Walter Bradford Cannon was a physiologist born in the late 19th century and made waves in the early 20th century when he observed the reactions of animals to high stress situations. What he found is that when animals were presented with stressful environmental stimuli, their autonomic nervous systems combined with adrenaline production to produce a response to escape the danger or to contest it. This is now called the “fight or flight” response in pop psychology.
The central cause of suffering from the Buddhist perspective is attachment. If we become attached to things in our experience too tightly, we are invariably setting ourselves up to experience pain at some point. Attachment presupposes that whatever we experience or possess will stick around forever. But this belief is false. Nothing is permanent and everything that we can experience in this life will eventually go away.
How are these two ideas related? Pema Chödrön teaches about attachment in terms of what is called shenpa. She describes the feeling of attachment as “being hooked.” Think about this like when you get an itch on your skin. It is automatic that you will scratch it with the hope that it will go away. Scratching has the expected result that relief will come soon. If you have ever had a cast and an itch underneath, you may have tried the old trick of bending a wire hanger to get underneath. There are few things that feel quite as pleasurable.
Life has may kinds of itches that we automatically try to scratch in order for the feeling to go away. We often “scratch” by doing what is easy or pleasurable to flee what is unpleasant – have a drink, eat ice cream, watch a movie, go for a walk, go shopping. These are avoidance behaviors that are like “flight” responses. When we get that pit feeling in the gut and the heart races while our thoughts start to get rapid and jumbled, we are hooked. Think about the last time you could not fall asleep because you kept replaying a problem in your life.
I have had a flight response to discomfort for as long as I can remember. A few years ago I read Chödrön’s description of shenpa and I saw myself in it. I was like a fish who had been nibbling on a snack underwater only to have the line snap taught in my mouth and the hook jam under my lip. Rather than relax with it and let go, I would fight the hook doing anything to get away from it. This always made my body and mind feel worse. Like the fish fighting the hook, it would only get deeper and more painful.
Somehow my memory of the misery I created through this response was so short I would do the same thing every time. Psychologist George Kelly (1955), called a disorder “any personal construction which is used repeatedly in spite of consistent invalidation” (Kelly, 1955, p. 831).* My go-to avoidance therapy for many years was drinking. That never worked very well. No matter how many times I avoided the uncomfortable conversation, paying those bills, or dong those tasks the problems still sat there and only got worse as time went on.
The drinking eventually stopped, but the escapism did not. I found that even after I had resolved one set of escape responses, I had replaced them with a different set. Eating sugary snacks, binge-watching TV, playing mindless games on my phone, over-using Facebook and Twitter, etc. became a new set of avoidance behaviors. Whatever I was avoiding that gave me that initial unpleasant sensation of being “hooked” was gone, but I kept doing the same things to escape the feeling.
The solution is to lean-in to that discomfort rather than to run from it. Make the phone call, send the email, have the conversation, make the payment, complete the workout, eat an apple with a big glass of water instead of that big bowl of delicious chocolate ice cream, don’t buy the thing. Leaning-in took a massive amount of energy when I started to do it. But it wasn’t a palpable, physical kind of energy. It was a mental exertion that felt like pulling two electromagnets apart that are desperate to make contact. Once I was aware of that connection about to happen, I would mentally pull them apart by doing the thing I was avoiding. To fix my anxiety, I had to change my behaviors.
This is the basic way that I have been rewiring my brain for the past several months. When I start the self-talk of “I don’t want to do that right now, maybe tomorrow,” I am creating an association of doing whatever it is right then to fight against the years I have conditioned myself to avoid it with something else. I did not want to write this post right now because I did not think I had much to say about it. I did it anyway. I did not want to do pushups today – another small, physical goal I have for myself. I cranked out 86 anyway. And I did both of these things at the moment that my desire to avoid them was at its most intense. Achievement unlocked.
If it’s too big of a deal to complete right at that moment, that’s the time to set a goal, plan a few achievable steps to get there, and then complete that first step immediately. Delaying is another way of avoiding and it just feeds the flight response letting that shenpa hook dig a bit deeper. To change my thinking and be happy, I have to act right now.
Lean-in. Do something. Feel better.
*The statement “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” is not from Einstein, nor is it from Benjamin Franklin. It may be actually a modification of Cannon’s quote. A picture of Einstein does not validate that he actually said it!
Kelly, G.A. (1955). The Psychology of Personal Constructs. New York: Norton (republished by Routledge, 1991).
Part one of a series of Life Rules. See the explanation here.