Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The last straw, the tip of the iceberg or some inaccurate memory matching?

A minor incident this week reduced me to tears. It was a silly misunderstanding. (How often does that happen?) The incident was insignificant, but my feelings were not.  

As ever, fascinated by how my brain was reacting, I found one part of me emoting, while another part was analysing the reasons why. Even though I wanted to justify my thoughts and behaviours as circa March 2014, I knew that deep down, this silly incident had touched a nerve. A nerve with a long root. A root that reached back to childhood. 

I felt like a wronged child. A child who had no place in the present day incident. A child (mini-me), who was trying very hard to hijack the adult.

In IT terms, I have described these emotional memory matches like a Google search. A word is put in the search engine and up comes pages of matches, most of which are quite unhelpful. Often the resulting incorrect, inaccurate or askew memory matches can lead to disabling thoughts and actions. This happens very quickly and can explain phobic and traumatic reactions.

Trying hard to keep control, rather than lose it and make matters far worse, I turned my attention to what really needed doing. I needed to catch a train. This involved a ten minute walk to the bus stop. I left the building, still upset and trying to justify my feelings. Five minutes down the road, I realised that in my emotional (trance) state I had left my handbag behind. Furious and trying not to take personal responsibility, I turned and walked quickly back, breaking into a jog at times.

I collected the bag and as I started walking again, as fast as was comfortable, to the bus stop, I realised that I didn't feel over emotional anymore and the damp eyes had dried up. Interesting. Evidence of the power of exercise and focusing on something else for ten to fifteen minutes, called a distraction technique.

My brain hemispheres had switched. My emotional brain, the amygdala, located in the right brain hemisphere stopped being in charge as the left brain hemisphere, in charge of logical thinking, took over. My emotional arousal levels lowered. I found it fascinating. Using this ability to force the hemispheres to switch is part of helping people to reduce their own levels of emotional arousal when they are unhelpful. But so often we can't be bothered to keep at it for ten to fifteen minutes. eg: Putting off the craving that accompanies addictive behaviours. In my case, I had little option.

In bygone days, before I learnt about the working of the brain, I could 'blow up' at small incidents, not understanding that really the root was about something much deeper and older. As a teenager, my daughter became used to the phrase, "this is just the straw that broke the camel's back." We laugh about  What I meant was that my head was dealing with an in-tray of varying stresses and whatever the small incident was that had happened, was the final stressor that caused overload and the brain fuse-box to blow-up.

This happens with many parents/carers and children. It's no wonder that children are bewildered when parents/carers lose the temper over something relatively small, while perhaps keeping calm over something more important.  This can be observed dramatically in cases where a child being treated aggressively by one parent/carer, verbally or physically, resembles a parent/carer who has fallen out of favour with the aggressor. It works in other person to person dynamics workplace, schools etc:

The ten to fifteen minute trick to switch brain hemispheres and take control, can be used most effectively, if we perservere. 

When I'm travelling, I often stay in Ibis hotels. They have a fifteen minute contract. If a problem is not sorted in fifteen minutes, then the room is free of charge. There is an excellent illustrated card, or used to be, left in the room that advertises this fact. Somehow a copy found itself in my luggage!

On the front, it says, 'Keep Cool' and suggests the following, while waiting for the problem to be remedied:

1. Five minutes to breath. Sit in the lotus postion, close your eyes and breath in deeply. (They should add, breath in deeply and slowly, hold breath and breath out slowly.)

2. Five minutes to tone up: sit with a straight back, stretch out your arms and bend your body forward as far as you can go.

3. Five minutes to relax: Pull your knees up against you chest, put your chin on your knees then rock forward and backwards and from side to side.

This would be so useful in workplace situations too. I'm sure most hotel customers ignore the suggestions and dismiss the words.

We shouldn't. It works.


Friday, 14 March 2014

See beyond the clouds

The monthly column in York Press on Monday, March 10th 2014.

My husband was in a lift in an office building.  As the doors opened, a woman said, quite randomly, “ Aren’t birds wonderful? It doesn’t matter what happens to them, they always begin a new day singing.”  I’m not suggesting that human beings can get up each day with their hearts bursting with joy, despite awful events that may have befallen them the day before, but nature can make us think. There is much that provides each of us with the lessons of life and shows us what to do with our resources – if we want to learn from them. 
At the moment, the gardens, hedgerows, fields and parks and beginning to burst into bud and flower. Whatever the winter provides, too dry in 2012, too much snow last year and too much rain this winter, vegetation springs to life again. It adapts. One of the reasons for the stoical, adaptable British character has been attributed to the weather. I recall my geography teacher telling us that, “Britain doesn’t have a climate, it has weather.”  Most weeks we have to manage thwarted expectations and just get on with it. Taking a niece to a theme park, we got onto a ride in the pouring rain. The attendant said, “do you mind if I ask, why do you come here on a day like this?” He had a point, but my reply was, “ because my niece is visiting, this is what we planned, so we’re just getting on with it.” Nature doesn’t blame and make excuses.
Outside can be our classroom.  Snowdrops are one of the most fragile flowers in the plant world. It is so easy to crush the stem, even with careful handling, yet they come through the earth when it’s at its hardest and coldest – they thrive in those conditions. A fresh dumping of snow can arrive, disrupting people’s lives, yet the snowdrop still survives.
A rose bed in winter can look a sorry sight, full of bare twigs. Cut them back, surround them in manure and a few months later, they produce colourful, sweet smelling, beautiful flowers. 
The sun is always in the sky during daylight; it’s just that sometimes cloud hides it. Taking off from an airport in the pouring rain and going up through the clouds never fails to lift my spirits. Rainbows too.
This is an adaptation of a traditional story, which is a favourite teaching tale.  A man was sitting in a park, on his lunch break. He noticed a chrysalis on a shrub. He watched, fascinated and enthralled as he saw a butterfly begin to emerge.  After a time, the butterfly stopped moving. The man thought the butterfly was stuck and decided to help.  With the utmost care and very gently, he fully opened the chrysalis. The butterfly fell to the ground crumpled and dying.The man had failed to understand that nature had made the butterfly have to struggle to give it life and freedom.