In the deep lower portion of your brain, there’s a bit called the amygdala. It’s primary function is to keep you alive: it controls the fight or flight reflex and, related, can shut down the part of your prefrontal cortex responsible for the imagining of positive outcomes. If you’re in a panic, that shutdown makes sure you’re imagining the worst case scenario to better ensure your survival.
Of course, if you’re in a panic not related to being eaten by a nearby lion, that shutdown is less helpful. That’s where I am. It’s been a rough couple of weeks.
The 50th wedding anniversary party for R’s parents last weekend was a success by all outside measures: the feted couple was delighted, the guests appeared happy, we didn’t run out of anything and nothing burned down. Mission accomplished.
In parallel news though, the side effects of organizing and executing a major family event have proven difficult to manage, as anyone with a troubling family history who’s ever gone home for Christmas could probably have predicted. I might have predicted them myself if I hadn’t been a.) changing careers, b.) traveling internationally and c.) fending off planning a wedding.
Robert Sapolsky, a biologist at Stanford, wrote a book about human stress and coping called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. In it, he talks about a zebra’s response to moving grass. If the movement is caused by a lion, the zebra’s best bet is to run. If the movement isn’t caused by a lion, the zebra can stay put. Since the cost of guessing wrong, though, is death, the zebra bolts when the grass moves, without first investigating the cause. Makes sense. For a zebra.
Humans have the same wiring. That is, our fight-or-flight reflex is also tied to predicting patterns (moving grass might = lion) and risks (moving grass might = lion, lion = likely death). (I’d like to discuss what the fight option might look like for a zebra – boxing? – but we’ll come back to that some other time.) Fortunately for us, we are not often stalked by lions, so the consequences of faulty reflexes, bad guesses and poor peripheral vision are not routinely deadly. Unfortunately for us, perceived emotional risk is handled by the same circuits that manage perceived physical risk.
For instance, if you grew up in a predictable, safe home, you probably have no emotional association or resulting pattern prediction with the sound of the front door opening. Someone’s arrived. End of circuit. If you had an unstable mother, however, you might associate that same sound with the arrival of threat because it might mean that mom’s home and therefore bad things might happen, so your amygdala preemptively amps up, tension kicks in, panic takes over, positive outcomes darken, and so on. For a zebra (prey) or a kid (powerless), that’s the right response: run or brace. For adults with more options (fences, airline tickets to the other side of the country), that chain reaction is often an ineffective and upsetting misfire, a learned response to conditions that no longer exist. Hence, ulcers. Or panic attacks, flashbacks, and very unpleasant weeks.
The good news is that with concerted effort, you can retrain your amygdala to pipe down once activated and, eventually, you can reset its trigger point, so you’re not stuck with your current wiring. (See your local cognitive behavioral therapist for assistance.)
In the meantime, under stress, my amygdala isn’t making fine distinctions. It kicks in when it thinks I’m cornered, and it’s not built for detail. The connection of “family” to “hazard” applies to all families as far as it’s concerned (even nice ones) and there’s nothing like trying to rope together a sizable family event on a too-short schedule to trip the wire. (Yes, again, even for the nice ones.) For the last few weeks, I’ve been in varying states of panic, claustrophobia and heightened anxiety. There’s been a lot of unprovoked (to the outside eye anyway) crying, not a lot of writing and quite a bit of imagining bad outcomes.
So today, in an effort to reboot the part of my brain that can imagine positive outcomes, I’m taking a break. I’m not checking email, which I’ve never tried before and which is proving very difficult, especially as the little red number of unread emails is glaring at me from my dock. I’m not thinking about the unbelievably stressful and disassociative day I spent trying on wedding dresses earlier this week (beyond writing that sentence, that is). I’m not contemplating the prospect of getting on the plane for London on Monday evening and am explicitly not imagining the two weddings and two and a half weeks abroad, mostly with family, that lurks on the other side of tomorrow.
Today, I decided last night, I’m writing and doing pleasant things only. (I’m very lucky to be able to do that, I realize.)
If you have any stories with happy endings, fluffy bunnies or tasty chocolates you’d like to drop by, today is the day. Come on over: we’re retraining my brain – it’ll be fun!