Saturday I made it to yoga class. It’s been a long time since I have set foot in a studio and been a student, moving on my mat.
After class, I did some chores, ran some errands and took a long walk in the sunshine. When it came to changing my clothes from yoga gear into “street” clothes, I realized that my yoga leggings had been on inside out – all day.
I laughed. I went down to the basement where my partner was working and told my story. I laughed again.
The fact is, I had a lovely time at class. I reconnected with two teachers I hadn’t seen in years and saw students from my former studio and even made a new contact. No one cared that my pants were not as they “should” have been.
Mindset matters. The whole point of this story is to illustrate how we, as human beings, focus on all of the risks, dangers, ominous threats. We are wired this way for survival. In fact, it’s been shown that thoughts that evoke feelings such as fear and shame activate the amygdala and insula in the limbic system. In the cases of trauma, a person can get “stuck” in this processing area and continually be in a state of high-stress fight, flight, freeze mode.
Fortunately with awareness and effort, the brain can change. It’s a process called neuroplasticity. Our brains are meant to adapt and change with new stimulus, however the new input is not always what we consider healthy.
While my incident was minor, there were a lot of things I could have done to “save face.” I could have contacted the instructor and told her how embarrassed I was over it. I could have vowed to not go back to her class. I could fear running into any of the students I was with in that class. I did none of those things. I knew that I had to switch my response from the limbic system to the prefrontal cortext – involved executive functioning, memory, attention, and emotion regulation – to move my brain forward.
NOTE: This is not a prescription, nor a substitute for mental health professionals.
Here’s what I did:
- Pause – Stop what you are doing and take a breath, or three. This simple act, commonly skipped, will begin to calm any agitation, taking you out of the fight, flight freeze mode. For me, laughing broke that spell and allowed my nervous system to begin to calm.
- Acknowledge – Name the situation objectively, without attachment and judgement. The fact in my story is that my pants were inside out. No harm was done. I then gave myself compassion by acknowledging that we all do things like this from time to time. That thought alone made me feel more connected and more human
- Evaluate – I sat for a minute to get a clearer sense of the whole situation as it happened, instead of getting wrapped up in my reaction to the event. I had a pleasant experience, no one cared, I made connections and re-connections. Going deeper, I saw that there was a sense of pride hurt in the process. Pride of doing the right thing, looking the “right” way – both of which are impossible standards to hold oneself against.
- Move – when you feel ready, move on with what you learned in mind. If we don’t stop and become aware, these patterns of brain hi-jacking will continue repeatedly. Just as you were wired to slip into pessimism and a self-defeating attitude, you can shift into a more positive affirming state of mind.
By performing these steps in the space a just a few minutes, I was able to shift out of the fight/flight/freeze mode into a more rational one. As a result, I felt calmer and had some insight into the deeper origins of my reaction. These steps can be performed by anyone at any time. The trick is to catch yourself when you have entered the state of mind that causes you to react. It’s not easy. It may take time. The sooner you catch your own defeating self-talk, the sooner you can begin to change your mind.
We all make mistakes, opt for poor choices, execute faulty judgments from time to time. The key is to not hyper-focus on all of the bad, but to listen to what happened and shift into a different pattern of thinking. Certainly a coach trained in these modalities of mindset can help you become more resilient when navigating stressful situations.
What stressful situations cause you to go into “reaction mode?”