KEEPING YOUR SANITY BY MASTERING YOUR EMOTIONS AND REACTIONS
[TTP welcomes Dr. Joel Wade once again. Due to an overwhelm of clients, courses and speaking engagements, Joel was unable to continue his “The Virtue of Happiness” column for TTP. He was able, however, to make this contribution to TTP’s Keeping Your Sanity feature. Thank you, Joel!]
My fellow TTPers:
There’s plenty to be upset about with the current state of politics. That’s a fact. But most of us, most of the time, when we think about, talk about, rant about, or argue about politics, are actually having zero impact on what’s happening.
We’re primarily feeling upset, angry, infuriated, helpless, disgusted, afraid, sad, enraged, or even terrified. And we’re using a part of our nervous system that’s made for emergencies. When we do that for longer periods in a helpless fashion, it’s bad for our health, our relationships, and our well-being.
I want to make clear at the outset of this piece, that it may feel to you at the beginning that I’m advocating apathy or denial. But I guarantee you that’s not where I’m headed with this. But in order to gain perspective, we need to step outside of the closed loop of media generated narrative, so we can see clearly what we’re caught up in that keeps us both stressed and helpless.
After all, stepping outside media narratives is a primary purpose of our Oasis for Rational Conservatives, right?
Let’s start by identifying how the news media does business – because it is a business. It relies on as many of us as possible tuning in for as long as possible, as often as possible. There’s nothing surprising or underhanded about this, it’s just a fact. Any business wants as many customers to buy as much of what they have to offer as possible. With the news media, that’s viewership which boosts advertising revenue.
Here’s where their strategy comes in. “If it bleeds it leads” is the famous saying. If something is horrifying, terrifying, infuriating, or deeply troubling, we’ll tend to be drawn to look at it. That’s our nature, a part of our system is on alert for danger in order to keep us safe.
But in the media’s case we’re looking at danger from a distance – though with the imagery and sound of television, all of this can be amplified to feel as though it’s happening right in front of us, even though it may be thousands of miles away, and there’s usually no effective action to take.
That last point adds a sense of helplessness to the mix, which compels us to tune in more often, because tuning in to see if anything’s changed for better or worse is the only action that most of us can take.
This can include any kind of disaster – a terrible storm, wildfires, crime, war… anything that’s too big or distant for most of us to take any action to solve.
Now, step back from all of this for a minute, and consider what sorts of things you have the most influence over or control of in your life.
This will include whatever influence you may have with the actual people in your life – family and friends, coworkers, the people in your community you interact with directly to some degree. How you behave with them matters.
Are you kind? Considerate? Courageous? Do you have empathy and compassion? Do you follow through on what you promise? Are you curious about their lives? Do you live with integrity? When you’re with the people in your life, do you tend to bring a primarily positive emotional experience? Or a negative one?
To the extent you bring a positive emotional experience; to the degree you attune to those you interact with, and share a genuine sense of connection with one another, you will not only have more influence on each other’s lives, you’ll also both be drawing each other into a healthier state of physiology, since you’ll be functioning mostly from your higher brain, and the myelinated portion of your vagus nerve, in what’s called your social engagement system.
From this place, your immune system will be functioning better, your heart rate variability will be strong, and there will be a healthy state of calm and safety in your system in general.
Do you take action that’s effective and productive in your work, your business, your activities? Do you take care of the things in your life you need to take care of, consistently and reliably?
These are the people and activities that matter most to each of us. This is where our lives are actually lived. This is where we can grow a healthy sense of pride and satisfaction, building a reputation with ourselves and others that we can be happy with and proud of over time.
This is the source of most of what Aristotle would call Eudaemonia, happiness about our lives, or success at being human.
Now, where do politics fit with this? In a democratic republic such as ours, we do have an influence. We can vote, we can contact representatives, we can protest, we can have discussions with others to sort things out, attempt to influence one another, and hopefully learn from one another as well like to do at TTP.
Unless politics is your business; unless you are directly involved personally with people that make political decisions, or who may have influence themselves with those who make political decisions, our influence on the national political events that we are bombarded with continually is very, very small.
Let me say here again, I am not making the case for apathy, I’m making the case for sanity, health, and effectiveness. In order to be effective at anything, the truth has to be our friend.
The truth is, the most important people in our lives, our greatest influence, our most important and effective actions, the things over which we have the most control, are the people and activities we engage in directly, in our day to day lives.
Meanwhile, the news media is continually bathing us in stories of politicians, legislation, and world events over which we have the least amount of control. And they do this in a way that makes us feel that it’s all happening right in front of us. So it feels immediate and urgent, and supremely important – much more important than our own lives.
Consider the almost regal nature of the music on the Sunday political shows like Meet the Press. We are expected to see these people as the most important people on earth. To us.
And yet, the reality is the most important people to us are our family, friends, coworkers, people in our community we have actual dealings and relationships with.
