Better Living Through Chemistry? (It's Not What You Think.)
In my last post I talked about how as humans we seem to be attracted, perhaps even addicted, to the negative. As psychologist Rick Hanson says, our brains have "a negativity bias that makes [them] like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones."
Biologically this gave our ancestors a survival edge. As I said last week, "if you miss noticing a beautiful tree you may have a little less pleasure in your life. But if you miss a stalking lion you may not have a life at all." However, given the overabundance of stress from real and potential threats in our modern culture (via the media, while driving a car, etc.), our brains and bodies are frequently in a state of overwhelm, which can lead to a variety of stress-related illnesses and events including diabetes, stroke and heart attack. All those stress chemicals, like adrenaline, may make us feel more alive in the short run but in the long run they are likely to kill us faster.
The good news is that we can learn to re-shape our brains to notice the good and have a more positive focus.
However, as I mentioned at the end of that last post, some of us can get pretty anxious when we start to feel good. Some of you may be nodding in agreement, but some of you are scratching your heads, saying, "Wait, what?"
Alas, it is true. Feeling good can be pretty scary for some of us. For one thing, as noted above, our brains are not used to feeling peaceful, at least not in the modern world. Since our bodies produce energy-elevating adrenaline, cortisol, etc. when we're stressed, some part of us may fear a loss of energy and stimulation if these chemical levels begin to decrease.
And for those of us who grew up with lots of stress and/or trauma, difficult or painful or fearful feelings may be the norm. In some mysterious way we may have bonded with those feelings, because for some there may have been little else to bond to. So if they cease, that may feel like just another loss you have to deal with. I'll write more about this in some future post, but for now just remember that this may be part of the difficulty with feeling good.
It is also possible that stressed or dysfunctional parents or siblings, perhaps those struggling with some kind of addiction or mental illness, were able to provide good care or good presence some of the time but then inexorably sank back into their old hurtful patterns. That kind of back and forth would mean that a child would often experience some degree of safety or nurture just before the inevitable fall back into pain and difficulty. If this continued, recycling over and over, you can see how a child-brain might begin to equate feeling better with an inevitable deterioration into more loss and suffering and pain.
Or life may have been so terrible growing up that you just froze in order to make it through, and any unfreezing, even to feel better, maybe feel too threatening.
So, how to deal with this? This is where better living through chemistry comes in. Actually, to be more accurate, it's better living through an analogy to a chemical process many of us experimented with in high school.
That would be titration. That is, adding one ingredient to another drop by drop. Titration becomes necessary when combining two substances too rapidly could lead to an explosion.
Okay, I know some of you wise guys out there purposefully added Substance B to Substance A too quickly, in order to cause an explosion--or just a big frothing mess. Alright, alright, I'll 'fess up. I might have done that too. Though, in fact, I was usually a very good girl. A very, very good girl...sigh.
In any case, can you begin to see what this might mean in terms of focusing on positive things and allowing some good feelings? You just do it a tiny, tiny bit at a time. One drop. And then wait. See how you feel. If it feels too scary, wait a little more. Then try another drop. Or, if the test tube seems to be getting hot, get up, walk around, or put it away for another day. The goal here is tiny, incremental shifting. No explosions. No added stress.
Maybe you can allow just a little bit of good, instead of following an old protocol of yelling at or punishing yourself if you still have some fear, or can't allow good feelings. Those old critical ways are not a part of this drop-by-drop system. But if you fall into them out of long habit, be kind to yourself about that too. Drop by drop.
Our culture is all about "Big is Better" and "Just Do It!" The idea of tiny, tiny shifts bringing about deep transformation is a sea change. That idea is also a foundational concept of the cranial-sacral, vagal system and zapchen work I do in my practice. And has been foundational to my own recovery.
Hugh Milne, one of the shining lights of the biodynamic cranial-sacral world, says, "It's amazing how much how little will do." So, so true. If you want to feel better, remember titration. Just one little tiny drop at a time.
Next time I'll talk about meditation and lake-ing. (Wait...what?)
Field of flowers photo: Olga Filenenko, unSplash
Titration photo: UVA