of REAL danger. I’ll gladly hand over the keys during those times and step into autopilot with my instincts. But most of the time, it’s better if we humans drive...with consciousness, calm and care.
When we’re in our human mind, we can find balance, reason, perspective, more sides to the story, discernment, confidence, opportunity, hope, and all of the beauty that our creative minds can bring to our life and others’.
So, how do we keep the lizard on the lunch plate when we’re not actually fighting or fleeing for our survival?
In the moment, there are a few things we can do:
Notice we’re being triggered. Our physical symptoms offer immediate clues. Mental symptoms such as being stuck in a redundant thought pattern and rigid thinking can also be a solid signal.
1. Physically move into another room to break the chain of thought. Walk for longer if it helps.
Breathe. Nice and deep. Eyes closed. Gently. As long as it takes to steady your heart beat. It can take up to 20 minutes to calm ourselves.
Disconnect from / avoid technology and connect to nature as possible (take a walk outside, touch a flower, look out the window +). Or, ironically, we can go to a mindfulness app such as Headspace, Calm or Insight Timer and play the nature sounds there, if we can’t get into nature at the moment. Ocean waves, birds singing, the tap-tapping of rain….
Choose your own antidote: What else do you know calms you? A certain quote, spiritual passage, memory, song, or place? Call it to mind now, take it in and feel the calm come over you. Then, put it in your lizard-for-lunch cookbook. And have it at the ready the next time the lizard grabs the keys for an unwelcome joyride.
Sweet dreams, friends!