Navigating the “Oh, shit!” circuit

Navigating the “Oh, shit!” circuit

I had my own lived experience navigating the “oh, shit!” circuit just last week. 

What neuroscientists call the “Oh, shit!” circuit is the disruption of dopamine when we get a signal from our nervous system, “Uh oh, I’ve never seen this before. Strange territory. Don’t know if I should be doing this.”

This signal anxiety keeps us stuck where we are, hesitant to push forward, to try something new, to learn something difficult.

When my good friend Lynn, and my tech assistant Stacey, and my computer guru Jason, and the guy at the Apple Store all said within 24 hours, “Linda, maybe it’s time to get a new phone,” that circuit tripped for me. I could feel it in my body, the shutting down, the not wanting to “go there.” 

I’m well-known for being tech averse. My I-phone 8 could no longer support the things I was needing it to do, but my reluctance-resistance-aversion to dealing with that was full-blown.

Fortunately, I’ve been teaching a lot lately about shifting from the fixed mindset (stuck, helpless, refusing to try) to the growth mindset (seeing opportunity and challenge, a willingness to give it a go). I had even written about the “Oh, shit!” circuit in Bouncing Back 10 years ago. (Excerpt below) I was reviewing my notes for my upcoming Resilience Mindset workshop at the Cape Cod Institute, July 3-7, 2023 and, having to walk my talk, decided that this was the perfect opportunity to learn, once again, how to navigate this resistance.

So I did identify what the block really was, which was not about the phone at all but about my always wanting to feel competent, and because I was so aversive to learning anything about my phone, I was truly incompetent at it. But the problem wasn’t the phone. It was my refusing to learn so that I could become competent.

I love learning. I just didn’t love learning about my phone. So…I actually made some lists of what I needed to learn, basic-basic, then lists of who could teach me. (Friends more than willing.) And started with a person-to-person conversation with the rep at AT&T about what it would take to buy a new phone, insisting that she slow down for a good 35 minutes and explain to me, step by step, the new phones and the plans and the transferring data, etc.

Same thing the next morning at the AT&T store, the rep very savvy and efficient and me very slow and plodding, but within an hour I had a new phone with the data from my previous phone safely transferred and the new Face ID working.

I went home, began playing around, and there it was – the rush of dopamine in my body. I had learned something difficult; I had accomplished something challenging for me, and the dopamine, the neurotransmitter of satisfaction and reward once we do accomplish something, was flowing full steam ahead again.

I was astonished that I had lived this lesson and could feel the shift in my nervous system so dramatically. Getting a new phone is not such a big deal in a world of refugees needing to cross the open sea to find safety from famine and war. But for my nervous system, it was a big deal. It was the real deal, of how we learn to navigate any challenges and difficulties of our lives, no matter how big or small.  

Here’s the excerpt from Bouncing Back, chapter 12, Developing Somatic Intelligence and an exercise in learning to take risks (and recover the dopamine)

Training Our Brains to Risk Something New

Whenever we’re about to venture into something new — moving across country, getting married again, taking on a new job, finally fixing the leaky shower head — we often feel a hesitancy, a pull-back within. An unconscious somatic marker of “Uh oh! Strange territory!

Don’t know if I should be doing this!” even though, consciously, we might very well want to. Our resilience goes on hold.

As we learned earlier in this chapter, we can get ourselves over our fear of making a mistake, our fear of failure, and cross over the somatic threshold between the comfort of the familiar and the discomfort of the new and uncertain by the effects of oxytocin — someone holding our hand or evoking the sense that someone “has our back” as we step forward into the unknown. Let’s look at another powerful neurochemical gatekeeper in crossing that threshold in our brain — dopamine.

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of pleasure and reward. When we experience something as pleasurable or rewarding, dopamine is released in the brainstem. Dopamine helps us “feel good” with our experience, i.e., with the release of dopamine we feel alive and energized. We want more. Dopamine is actually partly how we get into ruts, doing what we have always felt comfortable doing before, getting better at what we’ve always been good at, coping in ways that have always worked before, still work now, not pushing our brains to try new strategies, to discover new ways of being and coping. 

The release of dopamine can lead to addictive behaviors, too, wanting more of what made us feel good before, even if it’s not good for us. We charge more and more on our credit card until our debt is out of control; or “relax” our stress by too much social drinking. Mindfulness is the key here — awareness that always involves discernment of the wholesome from the unwholesome and the impact of our choices on our resilience.

