A simple thought. A few micromilliwatts of energy flowing through our brain. A seemingly innocuous, almost ephemeral event. And yet, a thought--or, more accurately, a carefully orchestrated series of thoughts--has a significant impact on our mind, our body, and our emotions.
Thoughts cause responses in the body. Think of a lemon. Imagine cutting it in half. Imagine removing the seeds with the point of a knife. Smell the lemon. Now, imagine squeezing the juice from the lemon into your mouth. Imagine digging your teeth into the center of the lemon. Chew the pulp. Feel those little things (whatever those little things are called) breaking and popping inside your mouth. Most people's salivary glands respond to the very thought of a lemon.
For some people, thinking about the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard is physically uncomfortable. Try this--imagine an emery board or a double-sided piece of sandpaper. Imagine putting it in your mouth. Bite down on it. Now move your teeth from side to side. Goose bumps?
Thoughts influence our emotions. Think of something you love. What do you feel? Now think of something you hate. What do you feel? Now, something you love again. We don't have to change our emotions--we change our thoughts, and our emotions follow along. Now imagine your favorite place in nature. Where is it? A beach? A meadow? A mountaintop? Take your time. Imagine lying on your back, your eyes closed. Feel the sun on your face. Smell the air. Hear the sounds of creation. Become a part of it. Feel more relaxed?
Most people who took the time to try these little experiments know what I'm talking about.
Those who thought, "This stuff is stupid. I'm not going to try anything as silly as this!" are left with the emotional and physiological consequences of their thoughts--perhaps irritability, impatience, or even hostility. A few--because of their thoughts about books containing sentences such as "Now imagine your favorite place in nature"--put this book down, never to pick it up again. These people (bless their independent hearts!) proved the point as well as those who followed along with the "suggested" thoughts. The point: thoughts have power over our mind, our body, and our emotions.
Positive thoughts (joy, happiness, fulfillment, achievement, worthiness) have positive results (enthusiasm, calm, well-being, ease, energy, love). Negative thoughts (judgment, unworthiness, mistrust, resentment, fear) produce negative results (tension, anxiety, alienation, anger, fatigue).
To know why something as minuscule as a thought can have such a dramatic effect on our mind, body, and emotions, it helps to understand the automatic reaction human beings have whenever they perceive danger: the Fight or Flight Response.
Human beings have been around for a long, long time. One of the main reasons the human animal has survived as long and as successfully as it has is its highly developed, integrated, and instantaneous response to perceived danger: the Fight or Flight Response.
Let's consider our not-too-distant ancestor, Zugg. Zugg is far more advanced than a simple caveman--he has learned to manipulate tools, to till the fields, and to build shelters. Zugg is out tilling his field one day when he hears a twig snap in the underbrush.
Zugg, because he has a fairly well-developed mind, remembers that one time when he heard a twig snap, a wild animal came out of the underbrush and ate his sister, Zuggrina. His mind immediately associates twig snapping with ravenous wild animals. Without even having to think about it, he prepares. He focuses all his attention on the geographical area of the snap. His brain concentrates on the input of his senses. His mind whirls through possible defense strategies and paths of retreat. His emotions flare: a heady combination of fear and anger. Adrenalin, sugar, and other stimulants surge into his system. Blood is diverted from comparatively unimportant functions of the body--such as digesting food, fighting infections, and healing wounds--and rushes to the skeletal muscles, especially his arms and legs. The eyes narrow; the muscles tense.
He is ready.
Ready for what? To do battle or to run; to combat or to escape, "to take a stand and fight or take off out of here," as Joni Mitchell put it. Hence, the Fight or Flight Response. It's an automatic, physiological response to danger--either real or perceived.
The Fight or Flight Response has been an essential tool for the survival of our species. Back in Zugg's time, the more laid-back humans were, for the most part, eaten. These gentler folk might hear a twig snap and say, "Hark, a twig snapping. Isn't that a lovely sound?" The next thing they knew they were dinner. This group did not, uh, persevere.
