Do you recognize any of these moments?
You’re sitting in a routine meeting with your familiar colleagues, or you’re standing in a grocery line, or you’ve just finished a phone call with a friend, or you’re just sitting on the couch watching a movie, or you wake up in the middle of the night, and totally unexpectedly you’re heart rate picks up, your breath follows suit, everything seems suddenly far away, and your hearing zooms in and out. You feel frightened. Why is this happening? What is happening? Am I having a heart attack? Now maybe your head starts to ache or your throat constricts. Your mind races for an explanation. The absence of a logical answer makes the fear increase. The physical feelings intensify. The lighting changes. Your thoughts lose clarity. You feel panic. You think to yourself, ”I feel out of control. What’s going on?” Help!
First, let’s get clear that what’s going on is normal— normal for a mammal under threat — and you are a mammal. Your soft mammalian body has tools to discern whether the rustling of the leaves over there is a caused by a breeze or a tiger. These tools are embodied in your senses which evolved 400,000 years ago and are much older than your more novice thinking brain which developed only 100,000 years ago. When you sense you are in danger, the messenger system for survival, the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis kicks in, and when this happens, you feel hijacked by fear.
So there you are in an innocuous situation and you suddenly find yourself hijacked by fear; having all the physical expressions of fear and being under threat. Under threat? You didn’t think you were in a dangerous situation. “I’m just sitting in a meeting,” you say to yourself, or “I’m in a grocery line for goodness sake;” or again you think to yourself, “What’s going on here?” “Think” is the operative word here. Your thinking or cognitive faculties are not threat-perceivers. Your body senses are. Your cognizing and thinking come after your sensing. Your cognitive faculties and thinking receive your sensings and then plan and organize and project into the future. They, literally, don’t and can’t ‘know’ how to be scared because being scared is a state of being, not a thought or an idea, and it has already happened. So, of course, you didn’t and couldn’t ‘think’ you were scared. But you sure felt it.
Danger is felt. Danger is a state of being which we are in. Fear is a feeling, not a thought. Becoming aware of danger or threat or safety is a sub-cognitive, body-based, in the moment awareness-ing or “neuroception.” (The term ‘neuroception’ was coined by neuroscientist, Stephen Porges, MD, to explain the neural circuitry of bodily ‘ceptioning’ of danger, threat, or safety and our resultant mammalian response). So when you feel fear, your body (not your cognition and reasoning) has picked up on something that feels dangerous and is getting you ready to move or immobilize.
So how did danger and fear enter the meeting room or the grocery line or the place you are in when you finish your phone call or your middle of the night??
In every moment, we are ‘in’ our current situation as a biological body, interpreting it through multiple channels. We are ‘ing’-ing: seeing, hearing, touching, feeling, tasting, balancing, regulating our temperature, feeling hungry or not, and so on. All of this is going on at once. All of our channels are on. Think of yourself as a multiple channel mammal being. Often, because in the Western world we privilege our eye channel, primarily directing our attention to what we are looking at, we are less aware, if at all, of our mammalian body channels which are simultaneously sensing, touching, tasting, hearing, sizing up, etc. This is especially true in situations in which we are mostly attending to what we are looking at —like charts or data as in a work meeting or our groceries items and whether to pay by cash or credit card as in a grocery line.
Sometimes our 400,000 year old mammalian body self is frightened by something that looks like-feels like-seems-like something that happened before in our life that was scary. For example, if when we were young, we experienced a bigger, older sibling or schoolmate or parent threatening us, then in the current situation right now right here, if there is a person or aspect of the situation that ‘re-minds’ some part of us of the earlier threatening experience, then we physically go into fear/flight/freeze well before our logical thinking has any idea about what’s happening. In neurobiological terms this is the experience of our HPA axis mapping the current situation, the here and now (which can include a traumatic memories or fearful thought) on to a previous scary experience, and for our protection, turning off access to our cognitive pathways for reasoning and raising our cortisol and adrenaline levels in preparation for dealing with the threat by immobilizing or running away, in this case, from the bigger older scary person. Usually we are surprised that we are feeling the fear that we are feeling. We say emphatically and logically: “This makes no sense to me! I don’t understand why I am feeling this way! Yikes!”
