amygdala

How to outgrow your problems

I hit a bit of a snag recently when I realised I needed to move house rather quickly. I had help making the decision, as I lived in a rented flat and the building was being sold. On balance, staying looked like a very poor option.

The thing is, for all my flat’s faults, I’d felt quite settled there and dreaded moving, as I reckon most of us do.

In the three weeks’ window of opportunity available, I looked at a long series of unsuitable dwellings and became quite glum. I had a clean-up and disposed of a big percentage of my possessions and felt even glummer. I was worried I’d done the wrong thing and wouldn’t find a place. Or I’d find one I didn’t like.

It did make me think, though, about the process of handling life’s curved balls.

If you’ve got a sketchy track record of dealing with alarming things, as I have, it’s worth a thought.

  1. Hit a problem

    When we hit problems in life that cause major emotional turmoil, they’re often around survival issues – money, home, work, physical safety, relationship breakdowns, illness and death.

  2. Alarm

    Survival issues spawn a bunch of panicky thoughts about the problem. They’re loud, insistent and hard to refute, particularly for anyone with traumatic or stressful memories in the same area as the current problem. That’s most of us, then, as we age. How well are we taught to manage fear?

  3. Raw emotion

    Panicky thoughts trigger the amygdalae (Greek for ‘almond’), whose sole purpose in life is to keep us safe. It’s responsible for emotions, survival instincts and threat-related memory. It’s our emergency brain. Just one big panic button, really.

    We start churning out adrenaline and cortisol and our bodies react accordingly, shutting down the strategic thinker and preparing for flight/flight. Hormones and emotions flood our bodies.

  4. Full surrender

    Fred, a human with well-adjusted coping strategies will at this point pause to take stock. No tiger chasing me? Any imminent threat? No? OK, let’s process the flood of emotions, breathe deeply, then calmly assess what needs to be done next. He will surrender to the circumstances of the problem, allow the wash of emotions, then take action.

    Bob, a human with poor coping strategies might remain in panic mode, rush about distractedly, resist all emotions and be overwhelmed – paralysed to useful action. Adrenaline is re-triggered. This cycle can continue, being fed by ever more panicky thoughts, for as long as Bob chooses.

  5. New outlook

    Fred will probably develop ideas about how to manage the situation. He will adjust his thinking to encompass the new situation.

    Bob is still in a tailspin, filled with self-pity and resentment, feeling helpless and waiting to be rescued.

  6. Big changes

    Fred starts to make some choices about what to do next. He believes in himself to get through it. Having adjusted his world view to the new situation, he doesn’t look back. He takes action. He keeps trying new actions, until he finds a way to handle the problem.

    Bob reaches for a drink/donut/Netflix and collapses exhausted on the sofa. The problem remains. The fear remains.

  7. Growth

    Fred’s on the other side of the issue now, living life in a new way and finding that it’s doable.

    Bob isn’t. Bob’s stuck on his sofa in resistance and avoidance of his emotions. Suffering increases and endorses his panic and self-pity.

What price emotional adulthood?

In my case, I just decided to trust that I would find a home I liked. By sheer fluke, I found a wonderful flat, just right for me. Despite the giddy velocity of the move, I’m now very happy.

However I am newly arrived at an effective way of dealing with stressors. It’s been interesting to learn as an adult – to stop suffering and stand on my own two feet. To be willing to feel my negative emotions. I had to come out of the deep freeze first.

I’m not completely out of the woods. I still have fear, anxiety, stress and so on – in fact any and all emotions. I still behave oddly at times.

However, choosing emotional adulthood – feeling my emotions – sure does make life easier.

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