Published on July 8th, 2020 | by Nancy F. Clark0
How To Rewire Your Panic Button And Go From Negative To Positive
Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD—
No one intends to panic, but a curious feature of our brain is that it goes there anyway. Fortunately, you can redirect your brain from negative to positive when you know how it works.
Cortisol is released when you see a potential threat, and it gives you a “do something!” feeling. Cortisol creates a full-body sense of alarm which makes it hard to focus on anything but making it stop. Alas, you don’t see a way to make it stop sometimes. So the cortisol continues and it feels like the threat is getting closer.
It’s important to know that a gazelle doesn’t panic when it sees a lion. The gazelle is too busy doing something. It focuses on the path in front of it, not on the lion. Soon, it is back to enjoying the green grass.
Or not. You may think statistically about this because you have more neurons than a gazelle. The human cortex anticipates future threats, which enables us to prevent them. Our babies are not eaten by lions because we do something about it in advance. But as soon as we solve one problem, our big cortex scans for the next potential problem. We can end up with a lot of cortisol.
This cortisol is bad for your immunity and also your productivity. You want to make it stop, but you think you’re too intelligent to enjoy green grass when you know there are lions about. What’s a big-brained mammal to do?
You can focus on the path in front of you instead of the lion.
You can focus on a project that will meet your needs in the future. Your brain will reward you with dopamine, and that creates positive expectations for your next step. Small steps are enough to feel good as long as you keep taking them. You can make it happen if you give yourself 3 projects—long-term, short-term, and middle-term. Then you can keep taking steps, even when some paths are blocked. Each step you take builds your dopamine pathway, which wires you to take action in a world full of threat.
This may seem hard, but it’s the job our brain is designed to do. We evolved to survive by seeking rewards and avoiding threats. Our brain prioritizes threats because a predator can kill you faster than a lost meal. But after you miss a few meals, hunger becomes a threat too. So we are made to keep seeking rewards despite the persistence of threat.
- A gazelle doesn’t expect its herd leader to rid the world of predators.
- It doesn’t get angry at its herd mates for ignoring potential threats.
- It is too busy trying to fill its belly.
Gazelles have false alarms, of course. But after a bit of wasted energy, they go back to meeting their needs. A gazelle must forage many hours a day in order to fill its belly. If you provisioned a herd of gazelles with processed food, they would suddenly have lots of energy to invest in threat-seeking. An ambitious graduate student could create a herd of neurotic gazelles by supplying them with tortilla chips. They would be forever running from the slightest whiff of threat.
Imagine being one of those neurotic gazelles. You don’t intend to be hypervigilant, but it’s hard to tear your attention away from the stream of potential threat signals. If the ambitious graduate student erected a screen showing “The Lion King,” you would be glued to it. You dream of greener pasture, but the right moment to step toward it never seems to come.
Now imagine that you summon the strength to shift your focus from threat to reward. You progress toward your goals and your happy chemicals flow. Hooray.
But you may be shocked by the bad reactions you get from others. They may wonder why you have happy chemicals and they don’t. They may insist that you are endangering your life with inadequate vigilance. They may even brand you as a threat.
Mammals are herd creatures. They stick with the herd while they seek rewards and avoid threats. Humans have stuck with a tribe for most of our history. But over time, we have reduced our dependence on tribes. We have learned to sustain the feeling of social support without constant herd following. We learn to choose our reward-seeking steps and our threat-avoidance steps individually. Today, we need to make those choices more independently than ever.
If you need to see the herd move before you step toward rewards, you may miss out on rewards. If you feel threatened every time a herd mate feels threatened, you may suffer no end of threat.
But you have a choice. You can step toward your goals regardless of what the rest of the herd does. Your inner mammal will still long for the safety of the herd, but each time you feel threatened, you can shift your focus back to the path in front of you. You will build a new pathway to your happy chemicals whether your herd mates do this or not.
So define your 3 projects and start stepping!