I don’t know anything about true fear.
As I write this I’m sitting in a climate controlled apartment at a perfect 72 degrees, sipping a piping hot cup of freshly ground organic coffee that’s sitting on top of an elevated clay platform being kept warm by a tea light.
Just outside my window, working hard in the rain, are my neighborhood’s garbage men whom rain or shine come and pick up the garbage I place in a small bin at the curb.
My living room is littered with foam rollers, kettlebells, fitness bands, and a balance board to simulate living a rough and tough ancestral life in wild. While I’m completing my hourly swings today will I pretend I’m running away from a lion? Or maybe today I’ll imagine I’m hoisting a heavy rock off the ground that is blocking my path.
I live in a cookie cutter, temperature controlled life and don’t have very much to fear. I’ll be able to sleep safely tonight underneath my organic down duvet cover with my nightstand fan spinning softly, mimicking the peaceful rustling of the leaves.
In the absence of a darwin-esque survival of the fittest challenge, such defending my village from a lion, I create challenges for myself that instill the same level of fear deep in my ancient brain cortexes. My neanderthal ancestors would howl in laughter at what I consider a difficult day and at my day to day fears.
- Will my friends enjoy this blog post or will they think I’m a wuss?
- Are my clients happy with my Amazon agency’s work?
- Did I eat right amount of protein yesterday?
- How is the blue light from my computer screen harming my eyes?
- Does that guy Todd that unsubscribed from my Wise Men Wednesday newsletter hate me? (Please come back Todd!)
But like it or not, these challenges are real and my body treats them as true threats
My friend Dr. Gus Vickery shares this about our Mammalian brain on his website and also here on the Ray Edwards podcast,
“There is a part of your brain that we call the mammalian brain. We share this with dogs, monkeys, rabbits, and many other animals. This area of the brain has a processing center called the reward system. This reward system is designed to help us survive and thrive. It’s designed to create strong feelings of motivation, energy, and pleasure when we engage behaviors that could facilitate our survival and the reproduction of our species. This is a very powerful processing center. It’s deeper in our brain and not under our conscious control. It’s also hardwired into our memory so we can remember what gave us pleasure and repeat it.
There are many exposures that can trigger this system. Addictive drugs and substances, food elements such as sugar and sex can all trigger this system. In addition, gambling, pornography, video games, social media, television, and many other stimuli can also influence this system.
We don’t all have the same triggers for this system—it varies from individual to individual—but ultimately, we all have a reward system and are all vulnerable to how powerful it is when strongly stimulated.
Our ancestral minds were infrequently exposed to concentrated triggers of this system. Unnaturally concentrated reward system stimuli just didn’t exist in nature. Therefore, this system worked in balance with our higher mind, also called the neocortex, which allowed us to begin to socialize, communicate, study, remember, plan, and regulate our emotions. This higher mind is a different processing center than our reward system. There is some interplay, but ultimately, they are distinct. Therefore, we can sometimes have conflict between the two of them.”
So how do you get in touch with your higher mind and rise above your lizard and mammalian brains?
Dr Gus says, “This is hard work, as our mammalian brain is powerful. The lower brain’s cravings, impulses, feelings, and pleasure responses are very powerful. We cannot override these with willpower. We must change the construction of our lives to better support our good health. We can take our time doing this, but the work must be done. Only you can stop and ask, ‘What do I really want?’”
There are a few methods I’ve found help me to connect with my higher mind. And they are box breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, prayer, and long walks outdoors.
A good option to create space and time for self-reflection, solitude, and gratitude is through time spent alone sitting quietly in silence. You don’t need to get fancy here. Just sit on the floor with your back against your couch or sit in your favorite chair. The location doesn’t matter as much as the consistency of the habit.
Here is a simple breath work routine that you can try right now while reading this article. It’s called box breathing, which I first learned about in retired Navy SEAL and founder of SEALFIT, Mark Divine’s book, Unbeatable Mind.
“Start by exhaling all of the air from the lungs. Now inhale to a count of five, and then retain and hold your breath to a count of five. Don’t clamp down and create back-pressure with this hold. Just stop the inhale but continue the upward rise of the chest. After the retention, exhale the air slowly to a count of five, and then suspend and hold the exhaled breath for a count of five…
The technique can be used in short 1-3 minute “spot drills” several times a day or before an important meeting or event.”
I use box breathing to calm me down when I’m anxious and to center me before reading my Bible. I also use it before making an important business or life decision. It helps me to be more present and aware of my feelings.
Do you ever find yourself extremely stressed before making a decision?
Stop, try a few rounds of box breathing, and then make your decision. Your problem solving ability will improve and you’ll quickly find yourself making better decisions.
Sometimes it’s difficult to find the time for a dedicated meditation or breath work regimen, so I like to stack my habits on top of each other. At least once per week I will box breath for my entire afternoon walk. It’s easy to do because you can connect your breath directly to your footsteps.
Walk at a casual pace and breath in for four steps, hold your breath for four steps, exhale through your mouth for four steps, and then hold your breath again for four steps.
I repeat this pattern for my entire walk and when I return home and dive into my afternoon work, I feel completely refreshed and reinvigorated.
I first discovered this powerful breath pattern on this episode of the Ben Greenfield Fitness podcast with Dr. Andrew Weil.