Actually, in the here and now of the immediate moment, what is true is that it is making all kinds of sense in terms of ‘sense’ meaning the our body-based faculties of sight, hearing, balance, and so on by which we sense the world. Our preceptions and neuroceptions have picked up on a threat well before our thinking has and we are feeling threatened. And to make things even more knotty, consider this: the thought that, “I don’t understand,” is true. The cognitive slice of you is telling you its truth. You cannot think this sensed feeling you are having. You cannot ‘understand’ it. Thoughts are thoughts and sensing is sensing. Thoughts are there and then; felt-sensing is here and now. Feelings and thoughts are discreet from one another in us; logic and reasoning come after the feeling arises. Remember that our mammalian body senses are 400,00 years old and our reasoning and logic are a mere 100,000 years old?
Furthermore, without going into the entire history of how our language reflects a Western 17th century view that feelings were dark and primitive and were to be subordinated to the light of thinking (enlightenment), just pop the letter ’n’ between “no” and “sense” and you get “nonsense,” which is historically what we moderns have been taught to believe about feelings since the time of Descartes. Thus, when we are feeling something in the moment and we say to ourselves,”this makes no sense to me,” what we are saying is, “this makes nonsense to me.” Thinking this thought leaves us quite literally abstracted from our physical, bodied self which IS here in this moment sitting in the meeting, standing in the grocery line, holding the phone, or waking up in the middle of our night. We put ourselves in an impossible situation: trying to think a feeling. So we get even more scared and maybe, panicked.
Making things worse is our tendency to be more or less exclusively on our eye channel —focusing on what’s in front of us and cognitively organizing data — largely unaware of all of our other channels that are on and are receiving and metabolizing incoming information. Until, that is, we are covered in confusion and feel fear, and that fear assessment closes the gate to cognitive thinking and solutioning. Bottom line: the thinking part of us can’t make sense of why are we feeling what we’re feeling, but it is making all kinds of sense to other parts of us that are recognizing a previous danger in the current situation. So there we are hijacked by our very selves. What can we do?
What we can do is change our channel. Step One is to engage the part of us that is noticing the hijack. We purposely redirect our attention to another sense or channel. For example, if we notice we are dropping into fear, we say to ourselves, “some part of me is really scared. I am triggered. I need to change channels.”
Most likely the fear trigger is coming through our eye channel; and this can include what our mind’s eye is seeing, such as a memory of a house burning down. In this case, we proactively direct our attention away from what we are looking at and turn our attention to one of the other channels through which we are currently sensing the situation. For example, we might move our attention away from looking at the others at the meeting table to hearing the richness of sounds in the room (our hearing channel) or to feeling our feet on the floor and the pen in our hand (our proprioception channel). Once redirected, Step Two, is to immerse yourself in this new channel: listen intently as though listening for a butterfly nearby, feel your feet grounding all the way down into the center of the Earth, and so on. Stay on the new channel until you notice a change in your breath pattern. Often, you may find a sigh erupting from seemingly nowhere in you. This is a physiological change marker indicating safety and relief. Make yourself sigh again. Tell yourself, “I’m ok now. I’m safe.”
Commonly, we have no idea what the trigger is. So how do we know what channel to change from and to? Was it something I heard? Or saw? Or tasted? The answer is to experiment. As soon as you notice the fear hijack happening, turn up the volume on any one of your sense channels. A different channel from the trigger channel will have a quality of novelty to it and will pique one of your other strong mammalian instincts, curiosity. It may take some effort to stay on the “new” channel because our survival instinct will be vying for our attention on whichever channel it is broadcasting over, but stay with it. Your mind can change your mind.
All this takes practice, but with practice, we can develop our own on-board anti-hijacking tool for keeping us in whatever the present moment is presenting. Our mammalian survival toolbox has lots of tools that were very effective when we needed to be able to distinguish between a rustle of leaves caused by a hungry tiger in the bush versus a gentle breeze. We are well designed to remember quickly those things that are life-threatening to us, but sitting in a modern day meeting, we can assess incorrectly and get hijacked by what looks-like-feels-like-and-isn’t. On the other hand, sometimes our 400,00 year old felt-senses know more than we do, and maybe, just maybe, that person across the table or in the grocery line or something to do with your phone call is a threatening tiger. If so, use your 100,000 year old ability to reason, and then, act.