A few evenings ago, I came back from my weekly soccer game and walked into a bit of a mess in my living room. For a couple of weeks my elderly dog has been a little restless, and when she’s restless she tends to get slightly destructive. She’s also 14 1/2 years old, so I usually just chalk it up to her being crotchety and it’s never gotten really bad. What I walked into on Tuesday was pretty bad. There were pieces of my couch all over the floor, and she’d chewed up three sections of it.
Of course, my first reaction is to get angry with her. I rescued this dog 12 years ago and I know her like the back of my hand, and it’s been just her and me since my divorce seven years ago. So usually we figure out a way to get along pretty well, but this was obviously something a little bit further than she’d done in the past.
The reason that I’m bringing this up is an example, is I want to illustrate the common themes of emotion and reactivity that people go through when they experience something unexpected or something that triggers them. As I said before, my first reaction was anger, mostly coming from frustration. A couch is an expensive piece of furniture to have to replace, especially when you’re not sure if you do replace it if the next one is just going to get destroyed again. Right now, times are tough and something like replacing a couch isn’t in my budget.
After I had that initial reaction of anger and frustration, the next day I suddenly started to explore the reasons WHY she would have done something like that. Whenever animals or humans have a reaction to something, it isn’t like it just comes out of nowhere. There is always a reason for it.
This concept applies to your body as well. Physical reactions are just a response to a stimulus from your nervous system. So that can come in the form of muscular contraction, it can come under the form of protection, it can even come in the form of pain if you’re doing something that your body wants to avoid. Your body is an incredibly intelligent mechanism that is constantly evaluating the stimulus around you, and providing a response to that stimulus.
Emotionally your brain reacts the same way. The instinct of your body is to protect you from things like trauma or physical situations that it perceives as something that might harm you. So when you’re having a reaction to something with an emotion such as anger, fear, or depression sometimes realizing that it is simply a physical response or an emotional response can really help you recognize the situation and be able to deal with it in a timely manner. Just a couple of weeks ago I was talking to a client about a massive amount of anxiety she was having, so I explained to her that anxiety is a perfectly normal nervous system reaction your body has in order to avoid a situation or protect you from something that it thinks might hurt it. She expressed that it was like a lightbulb going off in her head, and just simply knowing that her reaction was a normal reaction made all the difference towards being able to come down from her anxious feelings.
So as you go about your days and you’re dealing with stressful situations or possibly even having reactions to things that you don’t understand, remember that recognizing but your body has an innate instinct to protect you from things is part of the process. This can be something as mild as a gut feeling, road rage, or as severe as a full blown panic attack, and we all respond to these types of scenarios in different ways.
Going back to the original example, my dog was so worked up that the only way she could deal with her stress was to chew on something. Your reaction may be to grab food, distract yourself with social media, or even lash out at somebody like a partner or a child. I’m going to encourage you that the next time this happens, you take a deep breath and recognize where the reaction is coming from, and then if it’s somebody that is causing the problem try to understand where their thought process may come from. Sometimes it is completely unconscious, and the person is not doing it intentionally at all. My dog didn’t mean to eat my couch. She didn’t suddenly get up one day and say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna destroy Dad’s furniture!’ She simply needed an outlet, and it’s my job to figure out what that outlet is and how to redirect her energy toward something not destructive.
I hope that this gives you some new thought processes around stress and triggers. Whenever you’re feeling yourself getting upset, just do yourself a favor and even if you walk into a room with a torn apart couch, remember that sometimes your emotions are going to get the best of you and that’s OK. Recognizing WHY is part of the process to make sure it doesn’t happen again.