Articles May 1, 2013

Shifting Gears

Linda Graham

"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptive to change." – Charles Darwin

I was deep in a worrisome thought one day, not paying enough attention to where I was walking, when I blithely stepped ankle-deep into the wet cement of a freshly laid crosswalk.

I was startled, then horrified. Negative reactions started cascading inside me, including, “How careless! How could you have been so asleep at the wheel!” I was just about to fall into an all too familiar rabbit hole of berating myself for always being so clumsy when another inner voice piped up, “Wait a minute! So I was pre-occupied! I’m sick and tired of winding up feeling lousy about myself when I was just unconscious for a moment. For once I’d like to just deal with something and not make it all about me being clumsy.”

I stood there in the cement, noticing all these different reactions cascading. Years of practice helped me realize I did have a choice about how I was going to handle the situation. I lifted my feet up out of my stuck shoes and stepped onto dry land as construction workers headed over to help me. As I lifted my shoes out of the cement, I tried for a little bit of compassion for myself. “Shit happens! I’m probably not the only person on the planet who made a mistake today because I wasn’t paying attention. Sure, I’m a little embarrassed in front of these guys, but that doesn’t mean anything more about me than I just wasn’t paying attention.”

I walked over to a convenient faucet on the wall of a nearby apartment building to wash my shoes and feet. As I began to have some hope that I might even save my shoes (I did) I noticed feeling some pride that I was coping—with the outer event and with my inner reactions to it.

By the time one of the construction workers gave me some paper towels to dry my shoes and feet, my pre-frontal cortex got it together and it dawned on me: “Yes, shit happens. Life is happening in this way in this moment. But ‘shift happens’, too.” I could open to the lesson of the moment: choosing to shift my perspective allowed me to cope resiliently. The experience also taught me, once again, that shifting perspectives and responding resiliently is possible, in any moment, any moment at all.

Mindful empathy allows us to be present to the experience that is happening in the moment, aware of it but able to step outside it. With practice, we can notice any thought as a thought, any pattern of thoughts as a pattern. We can notice any feeling as a feeling, any cascade of feelings as a cascade. The same is true for any state of mind, even multi-layered, richly complex (tortuous) states of mind; for any process of the brain—planning, organizing, evaluating, worrying—and for any story that we’ve told ourselves since we were five, or twelve, or since we got married or divorced, since we became a CPA and wished we’d become a welder instead.

We can know that any view, not matter now forcefully compelling or stubbornly held in this moment, is not—does not have to be—true in all moments. We can be aware of changes and inconsistencies in ourselves: sometimes I think this way, sometimes I don’t. I’m thinking or feeling this way now, but I wasn’t ten minutes ago or yesterday. We can appreciate the power of the human brain to generate the complex, comprehensive stories that it does and still realize that what we’re seeing is not the ultimate truth but tracings, or the entrenchment, of patterns of neural firing in the brain.

Noticing and naming the various states of being, as well as noticing and naming the shifts among them, does help keep the pre-frontal cortex of the brain online, so that we can step back and reflect on the states and the state shifts as patterns or states that can be shifted rather than being embedded in them or identified with them. When we’re not tangled in commentary, we can find a calm center, the eye of the hurricane.

One of the hallmarks of resilience is to be able to shift gears and re-calibrate our responses quickly when necessary. Once we notice the automatic patterns that are filtering our reactions and thus shaping our responses—as I did with my harsh judgment about stepping into the wet cement—we can choose to immediately shift those perspectives in ways that will re-wire them. In his book The Mindful Therapist, Dan Siegel uses the phrase “monitor and modify” for noticing, and then initiating, changes in perspective and behavior that will harness our neural plasticity to accomplish that re-wiring.

Almost every day, new findings in neuroscience are published that validate the power of positive thoughts, or even different thoughts, to interrupt automatic, negative thoughts; activate different circuits in our brains; and shift our view. The practice of re-focusing our attention, shifting our view, and eventually reframing our experience, over and over, strengthens the brain’s capacity for response flexibility and thus resilience.

Adapted from Chapter 17, Shifting Gears: Modifying Our Patterns of Response in 'Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being' by Linda Graham, MFT. (New World Library, April 2013)