Overcome the Feelings that are Holding You Back
Stefan Chmelik is co-founder of and inventor of the Sensate stress reduction system, which is based on his over three decades of clinical experience working with anxiety, stress and trauma. His mission is now the company's mission - to positively impact the lives of 100 million people by 2025.
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“Biologically, we are just another ape. Mentally, we are a new phylum of organism.”Terrence Deacon, biological anthropologist and cognitive scientist, University of California, Berkley.
Whilst human beings may have, as far as we know, the most complex nervous system and biochemical components in the universe, humans are also unique in having higher consciousness, which is both the source of our inspiration as well as the origin of our unique ability to generate suffering. It is helpful to think of humans as having two nervous systems – a primitive reflex nervous system evolved as a survival response and a complex higher system that enables interpretation, including descriptive language, art, thoughts and feelings.
Note: this is a simplification and may be described in other ways but is useful for helping us understand the essential mechanisms at work and therefore what drives our behaviour. The nervous system is incredibly complex and not fully understood, but we can attempt to describe what drives human decision making.
The primitive system is largely ensconced within the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and the areas of the brain found in all complex vertebrates, such as the amygdala within the cerebrum. The ‘higher’ brain functions largely unique to humans are much less well understood but are now generally regarded as the basis for consciousness.
It is the interaction between these two systems that produce the cascade of experience we term emotions and feelings. But this interaction is often an unequal struggle: the primitive survival response has been hundreds of millions of years in the making and is hard-wired into our cells in a way that the much more recently developed higher functions cannot compete with, most of the time. Unless we specifically tame and ‘house train’ the survival response to be under the discrimination of more evolved functionality, so that the fear response does not fire at the first sight of a perceived threat. Failure to do this is called hypervigilance, a physical-emotional response to a threat that may not be a real threat and which leads to stress, anxiety, exhaustion and other negative feedback cycles.
When our threat response is driving, we react first and name the response afterwards, not the other way around as we tend to think:
“You do not run from a bear because you are afraid of it, but rather you become afraid of the bear because you run from it.”
It doesn’t have to be like this (and in fact running from a bear is not the recommended strategy!). As humans, we can cultivate specific responses that give us the potential to mediate our primitive reflex responses. This is both our superpower, and the root cause of bad feelings that can lead to overwhelm, including trauma.
Late in the nineteenth-century, American psychologist William James and Danish physiologist Carl Lange independently proposed that emotions are triggered by physiological changes in the body - manifested by experiences in the world. James explains his theory in the Mind philosophy journal, stating that, "my thesis... is that the bodily changes follow directly the PERCEPTION of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion" (1884: 189). Thus if one witnesses a dangerous animal in the wild and feels the body shake for example, Lange and James's rationale proposes that this somatic reaction would trigger the emotion of fear, rather than the other way around. (Toby Heys PhD thesis, Sonic, Infrasonic and Ultrasonic Frequencies).
Traditionally, people have achieved this ability through long study and direct experience of challenge, things which allow for the development of qualities we can call equanimity, resilience and antifragility. These are not easy things to do in the modern world.
As Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor put it in Man’s Search for Meaning: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
This is a simplification again, but I divide emotions into responses and enablers. Responses, as the name implies, are reactions to sensed stimuli, and evolved to enable survival. Enablers are more evolved abilities that can enable humans to discriminate and choose what response to have. I divide the Enablers into three main categories as a way to express human potential for emotional affect:
Serenity - fosters feelings of calmness, relaxation and sleep;
Rapture - helps us feel joy, awe and a sense of wonder;
Bittersweet - allows us to appreciate the transformative gifts that lay within grief, sadness and the melancholy.
(see article Bittersweet for more)
Which is not to say that emotional responses are always wrong. It is totally appropriate to feel a sense of anger at an injustice, to feel grief at the loss of something we love, fear due to a genuine threat and disgust protects us from substances or situations that may be toxic to our survival. It is only when these responses are excessive or inappropriate that a problem arises. Feelings we call things like worry, envy, anxiety are generally responses with no positive outcome, no ability to lead to actual change. As such, it is good to recognise these feelings for what they are and to make a commitment to eliminating them from your response library.
“Emotional feelings such as anger and elation also contribute to moods and motivations but they are triggered by external events. A well-studied example is the so-called ‘fight or flight’ response to a stimulus that elicits the emotion called fear. [for example] When a mouse sees the cat, this perception, again using neural biological language, connects in series to the amygdala, which proceeds to activate the autonomic nervous system, which stimulates the adrenal gland to release the hormone adrenaline / epinephrine, which causes changes in her blood pressure and heart rate. all without her knowledge. These outcomes are experienced as fear. The same set of responses occurs in a frightened human. Our basic emotional reactions are ancient and hardwired survival systems that mediate key evaluative interactions with the external world. That said, humans may be unique in experiencing emotional feelings not only in response to external events but also in response to inner narratives, thoughts and memories. Our storied understandings, when brought to mind, may frighten or empower or disgust or elate us.” (Ursula Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature).
How do we, as humans, learn to foster our unique potential for non-reflex responses? I’d even go so far as to say that this is as close to a ‘meaning of life’ as we are likely to get, as our ability to rise above primitive survival responses are in direct proportion to our capacity to embody higher modes of behaviour. Meaning and purpose, the only things that ultimately make people content, are born out of empathy and compassion.
How do we do this? Well, it’s a process. There are some short cuts, and we have the benefit of generations of human wisdom and now technology to hold our hands during the process. And that’s OK: the modern world is crazy and makes us mad, so its alright to use all the tools available to feel better. As our abilities grow, the less we will need to rely on these tools, as we ourselves become the solution.
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Is a potentially triggering phrase often wrongly attributed to the Buddha, but which does contain the essence of the idea that we can choose how we respond to a situation (“Don’t believe everything you read on the internet” is my favourite Buddha quote…).
Learning to notice and not respond to fear and anxiety are ground zero. This generally involves becoming more comfortable with the uncomfortable, whether that is physical discomfort, environmental discomfort (cold, heat, hunger etc) or social discomfort. It can easily feel overwhelming to face these fears, and this is what I invented Sensate for, as a means for anybody to develop resiliency and antifragility at their own pace so that we can grow as human beings.
I’ll leave you with the great man himself. There are a great many quotes attributed to Einstein kicking around on the internet, many of them unattributable. This one, however, he actually said:
“The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.” (Albert Einstein, Living Philosophies).
In essence, Einstein here is saying that we should embrace the unknown and the mysterious and hold on to the sense of wonder that children have but which many adults lose.
I love you,
Photograph: Zac Durant at Unsplash