You’ve been there. Most of us have. You’re interviewing for a job, going on a first date, speaking to a group of people, having an argument, or maybe just trying to schedule a busy day, and your body starts to tell you that you’re in danger. Your heart rate picks up, adrenaline starts to surge, you break a sweat, and maybe start to feel edgy or irritable, none of which are particularly helpful in any of the aforementioned situations. I’ve never had a prospective employer leap across the desk and try to attack me during an interview. Inevitably we stumble over our words, shut down, lose our temper, or some other behavior that is directly counter to our situational goal. These behaviors often exacerbate these feelings and things can rapidly get worse. So much of this begins with a person’s body screaming at them that they are in danger when they aren’t.
Different people do this to varying degrees and it’s safe to say that nature and nurture both play a role. At its root, our nervous systems can’t differentiate stress from danger very well. Our systems haven’t evolved as fast as we’ve civilized so our instinctual response is often outdated. So what can be done? Are we to simply allow instinct to reduce us to cave-people when stressed? Fortunately, there are some tools and techniques to help manage these responses before they have any significant impact on behavior.
1. Be Aware: The world needs more Wares
Like with any thinking or behavior habit, it’s hard to change if we’re not aware it’s happening. We may not be able to stop instinct but we can become more aware of it. I often joke with clients that my whole life is a battle between Cave-man Geoffrey and Civilized Geoffrey, and the biggest advantage Civilized Geoffrey has is that he is aware of Cave-man Geoffrey. He can play the detective/scientist and, knowing how the cave-man operates, can be ready for him.
2. Be Mindful: Full minds have no room for BS
Awareness is one of the primary elements of mindfulness so awareness of these physiological responses is an aspect of this process, but mindfulness also offers opportunities to minimize these responses. First, by noticing and not judging a person is able to put other tools into place instead of judging the fact that they’re freaking out and then freaking out about freaking out. Second, a person can engage mindfully through their senses in a myriad of ways (flexing toes, focusing on breath, exploring the sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes that are available, and a number of other sensory grounding tools). Slowing down the physiological response is crucial as it’s hard to rationalize with an animal.
3. Be Civilized: Grin and bear it
One of the mantras I have developed over my career is, “Is it a bear?”. This allows a person to compare their stressor to an actual danger. This can assist in developing a more rational and realistic perspective around most situations. Many patients have found it helpful to use a scale of 1-Bear for this reason. Personally I find that asking this question often makes me laugh and/or smile a little which can often help readjust the chemical makeup of one’s brain, again making it easier to view a situation more realistically.
Understanding the slow pace of evolution and how it impacts our responses to stress is helpful as it gives one a framework for what is happening to us. It assists in recognizing it for what it is and in engaging tools and techniques to put the situation into perspective so we can problem solve with our mind instead of our body. By practicing some of these skills and staying mindful of this framework a person can better manage some of these long outdated physiological responses before they engage in a behavior that is counterproductive to their goals and minimize a slew of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.
Geoffrey Hillback, LCSW, a Psychotherapist at Lukin Center Psychotherapy, earned his B.A. from Connecticut College in New London CT, where he double majored in Psychology and Theater, and attended The Fordham Graduate School of Social Services where he graduated with honors and a dual focus Masters degree (MSW) in clinical social work and leadership. Geoffrey's education and internships, at a hospital and an outpatient clinic, have allowed him to develop a diverse set of tools and techniques, focused around CBT and DBT in order to help clients recognize patterns and habits that don't serve them and develop patterns and habits that do. Geoffrey specializes in assisting clients through a wide range of challenges from aging and life changes to mood disorders, anxiety, male issues, and anger management and has significant experience working with adolescents, individuals, couples, and families.
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