Dopamine operates on the basis of expectation. When the brain experiences what it expects to experience — we turn on the kitchen faucet and water comes out — ah, a safe and happy camper — dopamine levels stay steady. If something unexpected happens — we turn on the faucet and no water comes out — the reward of the “same ole, same ole” expectation is disrupted. The disruption switches off the dopamine and generates a slight unease in the body. A “mistake” has been detected. No more goodies until we can figure out what’s going on. No moving forward until we determine it’s OK to move forward.

The insula, the structure of interoception that “reads” what’s going on in the body — “uh oh, is this still safe or is it now dangerous?” — communicates this unease to the anterior cingulate cortex — the structure that focuses our attention internally as well as externally and tracks errors. Spindle cells in the anterior cingulate cortex — the fastest transmitting neurons in our brain — pick up the unease of this disruption of the dopamine and instantly saturate the rest of the cortex with that feeling of unease, which we can readily interpret as anxiety in the face of something foreign. (Some neuroscientists refer to this function of dopamine as the “oh shit!” circuit.) 

“You’re probably 99.9% unaware of dopamine release, but you’re probably 99.9% driven by the information and emotions it conveys to other parts of the brain.” – Read Montague, Baylor University

We can so easily interpret that unease as anxiety which can automatically lead to “no” or “later.” It feels like a risk to try something new. Sometimes we can talk ourselves out of trying a new entrée at a new restaurant in a new city, or visiting a foreign country, or venturing into the “foreign-ness” of a new career or the intimacy of a new relationship. We need to come back to our window of tolerance so we can resiliently find our courage again to move forward. We need to know how to work skillfully with our dopamine system so that we are not stopped in our tracks every time we stumble into the unexpected or need to venture into new territory.

Bill Bowen, developer of psycho-physical psychotherapy, has studied resilience and the creative process for 30 years. He suggests that our body-brains move on a continuum in the face of anything new, from the survival responses of fight-flight-freeze that would de-rail any positive activation completely, all the way to adaptive activation and the free flowing expression of creativity. Somewhere on that continuum there is a somatic threshold that we feel viscerally in our body, where the body-brain stops us from going forward even though consciously — mentally, emotionally, spiritually — we are ready to dive in: writer’s block; cold feet the morning of the wedding; the last-minute justification “I don’t know anybody at the party and I’m too tired anyway.” This somatic marker is the disruption of the dopamine, which is letting us know, “ Uh oh, this is not what was expected.” It’s not. It’s new.

Exercise: Do One Scary Thing a Day

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” was Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice. Sage advice from a stellar role model of resilience, coping with the hardships of the Great Depression, the fearful tragedies of World War II, and the infidelity of a husband who happened to be president of the United States.

When we deliberately face our fear of doing something new, something that could possibly go wrong or evoke deep doubts about ourselves as human beings, we come to the brink of that somatic threshold that would block us from moving forward or that would steer us back into the certain, the familiar, the comfortable. As meditation teacher Jack Kornfield says, that signal of anxiety really means “About to grow!” 

By choosing to face the fear and intentionally cross the threshold into action, we are deliberately choosing to evoke new experiences that would re-condition the signal anxiety in our nervous system. By pairing an old pattern of fear or block with a new more positive pattern of courage and action, we contradict the old — re-conditioning at its finest — and we re-wire it.

1. Identify of one scary thing to do today to practice crossing that somatic threshold of anxiety into something new:

– apologize to your teenager for not keeping a promise;

– create an honest budget of income and expenses and then talk with your spouse about it.

– go up into the attic with a flashlight to see what’s scurrying around up there at night.

– drag that persistent cough into the doctor’s office to find out what’s really going on

– ask your boss to make good on a promise of extra time off for the extra time you put in last month.

2. Practice facing the fear today, and then practice doing one new different scary thing a day every day for the next 30 days. Crossing the threshold into action at least once a day builds the perseverance/repetition day after day that re-wires into the brain a new default of “Sure I can” or “Wow! I did it!”

3. As you repeat this practice of doing one scary thing a day for several weeks, notice any shifts in the messages your body is sending you as you prepare for the scary thing and after you’ve done it. Notice any emergence of the sensations “Sure I can!” Facing fear is ultimately easier than constantly navigating around situations that provoke it. We re-set the default to honesty, courage and resilience.