The accelerator pedal of my car got stuck the other day. After I rode the brakes so hard to decelerate and exit the freeway that I had to replace them a few days later, I figured out that the floor mat on my driver’s side of the car had wedged underneath the accelerator pedal. After exiting the freeway, I could gradually slow down through a residential neighborhood (going through two stop signs on the way) enough to put the car in neutral and then come to a complete stop.
Once I knew I was safe and that nothing bad had happened – deep gratitude for that – I got very curious about how I actually experienced those few moments. I knew that I had felt, completely, a real terror about what was happening and not really understanding what was happening, and I knew that I had been coping, figuring out, trying this and that, until the situation had been resolved. At the same time. I could sense two different functions of my brain operating at the same time. Terror at the danger of the situation; coping and resolving the situation. Simultaneously.
Of course I caught the metaphor right away for the speed of our modern life. Sometimes the accelerator pedal of demands, obligations, pressures of deadlines gets stuck, and we feel like we’re careening through a juggernaut of tasks, duties, responsibilities, braking as furiously as we can until we can come to a stop, hopefully with no damage along the way.
The metaphor reminded me of an exercise I teach frequently in workshops now: Anything is a Cue to Practice. At the first whiff of pressure or panic, to notice the contraction and by noticing, not zoning out or getting lost in fight-flight-freeze, keeping the functioning of the higher brain online. To be able to think through choices and act wisely, even trying several choices in a row until something seems to work. It’s the pre-frontal cortex – that CEO of resilience – that can keep several modes of brain functioning integrated simultaneously.
Here’s the longer, stretched out version of the exercise you can use to practice using the cue of anything to practice slowing things down and creating more resilience in your brain and in your behaviors.
Exercise: Anything is a Cue to Practice
- Remember or recognize a current situation in which you might be triggered to respond from an automatic conditioned pattern:
- it’s after midnight and your spouse hasn’t called or come home
- you receive a notice from the IRS in the mail
- you’re due for an annual physical checkup or visit to the dentist
- you just ran a red light;
- your boss dismissed as irrelevant a project you had worked hard on and felt was significant.
- Use your mindfulness practice to pause, become present, notice your inner reactions to the situation even now. Put words to your inner experience as best as you can: the agitation of “uh, oh!” The anger of “Not again!” The worry of “What the heck do I do now?”
- Bring some self-compassion to yourself: “Ouch! This is a hard moment. This is painful! It’s so hard being a human being.”
- Practice noticing, reflection, and discerning what you are feeling, thinking, and doing before you decide what to do next. Use the cue of contraction to practice slowing down and let yourself try many different options of response.
- See if you can shift your perspective to that of your Wiser Self, “what would my Wiser Self be able to do here?” Or think of the possible response of a trusted role model, “what might Sally or James do if they were in my shoes? What would Sally or James even say to me in this moment?” Consult with a friend/colleague/neighbor for their sense of what they might do in this moment.
- Notice if there’s a difference between what your Wiser Self or role model might say and your initial automatic survival response. Notice if that difference shifts your perceptions, interpretations, feelings, or thoughts about yourself. Notice which states allow your choices of response to be more open and flexible.
- Practice a new response. And let yourself learn in that moment that any moment can indeed be a cue to practice shifting gears and choosing a new response. Any contraction can be a cue to slow down and think things through. Over time, using the moments of our lives as cues to practice, we are rewiring our brains for more resilience.