Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: Survival of the skittish

Opinion by Leslie Brian
Nov. 17, 2011, 12:28 a.m.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: Survival of the skittishHave you ever tried to sneak up on a wild animal? Picture it: you’re hiking in the forest and, all of a sudden, come across a deer. You stand stock still, trying not to scare it off, then take a tentative step forward. Its ears prick up, its head lifts, somehow sensing your presence. You pause, then inch closer. Closer. Then, bam! That deer practically flies off into the trees.

That’s evolution for you. In order to survive, animals live in a constant state of watchful apprehensiveness. Their default state of scanning the environment and looking out for trouble is what kept them alive all these years. And for a gazelle, that underlying sense of fear is still a pretty great adaptation to avoid being gobbled up by a lion while grazing in the savannah.

Fortunately, most of us no longer have to worry about impending doom on a daily basis — unless you’re biking through the Circle of Death. Unfortunately, that default “survival” mentality is still ingrained. Though we aren’t confronting “fight or flight” on a daily basis, our wired-to-worry human brain either creates imaginary problems or exaggerates the ones that actually do exist.

It’s a pretty exhausting way to live. No matter how good or bad a given situation, our minds tend to blow things out of proportion. But when we really stop and examine the actual present moment, virtually all of us are okay, even though it may not feel like it. It’s only by projecting into the future (i.e. worrying) or ruminating on the past (i.e. regret) that we start to think we’re not. Of course, life isn’t always rainbows and sunshine, but moment-to-moment, our core needs are met. Look around. There’s no civil war (unless you count Big Game), no bombs going off, you’re not drowning. Right here, right now, you are okay.

So what can we do to fight against a constant state of worry, negativity and self-doubt?

As trite as it sounds, it all comes back to the power of positive thinking. Our brain is like a sponge for negative thoughts. No matter how many things go right, all of our mental energy fixates on one that went wrong or could have gone better. When I was younger, I’d judge my entire piano recital on the one passage that tripped me up. When my mom told me to think about all the notes I hit right, I would absolutely fume at her. Honestly, I thought it was a pile of coddling bullshit.

But I’m beginning to see the logic.

We all have ownership of our lives. That includes problems we imagine, over-dramatize or that actually exist! There are ways that we can re-train our neural pathways to guard against the mental wear and tear that we too often put ourselves through. When you feel like the world is conspiring against you, take a step back into the present moment and acknowledge that you are still actually okay. And allow yourself to take in what positivity you can: maybe you’re really down about not having a boyfriend or girlfriend, but don’t just dismiss a friendly hug simply because you see the situation as black or white.

Blanket statement: this is much easier said than done. How many of us want to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and be glad the sun is shining when we just bombed a problem set, or the guy we like just asked out another girl?

In the short run, playing the martyr may seem like the more appealing option. But in the long run, it’s like quicksand; it only leaves you more mired in negativity and depression. Too often, we wait for other people to save us when we’re the only ones who can choose to change our own mindset.

That’s not to say that venting is wrong. Having emotions and needing to express them is part of what makes us human. But after a certain point, venting is only productive when you take charge of your ability to change a given situation. And that doesn’t necessarily mean changing a given outcome. Sometimes, there is really nothing you can do to change things. But what you can always change is your perspective, the lens through which you perceive life.

I had to learn to rescue myself from — well — me. I’ve spent far too much time pretending everything is fine and then running off to cry in the corner, hoping that someone would miraculously swoop in and find me. I had to learn — and am still learning! — to reach out to people and let them know I needed help.

We all face a similar choice. Chances are, there are things you know will make you feel better, if you allow yourself to feel better. Give yourself the medicine you need for positive thought: if you struggle with insecurity or rejection, reach out for friendship and love. Or, if you’ve never felt like you could stand on your own, fight for independence. It’s one of the hardest things to do because it hits at our deepest psychological wounds, but it is within our power. And it’s something that we all can do in order to take ownership of the moment and feel a little better. Right here. Right now.

Is this too much Pollyanna for you? Tell Leslie at labrian “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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