Name It To Tame it

If you want to set me off when I am upset, then the phrases "let it go" and "just take a breath" will do the trick. I loathe those two expressions because I find they are a quick, dismissive slap in the face. Letting go implies that I shouldn't be upset, which imbues my experience with a tone of judgement. Taking a breath is a good idea but when someone is flooded by an emotion that suggestion can be disparaging. In my previous post, Trying to Find Peace with Fear, I mentioned how it can be hard to think clearly when our mind is overwhelmed by an emotion. Turns out, when our limbic system is activated the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) goes off line. What does that even mean? The limbic system is a part of the brain that is often referred to as the "feeling and reacting brain." At the center of the limbic system is the amygdala. which controls your emotions. When you're happy, excited, angry, nervous, frightened, embarrassed...your amygdala has been activated. Now, the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) is a region in the front of the frontal lobe. It's the most recently evolved portion of the brain and is responsible for focus, planning, decision making, impulse control, sifting through information, and self-regulation. I think it's fair to say we depend on our PFCs to help us get through our super busy days.

Now, let's return to the fascinating relationship between the limbic system and the PFC. Let's say you are enraged. Your boss just dumped another project on you and you already have a full plate. When you go into an extreme state such as anger, frustration, worry, fear... your brain goes into survival mode. Meaning, it has entered the fight, flight or freeze state. All connection with the PFC is lost because your brain isn't worried about organizing, planning and self-regulation. It feels under attack and threatened. Your brain causes your muscles to constrict and circulation to your extremities to slows. Furthermore, your digestion slows and becomes sluggish because your body cannot digest food while preparing to fight, flee or freeze. So, now what?

When you find yourself flooded by an emotion, simply labeling what you are feeling helps to activate your PFC. I will often take a breath and then on the exhale label what I'm feeling. I will do this until I feel my body begin to relax or I make an audible sigh. These are signs that my nervous system has begun to recalibrate.

I've also found a particular meditative practice to be invaluable when I'm caught in these moments of duress. I give myself the sentence starter, "Aware of..." If I am really charged, then I will literally set a timer on my phone for 5 minutes and do it until I feel myself settling down. Here's an example of how it goes:

"Aware of cold hands."

"Aware of heart beating."

"Aware of the car driving by my apartment."

"Aware of uneasiness."

"Aware of my foot pressed under my leg."

"Aware of the smell of coffee."

You want to be specific and if a thought arises, you can say, "Aware of thinking" but don't get caught in the thought itself. If there is worry beneath that thought, then say "Aware of worry." And, then check in with your body. There's a wonderful expression, "Our issues are in our tissues." Every emotion has a physical presence in our body and when we learn to name our experience we actually begin to tame it.

My goal is to have my poem, which I referred to the other day, stitched back together and have it ready to share with you by mid-week. Stay tuned!