February 4, 2011

The Sympathetic Freak-Out. ~Joni Sturgill

Photo Courtesy bark

When I see an angry driver – with their arms flailing, profanities on their lips, the jerky movements of their car, I smile with compassion. I remember that feeling.

I remember freaking out every time I encountered traffic. If another driver passed me aggressively or was driving too slowly in front of me, I would freak out.

In my “freak out,” I looked a lot like a cartoon character. Red slowly rising up my usually pale face, perhaps even a little steam rising from my head and out my ears. My muscles would tighten, my heart would pound, my stomach would tie itself in a knot. I would even raise my voice to shout at the other cars, as if they could hear me.

Photo Courtesy Tony the Misfit

Does any of this sound familiar?

You might not “freak out” over driving, but you might have other triggers that cause you to physically react to your circumstances. Your reaction might be external: raising your voice, blurting out impulsive comments to people, tightening your body and even pounding your fist in frustration. Alternatively, your reaction might be more internal: your digestive system shuts down or becomes overactive, you verbally abuse yourself in your mind, or even withdrawal, metaphorically cocooning yourself away from the trigger.

As human beings, we are very REACTIVE. Something happens, and we immediately respond, sometimes without a thought. The question is, should we?

There is something to be said for reacting quickly in certain situations, for instance, when a mother grabs her young child before he steps out into a busy street. And the body is programmed to react when we encounter danger, like when our ancestors came upon a large animal, their sympathetic nervous system kicked in. With a rush of adrenaline, blood to the muscles, increased heart rate and blood pressure, they were prepared to fight or flee the situation. In that case, these stress hormones ensured survival, and even in the mother saving a child, that “freak-out” reaction (courtesy of the sympathetic nervous system) prevented disaster.

The problem is, that most of us live in “freak out” mode all the time. We live in a state of chronic stress: high blood pressure and elevated heart rate, tense muscles, reduced digestive function, accompanied by a furrowed brow that tells the world to “keep away”. Is this the path to happiness, joy, freedom, good health? Certainly not.

What can you do?

Step 1: Recognize the next moment you are in “freak out” mode. Ask yourself, “Is this a life or death situation? Or can I let it go?” Letting it go might seem like the hardest thing in the world in that moment, and you might not want to let it go. And maybe you shouldn’t. Which leads you to…

Step 2: Breathe. We DON’T do this enough! Take 3 deep breaths and try to relax your body. Release tension from your shoulders, from your jaw. Soften your belly. Feel the contact of your feet on the ground.

Step 3: What are your options? Outline the possible ways you can react in this situation. For instance, imagine someone cut in front of you in line at the grocery store, without asking and it made you really mad. Your options: a.) You could punch the person.  b.) You could say something rude to them. c.) You could try to politely say something to them. d.) You could let it go. Maybe they were in more of a hurry than you. Or maybe the universe put them there to slow you down.

Step 4: Make a decision and do it. Usually the right one will be very clear to you, even if it’s the more difficult one to carry out.

Photo Courtesy chintermeyer

Although reading these steps might have taken some time, you can do them all within a matter of seconds. It’s just about learning your triggers, and calming the “freak out” urge, get out of your sympathetic nervous system – it’s only there for life and death circumstances (fight or flight).

A regular practice of deep breathing and meditation can help you become less reactive to your “freak out” triggers, and can actually heighten your awareness in situations where you need to react – like those life and death situations.

Go ahead, try some deep breathing right now, and feel the “other side” of your nervous system, the parasympathetic (which lowers blood pressure and heart rate, calms the nerves, makes you feel happy). Flood yourself with peace, light and well-being with every breath. Stay here for two minutes. Then bring yourself back to this place the next time you get the urge to “freak out.”

By the way, I’m a really relaxed driver now. No more cartoon characters for me!


Joni Sturgill lives and breathes yoga, meditation, nutrition, and wellness. She teaches in the Pittsburgh, PA area and counsels nutrition clients all over the country. Contact her through www.healthybodypeacefulsoul.com.

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