You may remember the story of Pavlov’s dog. Ivan Pavlov was a Russian psychologist who made the conditioned reflex famous. He rang a bell and at the same time introduced the dog to a bowl of food. Every time he introduced the food, the dog would salivate. Eventually all Pavlov had to do to get the dog to salivate was ring the bell because the bell was now associated with food in the dog’s brain. In this same way our brains have a “conditioned reflex” to try and get away from stressful or uncomfortable feelings. As it does this the body contracts and the mind frantically looks for solutions piling on more stress to the difficulty that is already there. There is a simple practice to play with that can help you break free from this stress cycle and into choice, perspective and freedom.
The fact is, emotions are expressed through our bodies. Fear and anxiety are often felt as some form of tightening, a rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, or maybe a clenching of the jaw. When we see the sensation just as it is, it loses its power over us.
When you experience uncomfortable emotions standing in the line of the terminal, on the airplane, or anywhere else, try seeing what happens when you recognize it as “just a sensation.”
Take this phrase with you, and allow your experience to be your guide.
The idea that emotions can be seen as “just a sensation” to people is a very freeing experience. The neuroscience behind it is that it dials the volume down on the part of the brain that is involved with rumination. The stress cycle needs our ruminative mind to feed it and keep it alive. The moment we see the emotion as “just a sensation” it takes the story away and allows us to come back into the present moment and focus more on what we need in the moment.
The reality is difficult emotions are part of our common humanity, we all experience them, even the darkest hours.
In those moments, may we all experience clarity and self-compassion.
Elisha Goldstein, PhD
Dog listening image available from Shutterstock.