Unfortunately titled? Perhaps.
Useful tools? Absolutely.
A personal training client of mine handed me her copy of Marc Schoen’s Your Survival Instinct is Killing You, one day after another of our great hikes shared lamenting the anxieties of modern life, and my near-daily mini-meltdowns about my impending international move. Fortunately for my ability to willingly read the book, she disclaimed the triggering title, even as she told me about it. I agreed to set aside the alarm bells going off in my head at merely seeing the cover, and give it a glance through.
I got a ton out of this book, and am really glad I was able to get over any initial off-put-ness I had around it. I’m not someone who particularly appreciates unsolicited advice, so I found it interesting that I was able to receive a book about escaping the crazy, and not be wildly offended. Good first sign! No doubt it made all the difference that it came from someone who’s known me and my many flaws for years, and still loves and appreciates me each time we see each other. Pro tip: be sure to reflect on the nature of your relationship with anyone you’re considering recommending this book to, before you give it to them.
Cohen asserts that we all have an individual discomfort threshold, beyond which the limbic brain thinks our survival is in danger, and triggers all sorts of nasty reactions and often self-destructive behaviors, in a desperate attempt to get the threat to stop.
Discomfort beyond your personal threshold => internal chaos
Now that’s part of brain wiring, and has apparently always been the case. What’s different for us in modern life, according to Cohen, is that we’ve unknowingly lowered that threshold, and caused ourselves to be in “fight or flight” panic, way way too much of the time.
We’ve done this by cultivating two states in modern society
- We’re always agitated.
- We’re too comfortable.
First, our frenetic, short-attention, constant stimulation cultural lifestyle puts us in a state of constant “agitance”, which elevates the intensity with which we experience even minor discomforts. Can we say road rage? In true modern millennium style, Cohen even includes a DIY quiz you can take, to check in on your own current agitance levels. Of course, overachiever that I am, mine were at stellar heights.
Secondly, we’re constantly sold the idea of the quick-fix, and the expectation of perfection. We pop pills at the first sign of trouble, we keep our thermostats set to one unchanging temperature, and we’re trained to think that if we consume enough, we can buy happiness by making life go all our way. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t line up, and our stressed-out hormone systems pay the price.
We have so many problems with anxieties, addictions, and, Cohen makes the case, psychosomatic physical diseases, that arise from this survival instinct firing out of our control, way too much of the time. The equation might look like this:
Agitance + Unaccustomed Discomfort = eventual survival instinct mayhem.
Cohen spends a good deal of his book laying out that premise, and presenting enough neurological evidence for his claims to make any amateur brain geek like myself quite happy. However, he had me on board with the first case study, and spending half the book continuing to lay out his argument was counter-productively contributing to my state of agitance, while reading. Maybe he meant to do that? A little Meta demonstration of his point at play?
In any case, after my initial fascination wore off, I tolerated the continued first half of the book, asking as I read “okay okay, but what do I do about it?”.
Fortunately, the second half offered a big ol’ bucket of tools to address this two part problem.
First Cohen presents a bunch of ways we can reduce our agitance. I do recommend checking out his full description of practices in the book, as many of them you’ve likely seen recommended elsewhere, but I think the context he presents of how they work neurochemically makes them additionally compelling. Here’s a few highlights that stuck with me.
- Breathing Techniques
- Getting some exercise (even just a few minutes to calm your nerves)
- Taking time away from screens and electronic communication
- Slowing down and paying attention to the present moment
- Practicing better sleep hygiene
Second, Cohen lays out ways we get ourselves more accustomed to discomfort. His practices are set up to actually re-wire the brain, so we give the rational cerebellum a chance to give the flighty limbic system a little calm reassurance, before it leaps to hit the panic button. Again, it’s really worth reading his full instructions, but the super-generalized overview of how this process works is:
- Experience some relatively minor discomfort (eg: delaying gratification – A compulsive eater might let herself feel a few moments of real hunger before indulging the instinct to eat. Cohen lays out quite a few other tolerable discomfort examples in the book)
- Use breathing techniques for a bit of immediate relaxation – priming the brain to respond to our new conditioning
- Cultivate some safe, empowering state (Cohen runs through a whole bunch of them including noticing pleasant physical sensations, consciously inciting gratitude or love, or imagining one’s self as a warrior going into battle.
- Bring your attention back to the discomfort, and practice physically feeling the discomfort and the positive feelings at the same time. Repeat.
In this way, Cohen asserts, we’re re-wiring the brain, to link discomfort with safety and pleasant feelings, instead of having it linked to panic, as we’re set to default, from the caveman days. Cohen explains that conditioning ourselves to welcome this discomfort is key to achieving the potential available to us today:
“Seeking and settling for comfort and familiarity now actually leads to rigidity and a constriction of our brain resources… Although our ancient wiring strives for familiarity and comfort because it allowed us to survive in the past, today it actually impedes our ability to function.”
It’s not a one-time quick fix, but rather a reconditioning process, that happens with practice and over time. Of course with my background in fitness training, my brain easily latches onto the idea of it functioning like an exercise program, getting our resilience stronger and stronger each time we safely push it toward its limits. Reaching for outside distraction (like TV and cell phone games), or chemical medication (like alcohol, or as in my case, food), actually weakens our resilience “muscles”, by reinforcing the brain synapses that say we can’t handle it on our own, and need that outside solution. We have to repeatedly experience tolerable discomfort, and find calm and safety from within. That strengthens our coping and comfort “muscles”.
It’s been a couple intense weeks for me since reading this book. I packed up my life and prepared to move overseas for a while. I said goodbye to people I love, whom there’s some small but real chance I may never see again. I let go of control of key parts of my business and have had to trust others to care for my “baby” that I’ve devoted most of my recent life to building.
I’ve had a lot of opportunity to practice using my life’s discomfort for my growth and mental health. I’ve taken time to breathe and feel safe, while feeling anxious. To breathe, and feel love, while feeling fear. To breathe and feel powerful, while feeling helpless. And I feel a difference. There is definite growth in my capacity to be peaceful in an unpredictable world. There is a definite decline in my sense of dependence on sugary snacks to ‘get me through” challenging times. There is a distinct growing trust, in myself, and in the innate possibility for good in the universe.
I won’t promise that reading this book will change your life. I can’t say, nor do I think the author would say, that reading actually changed much. But being willing to try the exercises has changed something. Putting in the work has made a shift. Saying yes to visiting that neurological gym inside just might shift your need to visit the fridge, or the medicine cabinet, or the doctor.
Certainly an experiment worth trying, in my opinion.