But Zugg and his kind? Victorious. They got through the animal wars, and then, having seemingly nothing better to do, spent the last 5,000 years fighting one another in human wars. People with the most intensely honed Fight or Flight Responses lived to fight another day, and, more importantly from a genetic point of view, lived to reproduce another night.
The Zuggrinas played an important role in all this, too. The offspring of the women who could defend their young the fiercest and/or grab their young and run the fastest survived. The most protected children--who were most likely to make it to adulthood and reproduce--were the ones with the genetically strongest Fight or Flight Response.
In the past few hundred years--in the Western world, at least--the need for the Fight or Flight Response has, for all practical purposes, disappeared.
When was the last time you had to physically fight or flee to save your life?
I'm talking about you, not people you read about in the newspapers or see on TV.all the time." Yes, but you're not James Bond (etc.). In fact, nobody is. Please apply everything in this book to your life, not the fictional lives of television, movies, and novels, or the almost-fictional lives of "real people" reported in The Press (both print and electronic). Also, please avoid the temptation to apply this information to "the average person." There is no such person, and even if there were, he or she is not you. You are a unique individual. Use this book to take an honest, perceptive look at yourself--the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful--and learn to accept and love it all.
The Fight or Flight Response, ironically, now works against our survival in these newfangled civilized times. The veneer of civilization is thin--a few hundred years papered over millions of years of biological evolution. The "beast" within is still strong.
When we are cut off in traffic, are spoken to unkindly, fear that our job may be in danger, get a rent increase, hear Nostradamus's revised doomsday predictions, are told the restaurant lost our reservation, or have a flat tire, the Fight or Flight Response kicks in with full force as though our lives depended on slugging it out or running away in that very moment.
Worse, the Fight or Flight Response is activated whenever we think about being cut off in traffic, think that our job may be in danger, think about getting a rent increase, think about Nostradamus's dire predictions, think about the restaurant losing the reservation, or think about having a flat tire. Even if none of these "disasters" (only one of which could be genuinely life-threatening) comes to pass, just thinking that any one of them might happen is enough to trigger the Fight or Flight Response.
The Fight or Flight Response is alive and well.
And it's killing us.
When the Fight or Flight Response is triggered, the mind immediately focuses on the area of perceived danger. It is intent on finding what's wrong. It's looking for danger, evil, enemies, wild beasts.
It's a good bet that our friend Zugg didn't spend too much time appreciating the color of the sky or the fragrance of the flowers as he squinted in the direction of the twig snap. No. He was looking for trouble. His mind automatically filtered out anything that didn't pertain to the perceived danger. If the evidence wasn't bad, it was no good.
The mind is a marvelous filtering mechanism. It shelters us from large amounts of unnecessary information. If it didn't, we would probably go mad. We simply cannot pay conscious attention to every single detail being collected by our five senses.
Without moving it, be aware of your tongue. Were you aware of it before I asked? Probably not. The sensation was there, but your mind filtered it out--you didn't need that information. Look carefully at the paper on this page. What's the texture like? Had you noticed that before? Unless you are in the printing or paper trade, probably not. Are there any smells in the room? How about noises? Ticking clock? Air conditioner? Feel the sensation of your body against whatever you're sitting (or lying) on. Have you forgotten about your tongue again? When the Fight or Flight Response is activated, we begin to look for everything wrong with a situation, person, place, or thing. And, boy, do we find it! There's always something wrong. We're living in a material world. Material things are, almost by definition, imperfect. So there's our mind, automatically filtering out the positive while automatically focusing on the negative. Sounds like the perfect recipe for misery. But it gets worse.
Zugg's mind, you will recall, also reviewed past moments of his life in which snapping twigs played a devastating part. There was, of course, that terrible time with Zuggrina. Poor Zuggrina. Then there was that time with OggaBooga. Poor OggaBooga.