Okay, now, if the healthiest state of our minds is to be in our social engagement systems, what’s the state of physiology we enter when we watch, listen to, or read of the infuriating, terrifying, disappointing, or traumatic stories from around the world?
To a degree, we’re activating our sympathetic nervous system – our reactions of flight or fight. This system is designed to save our lives in the face of a physical attack. It generates the powerful energy that an organism requires to flee a predator, or fight them if we aren’t able to get away.
For those specific circumstances, our sympathetic nervous system is a wonderful thing. But there’s a cost.
When our sympathetic nervous system is activated, we’re scanning for danger. We’re not able to distinguish changes in facial expression or vocal tones, so even neutral faces will seem threatening; neutral voices will sound dangerous. While we’re activated in this flight or fight reaction, our immune system is stressed, our heart rate variability is decreased, and our organs, including our cardiovascular system are somewhat compromised.
This reaction is made for short bursts of intense energy. But to the degree we’re walking around angry and afraid in our lives, we’re at least partly engaged in our flight and fight system.
When we add helplessness to the mix, it can add a chronic tension to our lives. We experience the intense sense of danger, but we’re unable to take effective action to overcome that danger. It’s like sitting in our car with one foot on the accelerator, and the other on the brake. The engine is revved high, but we’re trapped in place.
The lesson up to this point is to ruthlessly discern what you actually have control and influence over in your life, and what you do not. As much as you possibly can, stop wasting your time, energy, and nervous system on those things over which you have no control or influence.
And spend as much of your time and energy engaged with those things over which you do have control or influence.
One way to identify when we’re spending time with things we don’t actually have any control over is that we worry. We worry when we’re helpless to act. If we can act, we act. When we can’t act, we worry.
Where does that leave us in terms of the political actors on the stage, the legislation on deck, the foreign policy disasters we dread and the triumphs we desire?
The bottom line is, don’t get mad, get effective.
More specifically, identify any effective action you can realistically take that can influence what you wish to influence. You may find that what you’re left with is voting, communicating with your representative, learning about issues you care about, and having interesting and engaged discussions with other people in your life . If that’s where your influence is, focus on that.
Turn off the TV, stop obsessing about the Sunday political shows, or having angry rants which draw us into our sympathetic nervous system and out of our higher brain. Instead, refine your actions to what you can really do.
If you’re in a position to do more, that’s great. Define exactly what that is, and do it. Of course, what TTP does is help you with guidance on this. As you know, it has no interest in problems per se but in solutions to them. And it’s read by a lot of people in Washington, so don’t be shy on providing what solutions you have on the Forum – for they will be read!
And when you’re not taking those actions, let all of the anger, the fear, and the worry about political events go, and allow yourself to be fully engaged and absorbed in your life. Pour yourself into your work; attune yourself deeply and warmly with those you love, bring curiosity, kindness and playfulness to your dealings with the real people in your life.
Let me say one more thing about being effective. A trained athlete will, as part of their training, learn to tap into the energy of their sympathetic nervous system, but without getting lost in it. They’ll be fully revved up, but still able to be fully engaged and connected with teammates and opponents, sometimes profoundly so.
Occasionally we’ll see an athlete “lose it” – getting into a fight, getting flooded and lost in anger. But once they do that, what they’ve lost is the capacity for peak performance.
The skill is to draw from our physical and emotional resources exactly as much as we need, no more and no less.
As Aristotle said:
“Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”
This is the spirit and the attitude to aim yourself toward with all of your activities. When it comes to politics, don’t waste your time, energy, and health worrying, getting infuriated, yelling at the TV, arguing combatively with friends or family members over things over which none of you have any impact.
Don’t dive into your sympathetic nervous system to fight battles that you’re not actually in.
Be interested, be animated, be engaged, curious, and passionate. But don’t lose yourself or your relationships in needlessly combative arguments that go nowhere.
If your heart rate rises above about 100 beats per minute, you’re likely in your sympathetic nervous system, and at that point any attempt to argue or resolve an issue is useless, because you’re no longer talking with a person, you’re yelling at a thing you feel threatened by.
Our emotions are mostly about learning and growing from our experiences, so that we can have better experiences in the future.
Our reactions are designed to give us a last ditch effort to escape or fight a physical attack.
Distinguishing these two systems is essential for living well. Distinguishing between what we can control and what we can’t can allow us to aim our energy where it’s effective, rather than spinning our wheels helplessly, and generating tremendous stress in the process.
Hope this helps, TTPers!
PS: My new course, Mastering Emotions, Moods and Reactions goes into this in much more detail, with deep understanding and practical skills for mastering these systems, and living well.
Joel F. Wade, Ph.D., is the author of The Virtue of Happiness, Mastering Happiness, his new course, Mastering Emotions, Moods and Reactions, and The Mastering Happiness Podcast. He is a marriage and family therapist and life coach who works with people around the world via phone and video. You can get a FREE Learning Optimism E-Course if you sign up at his website, www.drjoelwade.com.