Momentary Upsets Are Not Crises

If only we still faced tigers in the woods every day! Our bodies evolved to handle physical threats like that, not the mental, psychological and emotional threats we now face constantly. Our body’s chemicals are not at war with each other, but it certainly feels that way at times! Each of us produces more than 50 hormones, which collectively control how we behave, what we feel and how we respond to the world. The sympathetic nervous system produces fight-or-flight hormones whenever we perceive a threat, taking over from the parasympathetic nervous system, whose hormones keep us calm and serene.

Any change can be perceived as a threat, whether it is positive or negative, because it jolts us out of our nice, safe groove of everyday life. We all have a habit of taking minor annoyances and turning them into threats without meaning to. A big credit-card bill shows up… "Oh no! I’ll never be able to pay it! I’ll go bankrupt!" The boss makes a negative comment on something we did. "I’m going to be fired!" We get stuck at a long red light. "I can’t stand this!!" But we can stand it, we are not going to be fired because of one negative comment, and we will not go bankrupt because of a month of overspending. We know this rationally. But our immediate reactions ratchet up the threat level and our bodies therefore perceive us as perpetually surrounded by tigers. So we live in a flood of stress hormones, which weaken our immune system, make us vulnerable to disease, and leave us perpetually feeling anguish, discomfort and low-grade depression.

We do this to ourselves. That means we can undo it. The key is realizing that we create our own version of reality by how we react. We respond not to the event but to our perception of it. Imagine seeing a snake as you walk on a path. You may think: "Snake! Danger! It will bite me!" Then you react with fear, even panic. But suppose you are a scientist familiar with snakes, a herpetologist. Same event: snake in the path. You may think: "How interesting! It has beautiful colors and moves very gracefully." Then you react by watching it calmly or even picking it up; same event, different perceptions–and therefore different realities leading to different reactions. Teach yourself to moderate your reactions to things that you know, objectively, are not really threatening. Think things through when you are calm so you can apply your self-taught lessons when disturbing situations do arise.

For instance, you may dislike long telephone hold times, but instead of "I hate having to wait!" think "This is irritating, but I won’t remember it in a week." Long red lights may frustrate you, but instead of "Why do I always get stuck like this?" think "This will be over in three minutes, and I can listen to music until then."

By teaching yourself to rethink situations this way, you teach your body that momentary upsets are not crises and not worthy of a flood of stress hormones. That helps your body produce a more-balanced hormonal flow, keeping you closer to the golden mean that helps you stay physically, mentally and psychologically healthy.

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