Dr. Andrew Weil shares, ”This particular breath that I call the 4-7-8 breath is a yoga breath. It was taught to me by an old osteopathic physician, Dr. Robert Fulford, who was one of the best healers that I’ve ever met. And I’ve taught it to many, many people. It’s basically inhaling quietly through your nose to a count of four, holding your breath for a count of seven, and blowing air out forcefully through your mouth to a count of eight. And you start practicing by doing just four breath cycles like this a minimum of twice a day. You’ve got to do it regularly because the value of this is putting this signal regularly into your nervous system.”
After practicing this breath pattern periodically for almost two years I can confirm how helpful it is. What I’ve discovered about breath work is that rarely will I remember to flip to box breathing or 4-7-8 breathing when I’m feeling stressed. Breathing is the last thing on my mind.
But, by routinely taking long walks, while matching my box breathing to my steps, or performing a few cycles of 4-7-8 breath throughout the day, I notice that situations that would normally make me stressed don’t have as much of an impact.
Think of breath work as your armor. The more you practice breath work when you don’t need it, the more you’ll be protected against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune when you do. Remember… The knights of the roundtable covered their body in armor before heading out into the battles of their day. Breath work habits are your armor.
I’m a ruminator. It is not uncommon for me to get stuck in a loop worrying about the same problem over and over again.
“I’m not doing a good enough job for this client.”
“But I’m trying my hardest and I’m doing more for them than I have for anyone else.”
“It’s still not good enough. I’m not good enough.”
“How much can they expect though? I can’t run their entire company… I was tasked with this single project.”
“I’m not doing a good enough job for this client.”
“I’m a failure.”
“My client hates me.”
“They’re going to fire me soon.”
“I’ll be a loser husband and no one else will hire me ever again.”
And on and on and on…
Since I’m not currently in this negative loop I can confidently say that most of those statements aren’t true.
But how do I understand these statements aren’t true while I’m spiraling downwards?
This exact scenario happened last night and it’s fresh in my mind, so I’m adding this section to the post right now when normally I’d have already hit publish.
My wife had just arrived home from work and if you read my post about making your honeymoon last forever, you’d know that I like to be done with work for a few minutes before she walks in the door. That way I can give her my undivided and quality attention.
When she walked in the door I was still working and was spiraling down into one of these negative loops. Instead of greeting her like a puppy at the bottom of the steps, I was standing in my office feeling grumpy.
I needed to snap out of it and quickly because I hate feeling like this, especially after being apart from my wife for the entire day.
So what did I do?
I laid down on the couch, pulled a blanket over my head, closed my eyes and did a few cycles of the 4-7-8 breath I taught above.
Then I prayed to God. “God, please help. Help me get out of this downward spiral. Please help me move past this, get me off this couch, and allow me to spend good quality time with my wife.”
Only five minutes later my prayer was answered and we were enjoying drinks, cheese, and olives on the screened in porch. I was almost completely over my tantrum and thinking clearly again. With more space and perspective I realized my fears were unfounded. I was going to be okay. My client isn’t really going to fire me.
Prayer is my ultimate tool to prevent me from disappearing into the abyss of fear and desperation.
On the really bad days I combine all of these methods. I focus on my breath, pray, and then take this next tactic and get outdoors into the sunshine. It almost always ends my ruminating and fear.
Long walks in the afternoon rain or shine
Long walks in the afternoons are my superpower… Seriously. There is almost nothing I do to better prepare me for the challenges of entrepreneurship than disconnecting every afternoon for 45 minutes and getting outside.
Rain or shine, every day of the week, you can find me exploring the parks, streets, and alleys of my neighborhood after lunch. I think I’ve only missed one afternoon walk this year and felt terrible about it. I scheduled back to back meetings, barely had time for lunch, and missed my afternoon walk. I was grumpy, disappointed in myself, and felt like I had failed. But really what I missed most was the opportunity to disconnect, blow off steam, and to let the day’s challenges unravel onto the pavement.
I often take a break during my walks and sit on a bench to watch the birds playing in the pond. Or lean up against one of my neighbor’s fences and stare in amazement and fear at one of my alligator friends warming up in the sun on the bank of the pond. Sometimes, I find a secluded spot away from any of my neighbor’s homes and take my shirt off to get some sunshine directly on my neck, chest, and arms. I completely unplug and relax.
I don’t even let the rain hold me back from taking my afternoon walk. I’ve got a big rain jacket and will enter the storm and become completely soaked. I love noticing how different my neighborhood is during a rainstorm and where the water likes to pool. Which houses have the most worms in their yard and how quiet everything is because my bird and squirrel friends have taken cover, hidden high up in the trees. The tree frogs don’t quiet down though… Throughout my walk their metallic call becomes a symphony for my private enjoyment.
This time in nature has become my therapy and has helped me become more successful and have more control over my fears and emotions.
It’s important to reconnect with our higher mind and to take control of our lizard and mammalian brains. Living in constant fear can be damaging and within our comfortable life we are at risk of escalating even the most simple of threats.
If you build strong habits of breath work, prayer, and movement you can create a healthier environment for yourself. In this environment you can learn to thrive at work and at home and be a great example for everyone around you.
What about you? How do you build a strong foundation against fear? Are there any tactics I missed? Please let me know in the comments below. I’ll read and reply to all comments.
Feature image courtesy of Mark Stoop.
One reply on “I’m Terrified Inside My Cookie Cutter Life”
So much good insight, information, and practical helps for making life much better, and helping us navigate our fears and anxieties and enjoy daily life more. Thank you, James!