Your husband tells you you're going on a beach vacation for 7 days without children. Your first thought is, "YIPPEE!!!!" and your second thought is, "What if the plane crashes and we BOTH die??!!" We all do it. We all think the worst sometimes and our brains are actually wired for it.
This is because our brains are wired for survival. They are REALLY great at imagining the worst outcomes (giving us a chance to plan and prepare), and seeing what's not right in a situation.... and seeing what we've yet to accomplish, thinking about where we've yet to go, noticing every spot of toothpaste on our own bathroom mirror, and maybe [...]
even everything that's wrong with your partner and relationship.
When was the last time you just sat around and, without prompting, thought about ALL the things that could really go right? All the things you are doing WELL? Or even all you have accomplished in the last 10 days? NEVER!! Your brain is too busy barking orders from your to-do list!
That's why all these GRATEFULNESS challenges are all over Facebook. Gratefulness isn't what we're wired for...it's something we have to practice. It's a "challenge".
I recently had a participant in my Love, Sex, Kids Course ask, "How do I stop thinking THE WORST?" She went on to say something like, "It's just what I do, I don't think it's normal," and, "There has to be a better way to live."
She described feeling unable to "shut it off" in times of high stress but said she would later realize the extreme negativity in her thoughts. She wanted to know how to train her brain to stop doing this.
Such a GREAT question.
When we are emotionally triggered (we perceive a threat) this has the capacity to activate our flight or fight response. When this happens we either want to fight and dominate (this can be with angry words or criticism) or flee (shut-down, walk away, etc.).
I think most people are familiar with the fight or flight response, but don't tend to think about it being activated in our close relationships....and it absolutely is and can be at the base of many destructive interactions.
Once this response is triggered in the amygdale the parts of our brain responsible for cognition and behavior are literally HIJACKED and we can't access them. This is why we do, say, and think things in the heat of arguments and highly stressful situations that later (when we're calm) make us think, "Why did I _______ (do, say, or think) that?"
SO, what do I do when the fight or flight response is triggered in me? When I want to rip my husband to shreds with my WORDS? When I want to scratch my kid's eyes out? I take a time-out. Toddlers are REALLY terrible at regulating their emotions. It's developmentally appropriate for a 2-year-old to throw a tantrum. We encourage them to take a time-out until they've calmed down. You're really terrible at regulating your emotions when your fight or flight response is triggered.
I know when my blood pressure is elevated I am not capable of having constructive conversations or making big decisions. If there's not eminent, REAL physical danger responding out of FIGHT does no one any good and I consciously CHOOSE to flee.
Our survival-brain is a WONDERFUL thing when there's a saber-toothed tiger in front of us, but when our loved one is in front of us you have to know when to override this inner alarm.
Clients always ask How long do I flee? Until the feeling subsides. There have been times I've excused myself during an argument and thought it would take DAYS to calm down, but a lap around Michaels later (looking at craft supplies and frames is strangely calming for me) and the feeling is totally gone.
The key to this time-out working is a commitment and understanding for all involved that reengaging in the conversation or decision when everyone is calm with the goal of a resolution IS A MUST. This tactic is not meant to encourage the sweeping of issues under the relationship rug.
I became skilled at overriding this for myself and walking away before I was good at letting my husband do the same. I WAS TERRIBLE at giving my husband the time and space he needed to calm down. I wanted him to resolve conflicts on MY timetable. But knowing this information about the brain has helped me to detach from taking his anger so personally.
Unresolved conflicts don't drive me crazy like they once did. The more we've taken breaks to later find a resolution when we're both calm the more I know we can and absolutely will get to a resolution....and we get to skip that whole acting out on each other part.
There have been times I have waited 5+ days for my husband's anger to subside about an issue to reengage in the conversation. On day 3 I tried, was met with anger, and walked away MYSELF (even though I wasn't the one being triggered) because I knew while he was triggered I wouldn't be heard and a resolution wouldn't happen. But I also didn't let it go. Day 5 I said, "I know I really hurt your feelings and I hate that. I still want to talk about it," probably much like I did on day 3, but was met with a different, less angry husband and so proceeded with the conversation. We reached a resolution in less than 5 minutes without the destructive round and round arguing and bickering.
