I got a text the other night from an SMC friend who is also in the two-week-wait and had just run into her most recent ex-boyfriend, the one with whom she thought she’d be having a baby. He was out with another woman.
Reading her text took the wind out of me… I felt a visceral compassion because I’ve been there and there’s nothing like that particular encounter. The next morning, I checked in with her to see how she was feeling, and she was sad, heavyhearted, spiraling down.
We all know the downward spiral, right? One thing happens, and then another thing happens, or maybe one really big and terrible thing (like this) happens, and you’re set on a trajectory of feeling worse and worse (see my “meltdown” post of a few days ago). Sometimes it’s a relatively tiny thing that tips the balance (someone’s facebook post or an offhanded comment) and, next thing you know, you don’t know which way is up.
When you get into this mode, it’s like the terrorists have already won. They have convinced you, by launching a constant campaign of neg bombs in your brain, that your life sucks, that you made bad choices, that it’s too late, that you’re not good enough, that you don’t want what you have and don’t have what you want. They are relentless sometimes. But as soon as you start to believe them, it’s curtains. It snowballs. And then it spirals.
Here’s the beauty part: the terrorists do not speak the truth!!!! Hilariously, they are technically working “for” you and their objective (ironically) is to protect you–but their strategies are archaic! They are the army of our vestigial three-part brain with all of its conflicting survival strategies playing out at once! First, we have our snake-like and simple reptilian brain, known for its fight or flight response. Around that, the puppy-dog limbic brain, seeking love and nurturing and recording all episodes of emotional pain to avoid its recurrence at all costs. And, finally, the professor: the nonstop talker, the neocortex. Our intellectualization of everything, the “telling of the story,” the planner, the worrier, the omniscient narrator who is a bit of a wackjob.
On one hand, it’s a wonder that we can function with all of this going on, surviving in a modern society with caveman impulses running in the background. On the other hand, it’s a miracle that we’re here at all, and we wouldn’t be without these crazy, complicated, wonderful brains. We just have to learn how to keep them in check. It is my belief that this is a lifelong practice that we all bought into the minute we left our mother’s bodies (and notably we do so earlier than many mammals, in order to keep growing our big-ass brains outside the womb).
One of my favorite books, A General Theory of Love, offers three main strategies for getting on a more positive track and overcoming major obstacles to a happier life: medication, meditation, and cognitive therapy. All three have been greatly effective for me at various stages: medication to correct the chemistry that at times gets stuck on the unhappiness channel, meditation to find the inner peace and tranquility that is blissfully separate from all the commotion upstairs, and cognitive therapy to actually correct some of the automatic thinking that can send you off on negative spirals.
So, in gchatting with my friend yesterday morning, I said: what would send you on an upward spiral? Seriously: even just posing the question cheered us both up. In posing the question, you take charge in that moment: wait up! I’m actually running this show! I can choose to push myself in a happier direction! What are those things that consistently make me happy? Make a list: walking, sunshine, tea, coffee, slippers, running, watching the waves, napping, writing, volunteering, baking, friends, solitude. Do those things. And practice gratitude. Gratitude is like water on the wicked witch. Let me know if the terrorists don’t at least order a temporary cease-fire.
You can even be grateful for the wicked witches and the terrorists. Give them a big smile and a thumbs up.
Then, once you’re movin’ on up, just keep going!