Zugg is now looking not just for twig-snap memories, but for memories of all wild beasts devouring anything. He even thinks back to times he thought about wild beasts devouring anything. He is searching his memory for real and imaginary images of mutilation, and there are plenty to be found.
We often do the same thing. If someone cuts us off in traffic, our mind goes reeling back to all the rude and inconsiderate people we've ever seen driving cars, then to all the rude and inconsiderate people we've ever seen anywhere, then to all the rude and inconsiderate people we've seen in movies, on TV, or in the theater of our imagination.
If someone is five minutes late for an appointment, we often spend four minutes and fifty-nine seconds of that five minutes remembering every other time the person was late, all people who were ever late, and every situation--either real or imagined--of being disappointed or feeling unloved.
The mind--an incredibly perceptive tool--is looking both within and without for negativity. It finds it. That thought triggers a more intense Fight or Flight Response, which demands an even more enthusiastic negative mental search, which discovers even more hideous evidence, which kicks off a stronger Fight or Flight Response, which . . . .
Get the idea? It's known as a temper tantrum or losing one's cool or an anxiety attack or getting steamed--or life as we know it in this (and most likely the next) century.
The Fight or Flight Response puts a body through its paces. All the resources of the body are mobilized for immediate, physical, demanding action--fight or flee. All the other bodily functions are put on hold--digestion, assimilation, cell production, body maintenance, circulation (except to certain fight-or-flee skeletal muscles), healing, and immunological defenses.
In addition, the body is pumping chemicals--naturally produced drugs, if you will--into the system. The muscles need energy and they need it fast.
Zugg was luckier than we are in this respect. Often he would actually use these chemicals by running them off, climbing them off, or fighting them off. In our civilized world, we usually don't. At most we bang our fists or throw stuff (which only hurts our hands and breaks things).
Occasionally we yell, but that's not physical enough. Our body has armed itself to fight or flee for its life--but usually we just sit and seethe.
The repeated and unnecessary triggering of the Fight or Flight Response puts enormous physiological stress on the body.
It make us more vulnerable to disease (the immune system being told, "Hold off on attacking those germs--we have wild beasts to fight!"), digestive trouble (ulcers and cancers at the far side of it), poor assimilation (preventing necessary nutrients from entering the system), slower recovery from illnesses (conquering a disease is less urgent than conquering a wild beast), reduced cell production, sore muscles, fatigue, and a general sense, as Keats put it, "that if I were underwater I would scarcely kick to come to the top."
Sound bad? It gets worse.
The emergency chemicals, unused, eventually break down into other, more toxic substances. Our body must then mobilize--yet again--to get rid of the poisons.
The muscles stay tense for a long time after the response is triggered--especially muscles around the stomach, chest, lower back, neck, and shoulders. (Most people have chronic tension in at least one of these areas.) We feel jittery, nervous, uptight.
The mind always tries to find reasons for things. If the body's feeling tense, it wonders, "What is there to feel tense about?" Seldom do we conclude (correctly), "Oh, this is just the normal aftereffect of the Fight or Flight Response. Nothing to be concerned about." Usually we start scanning the environment (inner and outer) for something out of place. And, as I mentioned before, there will always be something out of place.
The mind's a remarkable mechanism. Given a task, the mind will fulfill it with astounding speed and accuracy. When asked, "What's wrong?" it will compile and cross-reference a list of grievances with blinding swiftness and precision. Everything everyone (including ourselves) should have done but didn't and shouldn't have done but did is reviewed, highlighted, indexed, and prioritized. All this elaborate mental labor sparked by a sensation in the body.
Naturally, this review of negative events prompts a new round of Fight or Flight Responses, which promotes more tension in the body, which promotes more mental investigation into What's Wrong?
Do you see how this downward mind/body spiral can continue almost indefinitely?
It's not surprising, then, that some people make a decision deep inside themselves that life is just not worth living.
Copyright © 1988-1996 Peter McWilliams & Prelude Press, Inc.
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