How to be triggered LESS. If you find that you reach this point of reacting from intense fear or anger easily you may want to look into what triggers you.
We're all carrying around unresolved junk from our pasts and that junk, in the form of REALLY unconscious beliefs, absolutely impacts how you perceive the world. These beliefs, like sunglasses on my head, have been there for so long that we just don't know they're there anymore. I encourage you to become intimately aware of what these are for you. In the Love, Sex, Kids Course we do an entire exercise on discovering your CORE BELIEFS.
EVERY time you have intense feelings they are carrying messages for you about what these unresolved issues may be and/or what needs to be changed in the here and now. Teasing out how much of your feelings belong to the here and now and how much of them belong to the past and a belief that doesn't serve you anymore can be life-changing.
When I was pregnant with our first I was in a Ph.D. program not making much $$, and the impending arrival of another mouth to feed was triggering my "I'm a burden" belief. One day I got home early and took a BIG nap. When my husband got home he asked with a smile on his face, "What did you do today?" I defensively SNAPPED back at him because I heard his intent as "you didn't do enough today". I attacked him with some sarcasm, "I probably MADE EARS, AND FINGERNAILS!!!!" What did YOU do today???!!!!!!"
The only way I know how to work through destructive core beliefs is to become a REALLY great communicator with yourself and others.
For instance, if I could have a redo of that same scenario when my husband asked, "What did you do today?" here's how it might go. When that BIG feeling comes up in me and my heart sinks I would say to myself..."Ok, what did you hear him say? How are you taking this personally?", and I would say this OUT-LOUD to him in a question. Something like, "I'm hearing that you think I should have done more today?"
This is what I call checking out your perception and I do this before reacting defensively. And on that day I'm sure my husband would have said, "NO!!! I'm just trying to make conversation." Being intimately aware of my destructive core beliefs has made it really EASY to get to the CORE of arguments and big feelings quickly. When you're not at the core you can snip and snap at each other and arguments can spin and escalate fast.
Eventually I did realize being pregnant was contributing to me feeling like a burden even more than usual because bills were increasing and I was contributing less financially than usual. Instead of continuing to act out on my husband I got really clear about this with myself and got really vulnerable and dared to just ask him if it would be easier for him if I quit my Ph.D. program and got a job. I was terrified he was going to say yes. We had a serious discussion about our finances (of which I knew very little about) and he assured me we were more than fine and that I WAS contributing to the future of our family by continuing my education.
That conversation NEEDED to happen. I needed to hear why he absolutely did not think that I was a burden. Our core beliefs are mirrored back to us every moment of every day. You see, we ASSUME other people are thinking about us the way that we do. Stop assuming, get aware, be vulnerable, & say that crap out-loud. I'm making this sound easy. It's not always and you may need some support and accountability in the form of counseling to get this ball rolling...I did.
OTHER THINGS that change your brain (gratefulness, yoga, & EFT):
Research has proven that having practices of gratefulness and calm primes your brain to be less reactive to negative stimuli. Things like yoga (which is really practicing calm in the face of very stressful and disorienting positions), meditation, prayer, deep support and connection with friends and/or through therapy, when done regularly, can help your brain keep calm in the face of stress.
Also, if you haven't heard of it, check out Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). This one's a little woo-woo, but the premise is based on using acupressure during periods of high, unnecessary anxiety (i.e., when you're not being attacked by a saber-toothed tiger, but still feel highly anxious) through a series of tapping motions. It's a physical way of sending your brain messages to "calm down" and can lessen the intensity of an emotion greatly or all-together. Over time and with practice some research suggests that this technique can re-wire your brain to disassociate intense feelings from certain memories.
EFT is being used by neuroscientists and yogis alike to treat conditions ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to issues with weight loss. Find a video on YouTube to try it yourself. There are literally 100s, so find one that works for YOU. There are also lots of EFT books, trainings and therapies available if you're interested in learning more.
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