Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Your Jittery Mind

This comes from the work I am currently doing.
Part 1 is about "Your Jittery Mind".
Part 2--coming at a later date-- is about"Your Hopeful Heart"

Your heart pounds. Your hands sweat. Your head spins. Your balance sways. Are you facing a mugger in a fight for your life? Or a moving vehicle coming at you at 70 miles an hour? Are you on the receiving end of a phonecall that includes the words “cancer” and “inoperable”?

Or, are you preparing for that job interview, being introduced to your blind date, fighting rush hour traffic, or presenting a marketing plan to your boss?

Do you get the difference? Psychological fear is not the same as actual danger, but it will feel that way unless you understand how fear works and how your mind reacts to it.

Preparing for crises and creating contingency plans is useful in the concrete world of flying airplanes and repairing heart valves. But in your day-to-day life, the more you try to control events and bolster your protection against real or perceived hurts, the more fear begins to dominate how you live and what you decide. It can knock you right out of the present moment. Your mind’s response to fear can protect you from grave harm, but it can also close you down and freeze you shut.

From the dawn of personkind, the human mind has been hardwired to warn of impending danger. The warning comes through clear and compelling physical alarms: rapid heartbeat, sweating, lightheadedness, increased adrenaline, sometimes even unnatural strength and courage. But the days of fighting for food or guarding against predators is long gone. In the 21st century, our real life “dangers” are mostly psychological: the unexpected layoff, the broken heart, the fear of the dark--but your mind doesn’t know the difference.

In the world of DNA hardwiring, danger is danger, and until you understand that the difference between psychological fear and true threat, you may react to any of these symptoms as if you are in a fight for your life. Except you aren’t, because a blind date or a new job interview is not in the same class as facing a frothing wild tiger or feeling a knife at your throat.

So unless you actively intervene, here’s what happens as you prepare for that blind date or job interview: your mind reves into high gear, preparing, planning, and anticipating every step you take and every step you even think about. In high alert, it kicks off what’s called the ‘fight or flight’ response: you mobilize in an instant to either tightly stand and defend yourself, or run like hell. The good news is that in dire terrifying circumstances, you will try every means possible to shield yourself from harm—sometimes even through supernatural strength or courage that you didn’t know you had. But the bad news is that your mind’s focus on safety, facts, and guarantees can overreact to normal events and that can limit your possibilities and smother your movement. When it comes to life and career decisions, the very thought of moving to a new location or readying for a job interview can send you into full alert mode. From your mind’s perspective, the unknown is the enemy.

The trick is to find a way to convince your mind that things are ok. This is a problem because your mind can’t hear you very well when it’s searching so quickly for facts and solutions. You experience this as racing—a mind that never stops. When the facts aren’t clear, your mindresists taking any steps or making making any decisions without them.

You’ll do yourself a huge favor by simply recognizing that most of your fears do not fall in the category of extreme danger. Then you can help your mind relax and lighten up.

There are only two ways you can overcome the strict rationality and overprotection of your mind: you either need to quiet it (meditation? physical exercise?) or re-assure it (“It’s ok, mind, we are going to try something new, but I promise I will check with you before making a final decision).

Dr. Herbert Benson of the Mind and Body Institute has empirically proven the power and benefit of bypassing your mind altogether when facing important decisions or seeking a calm shelter. Doing this probably contradicts what you’ve been taught since childhood, which is that reason and logic are far more trustworthy than faith and emotion.

Since most of us apologize for being “too emotional”, you are probably accustomed to making major life decisions by minimizing or ignoring your emotions. Actually, the facts contradict this approach: reason works better when emotions are present: a person sees sharper and more accurately when his/her emotions are engaged. The truth is you really can’t see an object or a situation clearly unless you have some emotional involvement with it.

If you're relying on a brain surgeon or flight pilot, you want logic. But day-to-day fears cannot be quelled by your mind. And good decisions can't be made without the involvement of your heart.


  1. Oh great kj. I always knew that exercise had to be there somewhere :-)


    Stress is awful. The heart can only take so much. 2 months in a row, 2 young people we work with have died, while they were asleep. Aged 48 and 33. Looked very healthy, slim, nice looking. What is going on? My heart beats so fast from anxiety. Interviews do not so much bother me. Being nugged, as long as they don't beat you up, is something one can get over with after the shock. Speaking from experience.

    We play too many mind games, especially women with men. What's up with that? Make up our minds, either it's love or not. If it's not love it's a game, if it's love it's peace.

  2. ces, fear and stress overtake us in our own individual ways. might be relationships, might be work, might be self-doubt or fear of failure.

    too many mind games. well said.

  3. interesting post kj. i read something about fear a long time ago that stuck with me. it was a book on buddhism that talked about fear as being intangible. try to put your finger on the exact spot that your fear is--and you can't. the nice thing about trying to find the exact spot where fear is sitting makes it disappear. i don't know if i explained that very well...but your writing reminded me of that. there is so much potential in our lives when we let go of fear.

  4. This is a fascinating post and you are so right about the mind! My mom taught me a simple technique that I use to this day, when everything is falling apart and your mind makes you feel like you have no control say these simple words: What is the worse thing that could happen from this event? Of course one would not use this in a life or death situation but most everyday stress' can be dealt with in this manner and it really does calm you when you apply logic...
    I dislike waking up in the middle of the night worried about the state of the world and what can we do? This simple logic doesn't always work but sometimes it helps.

  5. a thoughtful post, kj! well said!

  6. Sounds like a lot of yoga you're supposed to be mindful, in the moment, observe the fear but not get caught up in it...or maybe i relate everything back to yoga philosophy :)

  7. bearette--yoga has it right. when i stop my mind i discover a fascinating world within--without fear.

    jessie and val: i like your comments about tackling fear.

  8. Have you read The Gift of Fear, by Gavin De Becker?

  9. liz, yes i have read that! i found it fascinating.

  10. i love it, kj. you sent me some of this, didn't you? my recent decision to pursue becoming a therapist/counselor is a decision I made with heart and it's a good feeling.