Have you ever been on a laughing jag? Once you get started, every little thing, no matter how inappropriate or stupid, is just hilarious. Once the hilarious emotion takes over, you perceive everything as funny and this keeps the laughter going. The same is true with any emotion. Each emotion is like its own colored lens. Whatever you see through that lens fuels that emotion. If you’re laughing, everything looks funny. If you are mad at someone, in your mind, everything they say is proof of how evil they are. If you are afraid, everything you perceive is more reason to feel afraid. If you are in love, everything that you see reminds you of your beloved. It’s the nature of emotions. They color how we think. There is neuroscience behind this. The emotional centers of the mid-brain act as neural filters of cognition deciding for us what we will think and the tone of how we experience our lives.
Once a strong emotion dies down, it lets go of the cortical/thinking part of our brain and we can think again more freely and see the world more objectively. We might see that what we were laughing at was really stupid, that we were mad at someone for something they actually didn’t say, think or do, that we were afraid for no reason. In this way, our emotions are like music added to the score of our life. They add wonderful flavor and tone to our experience, but they can also hijack our thinking and cause us to misperceive the world for what it is. The same event in our life might be experienced completely differently with different music/emotion added to it.
And here’s the problem; humans are neurologically wired for two opposite things: preservation and community. Our instincts for self-preservation are hard-wired into our brain stem, the reptilian brain. Chief among these instincts is our “fight-or-flight” response that causes us to become filled with anger to fight a threat or filled with fear to run from a threat. Thankfully, this much-needed preservation instinct does not require any thinking at all. It simply kicks in full-blown and automatically when we experience a threat.
The problem is that we also respond to many social situations as threats in the same way we might to an attacking lion or bear. The same anger or fear that protects us from physical threats can also destroy our social relationships. For instance, humans instinctually respond to uncertainty as a threat. We respond to overwhelming feelings as a threat. We respond to information that contradicts our world-view as a threat. Exhaustion also can launch our reptilian brain into instinctual threat responses.
So, all manner of social situations can kick in the same fight-or-flight survival responses of extreme anger or fear that being chased by a lion can. Left unchecked, these survival emotions of fear and anger grow and become entrenched to become the background of our entire lives, tragically limiting our ability to have a fulfilling life with others and causing needless conflict. Times like these in Newtown when fear and anger have been stirred by the tragedy require us to be extra vigilant about this and choose a better way.
It Takes Practice
Unlike these survival instincts that are present in full force from birth, our instincts for community require training and reinforcement. The ability to quiet our angry and fearful survival instincts when we are with others requires the practice of a number of higher order cortical skills. The whole path of civilization across time is a record of how a culture helps its own quiet these “reptilian” brain instincts in favor of more socially refined cortical behaviors that must be practiced and learned. The key cortical function needed to quiet these instincts is our ability to choose. We can choose to work on quieting our instinctual responses of fear and anger that are geared toward our personal survival in favor of emotions and ways of viewing the world that bind us closer. Every culture, philosophy and religion in the world across the ages has guidance on how to do this.
As we approach the anniversary, these instinctual reptilian responses of fear and anger will be showing themselves. It’s only natural and to be expected. Being tired emotionally, physically and mentally from a long and uncertain year will only make this more likely. There is a very inspiring group of 11–14-year-olds in town called the PeaceBuilders. One of their mottoes is “Don’t be a lizard!” By this, they mean that to be able to change the world, they have to be able to change themselves. That means they have to be able to control their instinctual reptilian brain responses of fear and anger and choose instead cortical compassion and kindness and a path toward cooperation when everything inside them is screaming to blame, to be hurt, to withdraw or to retaliate. The road to resilience in our lives is about quieting these instinctual responses and practicing ways of being that may not feel natural or easy at first. But, with practice, become a part of our character.
Here are some of these resilience-building practices that are a part of ancient wisdom and now being proven by modern neuroscience. The first set have to do with stopping risky behaviors that keep us in our survival mode and destroy our ability to bond with others in a healthy way. The second set has to do with adding strengths that protect us from our own reptilian self and increase happiness through stronger and deeper connections to others. In the days and months ahead, these key resilient strengths will go a long way to creating stability and happiness in our lives.
1. Don’t Throw Gas on the Fire. That is, if you are engaged in an angry or fearful spiral with someone, stop. Don’t speak words or act in ways that make things worse by fueling more anger and fear. This is not how you “really think.” It’s only how you think when you’re angry or afraid. You’ll think differently when you are free from your reptilian survival emotions and can feel more human emotions like love and kindness again.
2. Don’t Kid Yourself About Alcohol, Drugs, Violent Behavior and Sex. These may feel like a break from the pain, but they carry all manner of destruction with them. You know this. Get help.
3. Avoid Blame and Accusation Like the Plague. These are the surest signs that our reptilian brain is controlling us. These will absolutely guarantee that the bonds that can give us strength and wisdom will be broken. They are poison. Find another way to state your needs. Get professional help to do so, if you need it.
4. Watch the Isolated Drifting. Notice when you are spacey and preoccupied. Emotional confusion and exhaustion can show up as isolation. Watch for it and see it as a call to make a choice, as in the next item.
5. Invitation to Intimacy. See your struggle not as something that destines you to be isolated, but as an opportunity to create greater intimacy with those in your life. The person you are with probably feels a version of the same thing you do. Use that to bind you together, not break you apart.
6. Make No Major Decision About Your Life When You Are Angry or Afraid. You owe it to yourself and all you’ve built up to make important decisions when you are at your cortical best and not your reptilian worst. The same is true for judging others. See them for their best and not what they are when they break at their weakest.
7. “I need you now.” Instead of drifting in isolation and the fear and anger that come with it, try something new and say this to the people closest to you. Everyone is feeling isolated, tired, confused and a little overwhelmed. We’re all human. Let’s unite around that fact instead of it being a source of alienation. Be quick to apologize and quicker to forgive.
8. Take Care of the Home Front. Your kids need to see an example of suffering successfully. They need to see that amidst confusion and hurt and not knowing all the answers, relationships can be a source of strength and comfort. You can be confused and hurt together.
9. “Nurture yourself.” We need to take the time to strengthen the higher cortical parts of our brain to calm down the reptilian brain and its fear and anger responses. We do this through prayer, meditation, rest, a loving circle of friends, the experience of beauty in nature and art, sports and exercise, laughter. Without taking time for these pleasures, the reptilian brain is too strong to calm down.
10. Gratitude is the Attitude. There are countless wonderful examples of the best in human nature emerging all around us in personal transformations and community service since 12/14/12. Find something to appreciate in others, tell them about it, and these very strengths will grow in you. You can only see strengths in others that are present in some form in you.
These basic practices make possible an enormous variety of healthy and creative ways to be together that are simply not possible when we allow our reptilian survival instincts to govern our lives. No one is perfect at all of these. But, like riding a bicycle, we get better with practice. In the year ahead, as we help each other with these resilient strengths, new and cooperative forms of problem solving as a community can begin to take hold. This is necessarily a steady and organic process. We are off to a good start. No doubt, we will find added peace, strength and capacity in ourselves and each other in our united efforts to support the practice of these resilient skills. Our happier resilient lives and the improved community we will have built together will then gradually grow to be a living testimony to honor those who have been taken from us.
(John Woodall, MD, is a Board Certified psychiatrist who lives in Newtown. His blog, The Resilient Life, is at www.johnwoodall.net and contains videos specially made for Newtown residents.)