Rules, regulations, protocol, the way it’s supposed to be done, creates a structure and order which allows individuals and systems to function effectively. But let’s remember, we made them up. If this were an article about systemic racism then you know the system might function ‘effectively’ for those that have the power to make up those rules and not for those the rules are used against.
For the purposes here I am considering how the brain functions when that structured context faces dis-order, uncertainty, and what potential behavior ensues. Since we're making it all up anyway, maybe we can make up some better ways that support effective functioning for everyone.
Let me give you a recent everyday example:
Driving in a city. The lights, the lanes, the language of signs and signals, and so on, all serve the smooth flow of traffic. Sometimes this order is challenged like when pedestrians cross when they shouldn’t, cars move in front of us suddenly, skateboarders, bicycles, construction creating narrow new lanes, emergency vehicles breaking the norms and traveling in various directions and orientation on the roads. Then what?
Our nervous system alerts us, there is something unfamiliar, there is uncertainty, things not going according the past memory, and worse, nothing seems very predictable. High alert increasing adrenaline and a cascade of other 'stress' hormones to help us focus and figure out an action potential, narrowing vision to pay attention more acutely, shutting down the need for peripheral biological functioning not needed for high alert states – no need for food digestion taking up metabolic energy we could use for our active engagement to navigate the threat. You could say this bodily activation might get translated as fear of who or what might throw another curve ball in front of the 5000 pound steel box moving about 35-50 miles per hour. The fear closely linked to areas of the brain that can activate aggression to fight to protect the life that feels in threat. And now we can get the picture of how road rage is born.
This simplified synopsis of what is often called the ‘stress response’, brilliant biological system to keep us alive is often employed under the wrong context. The signaling information is misinterpreted.
We don't need to be a neuroscientist to have some basic knowledge of how we work, so we finally have access to our ‘owner’s manual” to run this system a little better. The example of all these 'driving' variables counter the basic 101 of brain mechanism reality –
1. it likes what is familiar,
2. it bases the present on past memory,
3. likes to save energy,
4. tends to look for what’s wrong.
If the brain detects unfamiliar, has no past context to place current experience within, and therefore is asked to use more energy to categorize the new, then this new information will automatically be a negative assumed threat. We will increase an experience of biological stress when unable to control or predict.
In the documentary, “Jim”, recounting the imprisonment and torture of journalists by ISIS, one prisoner tells of the real torture in never knowing when the guards would come to abuse him, wishing he could have a ‘stress pill’ not a pain pill, the actual beatings and pain was minimal compared to the pain of uncertainty.
This is how we work, it is important to know so we can begin to strategize around our own biological reaction. What is it like for you when things don’t go according to plan? You might think, “oh, I’m an easy going kinda person, go with the flow ride with the tide”, but think again. We all have a particular context in which things really need to go as memory has shown it should.
Another everyday experience:
Amazon has new drivers in the field to deal with the billion-dollar business. Some of these drivers are working in new norms, not leaving packages that you were hoping might be waiting for you at the end of your work day, requiring signatures, taking photos. We can imagine the “self-defensive” purpose of their new protocol, but that doesn’t help when the needed business supplies or item for your next day trip is wandering around town in hot vans delaying delivery to the day after your plane departs. Hardly worth mention when we think about that prisoner, but it is all the same operating system just different context. It is our subtext if you will, our implicit biology, and leads to activation of threat response that then can cause all kinds of stress reaction behaviors from outright aggression to ways we seek to mitigate our stress in overeating, drinking, portals of technology for the promised land, or any other drug of choice that costs our energy and effectiveness.
So, what can we do?
1. Know your brain 101.
2. Name it. "oh, something new is here, not what my memory assumed, I will be in alert"
3. Take care of the bodily system with right food, sleep, movement.
note when not operating from optimal care, know you will be closer to reaction than to responsive flexibility
4. begin to develop the skill of connecting to your bodily reactions - ALL the time, not in the storm - heart rate, breath, tension, temperature, and so on, so you can be connected to the cues the body offers – “incoming threat!” and give the body some support – not to become calm, but to stabilize its safety, then your brain can hook back up the lines of communication that can find some sense from a wider perspective - this allows recollection of intention, modulation of fear, appreciation that the subsequent fight comes as a natural part of how the system works. Feel the impulse to protect as biologically not morally based.
Studying this in all situations creates awareness that might bring more possible choices of action.
As I'm driving in the city to my office, amped up by time constraints and concerns for clients waiting, roads rerouted due to sudden literal cracks in the highway, uncertainty about which route will take just how much time, adding to the tension is 100 degree weather. I am struck by how many variables we contend with, how many perceptual cues come at us all the time, and how many more of these variables are heightened when the unexpected happens. The system shifts into high activation to create acute awareness to be on alert for what else might happen. Pedestrians are walking on ‘my’ green lights, emergency vehicles are pulling out forgetting to sound their siren first, bikers are taking left turns from right lanes, everything feels topsy turvy and therefore all is a potential threat. Just then, as I begin to turn right on ‘my’ green, a man is walking to cross the street right in the direction of my front bumper on ‘his’ red, (mine, his, right, rules, order), but I see him. I mean I SEE him. I stop,
noting my grumbling, ‘driving here is like navigating an obstacle course’, he is wearing shabby clothes, has a backpack, might be assumed homeless, looking angry as he adjusts his walking path to accommodate my 5000 pound steel box waving me on to drive in front of him. It is a stand off because I am waving him on to walk in front of me. He is looking down, I assume his sense of threat, hence his angry expression. “I” have the right of way! But my heart corrects course.
You see, the rules, the structure, the protocol does serve some sense of order, but if we neglect to see its larger purpose then we are lost to rigidity that serves nothing but our threatening fight which keeps us disconnected from each other. Not ‘mine’ alone, not yours alone, but our 'rights' and rules that support full integrated functioning. Integration is a healthy system - different parts communicating to make a whole. When we are 'seen', taken into account in the moment's context then we feel safe to engage in that system not swept aside. When we feel safe we become able.
I have to constantly remind my dear brain that wishes it were not true that it is flexibility which allows life – all that is alive is constantly in movement, expanding, contracting, pulsating – changing, meant to be change. All that is dry and brittle is dead.
My perception of ‘right’ could be the brittle block in the road, my ‘right of way’, according to ABC but not the circumstance in front of me, locking me in fear, anger, and that pervasive sense of ‘stress’ denying any way to move forward effectively.
Just then the man looks up and sees me smiling, waving him to keep walking this way, I will wait for you. I roll down my window and say to him, “Take Your Right of Way”. To this we meet eye to eye and he breaks into a toothless smile which restores my humanity, settles my fear, reminds me of the protocol of protection and care.
‘Take your right of way’- not according to the traffic lights, but according to the right of dignity.
One variable I neglect to mention, the color of his skin, a black man in a dis-ordered white world, places him in a category of the disenfranchised. My appeal to him is with full awareness of what has been taken and this small moment will never repair.