Today I am reminded of something I often discuss with clients. When an animal experiences threat, they react (fight, flight, freeze), hopefully survive, and then go back to laying in the sun or whatever they were doing before. They give themself a shake, which literally resets their nervous system back to a normal, non-activated state. When it’s over, it is OVER for them.
When humans face a threat and are fortunate enough to survive, the emotional brain doesn’t necessarily let go and move on so quickly. Getting the nervous system to de-activate is not an automatic part of our process.
I’ll share a personal example. This is not a major life trauma, and yet, still, I find my emotional brain behaving in some very specific and predictable ways. Whether we face an actual threat or just the threat of a threat, our minds start rolling in a certain direction, and they are really tough to redirect.
My wonderful little dog, Tillie, was bitten by a snake last night (most likely a copperhead). Let me say from the get go that all is well, and she is on the road to recovery.
Tillie came in from the backyard limping and with a little blood around her toenail. We thought she had gotten the nail caught on something outside and planned to keep an eye on it. An hour later her paw was very swollen and there was a lot of fluid around her knee. I thought it might be a snake bite and took her to the emergency vet where they confirmed my suspicion and gave her anti-venom medication. She is home now – swollen, tired and feeling lousy, but she’s going to be okay.
YET…my brain is struggling to stop replaying the events. Emotional memory is something unique to humans, and the struggle is real. The thoughts are cycling on an auto loop as I have gone about my day. My mind is going over and over what happened, despite the fact that it’s over and there’s no need to worry now. And to complicate matters further, it’s not just memory that causes emotional mayhem. Memory gets paired with imagination, and down we go on some very unproductive and painful roads.
Tillie is fine. She is sleeping next to me and will be okay. She IS okay, but my mind has spent the majority of the day playing out the what if’s. (*Note to the reader – I already had a pretty sizable snake phobia before this event, so it’s even easier for me to get swept up in these particular what if’s)…
… What if it happened at bedtime and we went to sleep thinking it was just an injured toenail? What if we’d awoken this morning to find her unresponsive or worse? What if I hadn’t been home and my kids didn’t know that she needed immediate medical attention? How many snakes are in my yard? What are the odds we encounter one again? What if one of my kids gets bitten? Should I force them to wear rain boots any time they want to go back there? Do rain boots protect you from snakebites? Too bad they don’t make rain boots for dogs…
On and on and on.
So even though I am using all of my good therapist tricks to try to stay centered and in the present (rather than in some imagined past where things worked out differently or some imagined future where someone I love gets hurt), I am getting acquainted with a 3rd aspect of the human mind, which is this: part of my mind does NOT WANT to let go of these ruminations. The part that feels vulnerable and afraid of bad things happening doesn’t want to stop replaying or imagining because this part of my mind believes that perseverating on these things will help prevent some future disaster. This part believes that being mentally prepared will protect me/my loved ones in the future. It believes that obsessing=safety.
It is my job today to catch my mind in the lie that worry=control. It is up to me to do some grounding things to help the obsessing to stop. I will make these efforts, and the auto-loop will begin to fade over time. But in this moment, I am reminded again that the human mind’s tendency is to run away with catastrophic imaginings. And even being intentional about telling it to STOP, it’s still not easy to slow that moving train.
It’s a battle between the me that wants to settle into the reality that everything turned out okay this time and the me that wants to keep thinking about how bad it could have been. So, I have to keep fighting this battle and not hand the win to the worrying part. When I notice the imagination train has left the station yet again, I take a deep breath, focus on the present and above all, show myself compassion for these very human mental battles.