Resiliency tip for the week: Take a deep breath and ask one more question
A simple conversation, not about anything in particular – a comment was voiced about something I had said. My gut twisted, I thought, “what?” “Wait, huh??” My neck tightened, a knot developed in my throat, my face felt hot: all in a matter of milliseconds.
Within that very short time my body determined a threat. Not a physical threat mind you, yet a threat nonetheless. It could have been my interpretation of the comment, the tone of the voice, or maybe a trigger stemming from an unhealed area in me. A calm, collegial conversation had changed directions in a moment of time. Or had it?
We experience gut twists and the running-out-of-control commentary of our “monkey mind” every day. Whether it is what is said by a colleague, occurs with a patient, or our family member giving us “the look;” the reaction originates from one section of the brain that keeps us alive. If we are being chased by a lion, it tells us to run. This part of our brain does not only work to protect us while in the vicinity of a lion, it also works each time we feel threatened.
I wasn’t being chased by a lion. In fact, there was no real threat there at all, only a perceived threat. Our bodies do not know if the threat is perceived or, in fact, real as it only knows what the mind is telling it. Something triggered part of my brain called the amygdala, and it determined I needed to protect me. This reaction is needed if you are on the Sahara desert and lions live in the neighborhood. Our brain scans for threats, even if there is not an actual threat present. In this case there was not a present threat, so I needed to let my body in on this fact. I did this by taking a deep breath, reassuring myself and asking one more question.
As you might remember, taking a deep breath moves us from the reactive place (the amygdala) in our brain to the thinking part (the prefrontal cortex). Asking another question reorients and can give clarity. It moves us from considering the threat to wanting to understand. It allows us to step back and instead of being the situation, we can watch the situation from a different perspective, allowing us to see what might be going on in our own experience. Was I triggered that day? What it the tone, or the choice of words? What was my colleague really saying vs how was I interpreting the intent? Stepping back helped me stay responsive rather than reactive.
I took a deep breath and asked another question. “Could you say more about that?” My colleague did just that. She used a different way of explaining the comment, which opened the conversation, increased understanding and allowed my body to breath out the stress that had been growing and I was able to notice what had been going on in me.
A deep breath, another question. Try it. Let me know how it works for you and how it increases your capacity to be resilient. I look forward to hearing your experience.
photo: taken at Ghost Ranch, NM