Soothing the Lizard

Recently, I was watching a talk given by Dr. Rick Hanson, who is one of the keynote speakers at our summer conference (for more information, please click here). I have always identified with and found his teachings and practices not only practical but effective. Moreover, if you are someone who struggles with long sits, he’s your man. Many of his practices are quick and cheerful. In fact, if you are interested, I used his ‘Taking in the Good’ practice as a weekly challenge back in June (click here).

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In particular, this talk that I was watching addressed the need to engage with what Prof. Paul Gilbert (another keynote speaker who is coming to our June conference) calls our soothing system. Hanson explains the pitfalls of having this evolved brain that from the beginning of time has been hardwired to be on alert. To survive. To eat lunch rather than be lunch (as he says). One of the pitfalls of this system is this heightened threat system that can catapult us into the Red Zone of reactivity, when really there is no need.

This really resonated with me. I’ve already mentioned that the holiday season was a particularly tricky one for me, filled with an underlying stress that had me on alert at all times. Well, as the holiday season has come to an end, I find the residual repercussions of being on alert at all times for a number of weeks, has been just that- a continued sense of being on alert. Again, this is no surprise to neuroscientists like Hanson, as there is a generally accepted hypothesis (and maybe even fact) that neurons that fire together wire together. My threat neurons have been firing with the power of an AK47 for the past month. There’s a lot of rewiring that needs to be done.

So what can I do? What can we do? As this overactive threat system has the potential to affect us all and can lead to huge suffering.

Well, according to Hanson, there are three steps to addressing the problem.

  • Get out reactive episodes as fast as you can. Thanks to the overactive threat system, the brain is OVERLEARNING in the Red Zone. Every Red Zone moment of reactivity makes us more vulnerable to a fight or flight response. Stress levels skyrocket.
  • Do what you can outside of your self to prevent Red Zone moments. For instance, look at the activities that you find depleting. Again, you can check out Heather’s New Year blog post that outlines the activity of listing activities that nourish and deplete (click here). Think of your work schedule, your leisure schedule, the people who push your buttons, the places that trigger you. In short, create more safety.
  • Again, and again, reassure this stone age brain or our inner lizard that in all actuality, and in most moments, we are safe. We need to help ourselves really register that our basic needs are mostly met.

He then suggests simply soothing that lizard brain, by taking a few moments to recognize ‘I am safe. I am fed. I am connected (it is helpful to think of a family member or a close friend or a community that we belong to).

I am safe. I am fed. I am connected.

Hanson has a longer practice that you can find embedded in the talk that I was listening to if you are interested (For Hanson’s talk, please click here). However, for this week, the challenge is for whenever we feel our temperature rise, our brains entering the Red Zone, or whenever we are feeling threatened, to find our own mantra that remembers ‘I am safe. I am fed. I am connected’.

Soothe that lizard!!

Let us know how you get on!

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2 Comments on "Soothing the Lizard"

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John Davison
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Enjoyed ‘Soothing the Lizard’ entry. The title alone is enough to make me smile! I’m currently finding helpful Tara Brach’s suggestion (in Radical Acceptance) ‘It’s OK’ whispered to self when I’m feeling anxious.

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Wonderful John! Yes! Tara Brach’s book is an amazing resource.