by Dr. J Renae Norton
Anxiety. It’s just a part of life, right?
What if I told you it doesn’t have to be???
Emotional arousal is language based. In other words, even though the fight or flight response (adrenalin rush) is hard-wired into our brains, we can circumvent it by changing the words we use to describe a situation.
Let me explain. When humankind first showed up on earth, we had a number of predators, most of whom were larger than us. We had to be able to be able to respond quickly to a threat. If attacked by a Wooly Mammoth, we had to be able to throw our spear (fight) or run like heck (flight) in order to survive.
We no longer have this type of threat to contend with, but we are still hard-wired as if there were such threats to our survival. In other words, the adrenalin rush, aka fight or flight response, has not evolved with the changes in our circumstances. We still have it hard-wired into our brains.
The big difference today is that it is activated by the words we use to describe our circumstances and not an actual threat. In other words we create a threat by using threatening words. The problem is that it has the same impact….that rush of adrenalin. Where things really get sticky, is that we do it a lot, so constant adrenalin rush. It was never designed to be in the “On” position all of the time. It was designed to be used for emergencies only.
What this means is that we can get that adrenalin rush by worrying about whether or not our significant other is loyal, or whether our boss is going to fire us, or whether the stock market is going to crash, or whether we look fat in that bathing suit and so on. Over use of this mechanism, which releases cortisol, is not healthy as over use of cortisol is tied to:
- weight gain, mostly around the midsection and upper back
- weight gain and rounding of the face
- thinning skin
- easy bruising
- flushed face
- slowed healing
- muscle weakness
- severe fatigue
- difficulty concentrating
- high blood pressure
The good news is that if you change the words from judging/scary/negative to neutral the emotional response changes and no adrenalin rush, no elevated cortisol.
This is big. It means that we are completely in charge. Depending upon the words we use to describe a situation, we can trigger the adrenalin rush or we can stay calm. It’s up to us.
For example, I worked with a group of exec’s in a fortune 10 company who were extremely frustrated by a government regulation they had to use to vet their research. On one chart I had them list words to describe the process and on another chart the feelings associated with those words. They listed 40 or so very judging words to describe the process. Then I had them list the feelings they associated with those judging words. Next I had them rate the level of emotion they were feeling about those words, from 1 to 100. They rated the feeling level in the room to be 150! OK.
Next I had them use neutral words only to describe the process. This was much harder…very easy for them to come up with the pejorative, judging words, much harder for them to come up with the neutral words. In fact I had to get them started. “How about statistical? Or data driven? Or analytical?” The neutral list wasn’t as long as the judging list, but they came up with 15 or so words. Then when I asked them to describe the feeling level looking ONLY at the neutral words, they rated the new feeling level in the room to be 15. So they went from 150 to 15 by changing the words!
Research has shown us that problem solving is best when anxiety is at the lower end of the spectrum. Road rage is a good example of how emotion interferes with problem solving.
This group was so impressed with this little experiment that they decided to put what they had learned into practice. So they started a jar in the office in which everyone agreed to put in $5 for every judging thought/word. Three months later they had me back and described how staying in “neutral” had changed their work environment. They also showed me data on how much productivity for the group had improved (nearly 30%) during this experiment.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) utilizes this underlying premise: That changing the words, changes the emotional response and frees us up for better problem solving and richer life experiences. We have total control over the words, which gives us control over the anxiety we experience. That’s a good thing!
If you would like to learn this skill, and other DBT skills, please call to schedule an appointment by calling The Norton Center at 513 205 6543.