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Don’t Be Alarmed

by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.


The nervous system has been evolving for about 600 million years. During all this time, creatures – worms, crabs, lizards, rats, monkeys, hominids, humans – that were real mellow, watching the sunlight on the leaves, getting all Zen, absorbed in inner peace . . . CHOMP got eaten because they didn’t notice the shadow overhead or crackle of twigs nearby.

The ones that survived to pass on their genes were nervous, fidgety, vigilant, paranoid – and we are their great-, great-grandchildren, bred to be afraid, quick to feel unsettled in any situation that seems the least bit threatening: traffic speeding up, not enough time to get through your emails, a snippy comment from a relative, more news of a struggling economy, a strange new ache in your back, no call after two days from someone you’ve started dating, and so on.

Additionally, there are even more fundamental sources of alarm that are ongoing, even if your situations are reasonably good. Basically, to survive, animals – including us – must continually try to:
· Separate themselves from the world (e.g., the skin, personal identity distinct from others)
· Stabilize many dynamic systems inside the body, the mind, and in relationships
· Get rewards and avoid harms

But here’s the problem – each one of these strategies flies in the face of the facts of existence:
· Everything is connected to everything else – so it’s impossible to completely separate body and nature, me and you.
· Everything changes – so it’s impossible to keep things stable in the body, mind, relationships, or world.
· Rewards are fleeting, costly, or unobtainable, and some harms are inevitable – so it’s impossible to hold onto pleasure and escape pain.

Alarms sound whenever one of these strategies runs into trouble – which is many times a day because of the contradictions between what we must try to do to survive, and the nature of existence. Alarms below awareness create a background of unease, sensitivity, and irritability; those entering awareness are emotionally and often physically uncomfortable – such as anxiety, anger, or pain.

Don’t underestimate the degree of subtle, background alarm in your mind and body. It’s hard-wired and relentless, inherent in the collision between the needs of life and the realities of this universe.

While this alarmism is a great strategy for keeping creatures alive long enough to pass on their genes, it’s lousy for long-term health and well-being. Most of the time it is unfair: a threat signal that is way out of proportion to what is actually happening. It makes you feel bad, and primes you to over-react to daily hassles, disappointments, stress, or issues with others. It makes you pull in your wings and play safe and small, and cling tighter to “us” and fear “them.” And at the level of groups and nations, our vulnerability to alarm makes us easy to manipulate with fear.

Yes, deal with real threats, real harms – but enough with all these false alarms!

Try to be more aware of subtle internal signals of alarm, such as a tightening in your chest or face, a sinking feeling in your stomach, a sense of being off-balance, or an increase in scanning or guardedness.

Then investigate this apprehensiveness. When did it begin? What caused it? What’s the experience of it in your body? What attitudes or priorities result?

Take a stand for yourself: “I’m tired of being needlessly afraid.” Consider the price you’ve paid over the years due to false alarms: the unnecessary discomfort, the running for cover, the muzzling of self-expression, the abandonment of important big dreams.

Recognize that most alarm signals are actually not signals at all: they’re just unpleasant noise, meaningless, like a car alarm that won’t stop blapping. Don’t react to alarms with alarm; don’t be alarmed that you’re alarmed. (Obviously, sort out the alarms worth noticing from the ones you can safely ignore.)

Accept that life will sometimes be, well, alarming. Bad things happen, there are uncertainties, planes do occasionally crash, nice people get hit by drunk drivers. We just have to live with the fact that we can’t dodge all the bullets. When you come to peace with this, you stop trying – out of alarm – to control the things you can’t.

Talk to yourself in a reassuring and encouraging way. Remind yourself that you’re alright right now, and that most of the things you are nervous about are either not going to happen or will be minor and manageable trouble if they do. Recognize your strengths, your capacities to cope just fine with whatever’s alarming.

Keep calming your body. I imagine my “inner iguana” lodged in the most ancient and fearful structures of the brainstem, and gently stroking its belly, soothing and settling it so it relaxes like a lizard on a warm rock. The same with my inner rat, or monkey, or caveman: continually softening and opening the body, breathing fully and letting go, sensing strength and resolve inside.

Alarms clang and fears arise, yes, but your awareness and intentions can be much bigger – like the sky dwarfing clouds. In effect, fears are held in a space of fearlessness. You are realistic about and also at peace with this zig-zaggy, up-and-down world. See if you can return to this open-hearted fearlessness again and again throughout your day.

Dr. Hanson is a neuropsychologist in San Rafael, California. His practice includes adults, couples, families, and children, as well as psychological assessments of children and adults related to temperament, school performance, and educational and vocational planning. For more information, please visit his listing on the Therapist Directory

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