Imagine you are back in your school days and you look over just in time to spot that mischievous classmate of yours pulling the fire alarm. Instantly, the bells start clanging and the lights start flashing. It’s total chaos. Understandably, some people are clearly panicked. They are half walking, half running in an attempt to flee the threat. After all, they think it’s a true alarm, a true sign of danger. Therefore, they respond accordingly.
But what about you? Must you go screaming and running out of the building just because the alarms are aversive? No. Can you subdue the sounds and flashing lights? No. But, you know what side is up. You know that this is a false alarm, that even though the bells and lights are unpleasant, they don’t indicate a true threat. Thus, you can move about at the pace that you want without having the alarms DICTATE your actions.
Similarly, our bodies and minds can also produce emotional and mental alarms. Some of the luckiest of us have even evolved with something of a hair trigger. When you think about it, it makes sense why this is so. When the rustling in the bushes grabbed our ancestors’ attention 300,000 years ago, it was far more advantageous for her to run first and then look back to verify the presence of danger later. If she did it in the opposite order, chances are her opportunity to run would be hampered a bit by the jaws of the sabertooth tiger firmly wrapped around her head!
So “run first, scan later” became the mechanism that kept us safe. And it worked too! This is evidenced by the fact that I am writing this and you are reading it. Countless times over the past few thousand years, our ancestors got away from a threat just in the nick of time. Then they got back to camp and celebrated by passing on their genes to the next generation.
Even better, humans got so adept at this survival skill that it became automatic. It didn’t even require cognition! In fact, cognition couldn’t even override it. It was a purely physiological response. And for better or worse, it still is today. We adoringly call it “fight or flight.”
Problem is, threats arise far less often today and the brain is still working overtime to ensure that nothing sneaks up on us. Nowadays, it also registers psychological threats as well as physical threats. This means that when we step up to the podium to give that speech or walk into the restaurant on that first date, this mechanism sometimes switches on and the body prepares us for danger. No amount of self-talk can over-ride this response of the parasympathetic nervous system. Remember, run first, verify later.
Sweaty palms intended to help us grip and climb a tree faster, a beating heart pumping the extra blood that will be needed for the upcoming violent struggle or foot race, and a shaky voice resulting from the excess adrenaline coursing through the body are all well and good when we are fighting for our life, but not so helpful when we are reporting the third-quarter earnings to a room full of blank faces.
Many of us try various relaxation exercises, such as deep breathing and visualization, or medications such as benzos or beta blockers. And those things can have their place, but also their limitations in terms of being either rather ineffective in the case of breathing exercises in the face of true panic or too blunting in the case of taking benzos prior to a meeting.
So what are we left to do to ensure so we don’t treat the alarm as a true threat and go running and screaming out of the proverbial building? Let’s first remember what we are aiming for here. We are not trying to change the panic response, the “false alarms”; we are trying to change the RESPONSE to the panic and choose whether or not the panic dictates our actions.
Let’s also remember why we are doing this work. We are doing it so that you have freedom, so that fear doesn’t start to creep into other areas of your life. If that happens, then fear becomes your master and you play by its rules. You flee or avoid every occasion when it might show up and your life becomes more limited. We want you to do the opposite, to choose to be willing to feel ALL of it while living the life you want.
Here is a menu of strategies using the initial CAGES that can help us navigate tough emotions.
Commit with Self-Compassion
- We are not going to scare the shit out of ourselves for no good reason. Avoidance is still a perfectly viable response to fear, UNLESS it is costing you in an area of value. Thus, let us remember why we are WILLING to have this emotional pain while CHOOSING to step up for ourselves, a cause or the ones we love. Remember your why. Then bring in the self-compassion piece, put a hand or a fist on your heart and tell yourself, “Hey man, I know this shit ain’t easy, but you got this, all day long.”
Allow it (or even Invite It)
- Many of us have learned first hand “if we resist, it will persist.” This is evident anytime, you tell yourself, “please don’t sweat, please don’t sweat” and the result is the sweat pores open up like a faucet. Often, it’s the panic about the panic that sends us over the edge. Thus, maybe we do the exact opposite of what anxiety tells us to do in the moment. Maybe we treat it as though our body is a house and the anxiety is an unexpected and unpleasant, but welcome houseguest. We pull up the best chair in the house for it. We even tell it, “You can be here, not a problem this feeling is here, do whatever the hell you want. The place is all yours.” In fact, we can use something called paradoxical intention with an element of humor to invite it to turn up the volume. We can say, “More please, let’s see how much this body can shake or sweat or blush. Let’s really create a scene!” We also can recognize the narrative that is running in our head and gently thank and disregard the mind’s demands that we must run for the hills instantly. We stop making this our enemy, breathe acceptance right into it and thus cease the war with it.
Ground in the Body
- Once we have taken inventory of the emotions and the thoughts, we can ask, “What else is here?” We can feel our feet on the floor (literally grounding), our butt in our seats, the clothes up against our skin. We can take a slow exhale or two to help center us. We can recognize that we can expand around the difficult emotions and thoughts to also include the body. We also can recognize that we still have control over our actions, that the emotions don’t have to dictate how we proceed in this moment.
Expand into the world
- Oftentimes, when we are anxious, we aim the spotlight of attention squarely inward with a sense of hypervigilance. In this step, we are going to do the opposite. We remain outer-focused. We ask ourselves what colors are here, what sounds, smells, subtle details, tastes. We expand into the world and engage in what we are actually doing. The emotional pain is still here, as is the body, as is the world. All of it. It can all be here while I step in this way into a life that is important to me.
- This step is my favorite one. We surrender any expectations or preferences. We remind ourselves, “I’m not here to be the funniest, the most charming or to appear calm or cool, I’m simply here to do ____.” That blank is, of course, dependent on what your intentions are. It could be to support a friend, to express a point or to show up for a loved one. We can go even a step farther and take a page out of the AA book and give up the result to the universe, to fate, to a higher power if you are so moved. We can say, “What will be, will be” and take a sigh of relief. Then we can get out of the way and let IT do ITS thing.
If you find that your body’s alarms have a hair trigger, then reach out to talk about how therapy can help.