Alone at the station
8.15pm – alone on a long empty platform waiting for the 8.30pm train from London Paddington to Heathrow. Another person appeared. He had the entire platform to choose a spot to wait but he came and stood next to me. My heart started to race.
‘Stop it’ I said to my amygdala.
‘Calm down’ I said to my hypothalamus but it continued to flood my body with adrenaline.
All my amygdalae could see was a “young man of middle eastern appearance with a backpack.”
My pre-frontal cortex was appalled and embarrassed at my limbic system response. My cortex had no idea whether the young man was from the Middle East or not – and even if he was, so what?
I used the STAR model:
- I Stopped. I took deep breaths.
- I Thought. I kept telling myself that my reaction was irrational and that my body should calm down.
- I Acted – I stayed put but was consciously reframing my ridiculous thoughts for what they were – limbic mania over rational awareness.
Eventually the 8.30pm train arrived. I stepped on, sat down and my heart rate slowed.
Deep in the ocean
Two months later, off the Neptune Islands in South Australia I was in a cage heading towards the ocean floor hoping to get up close and personal with some Great White Sharks.
One came soon enough – ‘Cheeky Girl’ – 4.2 metres and 1000 kg. She was BIG! And I saw her many teeth as she passed several times within a metre of me while she attempted to snatch the bait hanging off the back of the boat!
The 30 minutes in the cage passed in a flash.
Did my life flash before my eyes?
Back on board I realised that my heart rate had hardly increased when I came face to face with this enormous predator. All I felt was awe and wonder as I watched one of the most amazing animals I have ever seen.
So what was the difference?
Why did I experience the fight/flight response so fully on a London train platform but not at all when within touching distance of a Great White Shark?
How much can you can prepare for scary situations?
The answer lies in preparation and learning (Rewiring) from experience.
Some of you will recall from a previous post that I searched for GWS once before. But even with 3 days of turning the ocean red with burly including tuna heads, blood and guts – no shark appeared on that trip. So much for ‘blood in the water attracts sharks!’
However what we did do on that ‘no show’ trip was to talk a lot about GWS with experts, practice descents in the cage, watch videos, look at GWS photos and listen to research – all of which prepared us for the recent trip – and took away the fear.
In contrast, the man on the platform was a complete surprise. It was the end of a fabulous trip to the UK; I had just been shopping in Oxford Street and was looking forward to returning to Sydney.
I simply wasn’t focussed on what was happening on the platform or that any risks or dangers could be lurking there.
So I was unprepared for the possibility that a man could appear on the platform and trigger an ANT (automatic negative thought) that cracked my almonds (amygdalae) with a sledgehammer!
And I had no previous experience from which to train my amygdala not to react to a racist stereotype automatically stored in my brain’s ‘database of nasty things’ after September 11, 2001.
Face the fear and defuse your amygdala
At work, ‘the man on the platform’ might turn up as a surprise outburst from the boss; an urgent deadline abruptly imposed; a retrenchment to be made, a dramatic fall in share price or an unanticipated cut in funding.
But ‘Cheeky Girl’ could show up when you anticipate the performance appraisal next week, a future presentation to the Board, an interview for a promotion, the switch over to a new system.
In other words, there will be some sudden and unexpected events that will catch us off guard. At those times, it is likely that we’ll experience The Almond Effect® – the fight/flight response in a pyschologically not physically threatening situation- even though our lives are not at risk.
When that happens, use the STAR technique – and focus especially on Rewiring afterwards – what can you learn from the experience? The more times you experience something confronting, the less confronting it becomes. Your amygdala learns that it is nothing to be overly concerned about.
But do not beat yourself up for reacting even though your pre-frontal cortex knows you should not have. We are hard wired for survival and our amygdalae do not know the difference between physical and psychological threats.
However when you know that a ‘scary’ situation is coming up (Cheeky Girl) – do everything you can to minimise the impact of The Almond Effect® by preparing as much as possible. Show your amygdala that there are no potentially fatal consequences to what you are about to do.
Then perhaps you’ll even enjoy coming face to face with your Great White Shark!