When I’m overwhelmed, stressed, sad or angry; my survival strategy is to ‘freeze’ in that state, to feel stuck and unable to get myself out of it. I shut down and away from others, and I don’t reach out for help and support. I’m prone to rumination, followed by a deep sense of loneliness. Depending on the stress cause, I just go through the survival motions for hours or days – eat, sit, numb, sleep, repeat. It’s a hardwire depression loop. I can trace my reaction to 'negative emotions' back to my teenage years (probably even further back into childhood). It's the accumulation of years of my brain learning that being vulnerable and sharing my dark emotions with others wasn’t a safe thing to do. What I have discovered since becoming a mother (which prompted me to take a hard look at myself and all of my unhelpful coping mechanisms), as well as studying neuroscience and meditation; is that these are learned, hard-wired, programmed reactions, survival strategies that served a very important purpose during a period of my life. But not anymore. These survival strategies are not ‘me’. These default reactions became part of my wiring, my chemistry and biology when I needed to keep my brain and body safe at a young age from circumstances that were threatening my sense of emotional safety. The trouble is, as we grow older, we take these exact same survival strategies with us, and they get activated when we feel lost, overwhelmed and stressed; consolidating a loop of unhealthy coping mechanisms for life.
These coping mechanisms might translate into drinking, compulsive eating, taking our frustrations out on our close ones, or any other avoidance strategy - instead of sitting with our uncomfortable feelings. The trouble is, this stops us from truly nurturing our sense of confidence and self-worth. But there’s good news – while you can’t erase that old wiring from your brain overnight, you can start creating better and healthier coping habits that slowly override those old connections; you can create new connections, that eventually become the new default way your brain responds to stressful events. It’s not wishful thinking, it’s neuroplasticity.
Meditation is a fantastic gateway to that. When we sit in meditation, we don’t suppress our thoughts and feelings – we let them come up and out, we observe all of that brain noise from a ‘safe space’, and we train our brain to observe but not react. This allows for our uncomfortable and difficult feelings and memories to arise and be dealt with and explored from a place of clarity of mind and self-kindness – and the end result is self-healing.
What is your hard-wired survival mechanism under stress?
by Naianna Robertsson