In my last post, "Going With the Flow", I described an imaginary scenario explaining how our emergency response system kicks automatically without consciously thinking about it. Here's a real life and up close and personal experience.
One night several weeks ago my dogs ran out into our dark back yard, barking furiously. Since we live in the desert where there are predators (neighbors have had dogs killed by predators), I intuitively knew I had to get them inside quickly. "Intuition is knowing something without knowing why" (The Gift of Fear by Gavin DeBecker).
When I got outside, barefoot and in boxer shorts, the dogs were running around frantically and barking at something in the dark. Suddenly, fifteen feet in front of me was a very large coyote that had leaped over a six-foot wall looking for a meal. My first thought was, "I need to protect the dogs."
Without thinking and unmindful of my bare feet on the gravel, I charged the coyote, roaring and growling. Intuitively I know they're very timid around humans and the coyote leaped back over the wall. Now, I don't know what I would have done if it had been a mountain lion but like to think I would have done the same.
The exact same automatic emergency responses I described in my freeway scenario kicked in with the coyote as well, including the automatic system shut-off once the danger had passed. So let's talk about how we can create our own calming response to turn off the panic button without having to wait for the brain and body to do it naturally as you already have the tools but may not know it yet or how to use them.
When we're daydreaming, focusing on a pleasant image or memory, calming physiology changes occur in the body, breathing slows, heart rate decreases, muscle tension reduces and there's a calmness in the mind. These changes happen without us commanding them to, in fact, telling ourselves to relax tends to have the opposite effect. If you have a pet you know that stroking your dog or cat is very calming and almost a meditative state This is essentially what meditation is, passively focusing on an inner awareness, be it breathing, an image or sound, that enables the body to relax and release muscle tension on its own as it's designed to do.
When we become anxious or panicky our muscles automatically tense which can make the anxiety or panic worse as we try to fight off the panic and "remain in control." And, of course, when we're tense and anxious the ability to think logically is drastically reduced. One of the tenets of the martial arts is, rather than resist, use your opponent's energy against him by flowing with it. Paradoxically, the best approach is to reduce muscle tension which reduces anxiety and activates the calming response.
Practice these techniques now so you've mastered them when and if panic strikes as it's virtually impossible to learn them in the midst of panic. When I was doing the advertising for the Seattle Mariners I once asked the infield coach during spring training why these amazing professional ballplayers did the same drills (same ones I did in Little League) over and over when they already had the talent and knowledge. He said it was so they would do it without thinking when the time came. It's the same thing, practicing these techniques when we're not in the panic or anxiety mode until they become muscle memory when we really need them.
Next time I'll talk some more about other effective techniques for activating the calming response and getting on top of anxiety and panic quickly. Of course, if you don't want to practice mastering these tools you can always fight and resist and wait for the body to eventually do it on its own. See you next time.
THEFEARMONSTER's Banned Book Recommendation: Don't Panic by R. Reid Wilson, PhD. It's full of great straightforward and effective self-help tools for overcoming panic and anxiety.
Next Time: EYEBALL TO EYEBALL WITH PANIC