Feeling agitated lately? World news stressing you out? Maybe have too much on your plate as you start the new year? Marc Schoen, author of the book, Your Survival Instinct is Killing You, calls what you're feeling "agitance". After reading his book, I think of agitance as how internally "revved up" I'm feeling - that constant buzz, just below the surface, that can make it difficult to take a good, deep breath. Or to focus well. Schoen says some level of agitance is always present - think of it as similar to your body temperature - but these days, too many people are walking around with high levels. It is a symptom, he says, of our survival brains being triggered by chronic discomfort. And it's making us sick.
Signs of agitance include constantly rechecking emails, picking up your phone the moment you are free, feeling anxiety if you don't get a quick response to a text or email, and feeling discomfort, say on the weekend when you are not busy or even working. Or using food to calm you. Or driving fast even when you aren't in a rush, impatient when not in a rush, staying angry longer than necessary...do any of these resonate with you? What do we do about it?
It helps to take a peek inside our heads. We all have essentially two brains: the cerebral (rational) brain and the limbic (emotional) brain. They speak two different languages with reactions from each traveling at vastly different speeds. Our limbic system is wired for survival and home to primary emotions like fear, pleasure, love, lust, pain, and rage; it is the seat of addictions and the creator of habits. Impulses from this part of the brain travel at more than 100,00 mph! Whereas our cerebral, rational brain is reflective, logical and calculating, but impulses from this much younger part of the brain only travel at 120-140 mph. Schoen writes it's not uncommon for our two brains to find themselves in disagreement, with our rational brain telling us we are safe...and our emotional brain feeling otherwise. Which one wins? The faster, more densely wired, earlier limbic brain. Which makes you pick up the donut when you committed to eating less sugar or triggers anxiety at the thought of possible rejection, repeating patterns that don't serve you well.
We are ALWAYS emotional creatures before we are rational ones. But our culture values rational thought over emotional response. So we push down our emotions, sometimes so deeply we don't even know they exist, while we march forward listening to our rational brains. The problem is, those emotions are there and won't be silenced, so they show up in our bodies - under the guise of pain, indigestion, fatigue and worse. Our emotional brain insists on being heard!
What we want - and need - is to integrate our emotional and rational brains, so here is what I recommend the next time you're "feeling a certain kind of way": let yourself feel what you need to feel - all of it. Watch yourself feeling it with gentle compassion, quieting the judge in your head. Remember to breathe through your feelings, and remind yourself, as Rilke writes, "no feeling lasts forever." And then? get on with something that brings you pleasure, which is not a luxury; it's a necessity. It doesn't need to cost a thing - this morning I was noticing how high in the trees the birds were gathering as I felt my dog Nell's heart connecting with mine while she sat on my lap. In other words, practice everyday resilience (thanks to Credo friend Bob Stice for that) - rather than waiting until you're on empty. My next few posts will look at practices that promote everyday resilience - and I'd love to hear any suggestions you have. I wish you peace in these turbulent times.