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Is it a Snake or a Stick?

Many times we see things and experience things that cause us great anxiety and fear. Many times there is no reason for that anxiety and fear. We all are armed with a system within our biology that we call fight or flight. This is a great system that keeps us safe in the world when there is a real threat. For example, this is the part of you that keeps you from getting in a wreck when you top the hill or turn the corner and all the traffic in front of you is at a stand still. You automatically do everything you can to stop and not have an accident. You are able to stop and do everything you need to without even thinking about it, you automatically react. Right after you stop, you feel shaky, scared, your heart is racing, and you find it hard to calm down. This is because a part of your brain that is always on making sure you are safe and when there is a threat it sends out all kinds of neurochemicals to have you react to stay safe.

This is also happens if we were walking down a path in the woods and several hundred feet in front of us there is something sticking out onto the trail. It looks crooked, brownish, and long. What are we all thinking right now? "It's a snake." This is always the answer I get. The reality is we don't know that for sure. We don't have enough information yet. We are just reacting with our fight/flight system. Our fight/flight system stores ONLY bad, terrible memories and possibilities. However, what do we do? Most people tell me that we keep walking and we don't run away. We are not sure and we allow ourselves this moment to find out what is really going on. We walk closer, we gather more information, and soon we find out that, "It's just a stick." Our anxiety subsides, and we walk on with no fear.

What causes us to go gather more information? Well in this scenario, we are far enough away that we don't immediately feel threatened. So this moment allows another part of our brain to engage, our frontal lobes. Our frontal lobes do the same thing as the fight/flight system, but it does it just a bit slower that our fight/flight system. Our frontal lobes also stores what could be dangerous, but also all the possibilities of what something could be. So it could be a snake, but it also could be a stick, a rock, the root of a tree, the tail of another animal, etc. So we take the time to investigate.

The problem is that in our life most of us don't take the time to do this process in real life. When we are confronted with life events that appear stressful and anxiety producing, most of us just react with our fight/flight system and don't stop to give our frontal lobes a chance to "catch up" and give us other alternatives and allow us to gather more information. Most of the time if we could stop for just a moment and not just follow our feelings, we will find that there are very, very few things that require us to react with fight/flight and panic. Many things in our lives are stressful at first, but then we find that "it wasn't so bad at all."

So the next time you are confronted with a stressful event in life, take a moment and ask yourself "is this a snake or a stick." This will allow your frontal lobes to catch up and give you more information that you currently have. You may find that this will allow you to manage your anxiety and worry in a way that feels powerful.

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