I recently spent an afternoon in a library in Washington State. I was with my daughter, who was working on assignment for school. As she studied, I looked outside and contemplated the weather. It was awful–the usual for the Pacific Northwest during winter.
Mellow, rudderless and unmotivated, that’s how I felt. While waiting, a random thought came to my mind: Why am I always scared? Well, scared may be an overstatement. It is more like super alert. I feel like am being hunted or am hunting. I’m not sure which one it is.
All I can say is when I feel this way. I am not in a relaxed state of mind.
When I am in these hyper alert moment, it usually followed with random negative thoughts. I started to analyze all of the worst things that can happened. Sometime it get so bad that it lead me to an episode of shortness of breath, and feeling overwhelmed.
Unfortunately, these random negative thoughts have been happening more and more lately. So, being in the best library in the state of Washington and being an ex graduate student in data and computer science, I decided to use the time wisely and research the topic.
After two hours of intense Google surfing and little bit of reading, here is what I found: Despite the fact that human beings have evolved from reptiles, we actually still have those reptilian brains. The main responsibility of the reptilian brain (or we can call it primitive brain) is to keep us alive as long as possible, by any means necessary. It expects itself single handedly to be responsible for the the survival of the human species. Clearly, it has been successful. It is so successful, though, that it does not know how to stop. It ended up creating tons of anxiety and bad hormones for the people who try to chart their own course–entrepreneurs especially. Charting your own course is naturally an uncertain path, a risky path. And two things the reptilian brain really doesn’t like are uncertainty and risk.
Pro Ten Tips
While researching the topic in the library, I made a snap decision to find the best way to solve this problem. I read articles and watched YouTube videos and Ted Talks. Below is my Top Ten list of some of the best tips I found for addressing the overactive mind. Except instead of Top Ten I did Top Six.
When we are anxious and deep in thought, our body can’t tell the difference between perceived danger and real danger. It behaves the same way for both conditions. In light of the dangers, our body prepares to fight or flight. Our heart pumps harder, our muscles tighten and our focus becomes lighter. We takes shallow breaths, and this creates a lack of oxygen flow to the brain. Our body is tensed up in anticipation of threat, whether it is real or not.
To combat this, here is what I do: Take a deep breath, and practice bringing my focus to the “nowness” of whatever situation I find myself in. People also call this practice mindfulness. It is easy to start, but difficult to maintain. I suggest doing this for a few minutes in the early morning, before the brain gets jumbled up in daily tasks.
Throughout the day, focus on doing just one task at a time. It is difficult with all the electronic distractions we have nowadays, from phone calls to retweets. But it’s not impossible. If your work is done using an electronic device, install a Pomodoro app. Pomodoro is a technique that uses the clock to enhance your ability to do one task at a time.
2. Surround yourself with people who share a similar pursuit
Once you quiet the inner voice, the next thing is to focus on the external condition. One of the basic human needs is to connect with other humans. The idea of using the crowd to help you focus may at first seem counter-intuitive. However, I found that the best way to combat hyper-alertness externally is to surround yourself with people who pursue the same interests and are trying to solve the same problem. Discussing issues and challenges with a group lets you use the whole group to help you think through your situation. It will help prevent you from feeling alone and disconnected from the rest of the universe.
Whatever your interests and challenges are, there are always people like yourself out there. If you are an introvert, finding people isn’t always easy, but the internet can help. Reach out to online groups you like, join a message board, volunteer to help. Meet Up, and ask around.
3. Take breaks, sleep, medicine.
Most of our stress comes not just from mental, but also from physical exhaustion.
Your brain is connected to your body. Your body will tell you to take a break even if you do not want to listen. It will give headache, send you fatigue signals, or let your mood become grumpy. So start helping yourself yourself by taking care your body. Take a lot of breaks, and sleep extra hours if you need to. If everything else failed, use the power of modern medicine. Medicines like Xanax and others can help you jumpstart your healthy sleeping habits. Warning, please consult with your doctor first, as I am not a doctor.
4. Eat great food
Once you have a good rest, you’re ready to go to level two. Your body is an engine, and it needs fuel, good fuel. Avoid sugar and carbs at all costs. Coffee is a good substitute but don’t use cream or, of course, sugar. Try out the Paleo diet, eat more protein and greenies.
The level two upgrade will make you both physically and mentally more resistant to stress and hyper-alertness. It give you the buffer needed when you need an extra boost facing the daily pressures of life.
5. Walking but not running
To slow down your thought process, I find walking to be a good exercise. The research I did at the library backs this up. Other people disagree, but as I get older, I’ve found running is too difficult to do for a long period of time. Walking however, is different. Walking will help slow down your reptilian brain and process information. It also won’t tire you too much, while still letting you blow off steam and letting your thoughts run their course.
Combining the activity of walking with hiking in nature is a perfect storm that will wipe out your reptilian hyper-alertness. This exercise only requires you to put one foot in front of the other… again and again. It allows you the opportunity to be present throughout the entire experience, letting you practice mindfulness and exercise all in one package.
6. Survey says ! Write it down.
Finally for extra credit, here is the daily exercise that I do to help me combat anxiety. Do this at night before you went to sleep. Everyday write 3 things that you are most grateful for that day.
In summary, after dealing with the many ups and downs that come with running my own business, I’ve learned that if you focus on the journey instead of the destination, you will be able to handle anxiety and mood swings a lot easier. Also, don’t forget that a happy ending is always out there somewhere. If you are not yet happy, it means it is not yet the end. Struggle is part of life, enjoy and embrace it and it will fuel your creativity It makes you who you are, and the closer you are to your true self, I find the happier you are as a person.
I hope you can use these ideas to keep your reptilian brain in it's cage, freeing you up to pursue happiness and joy with your life and your career. You only have one precious life to live, and it is worth to fight for.